Una Mullally: Make your January digital dextox permanent
Going off social media only makes sense if we don’t return to social media at all, or when we do, cut down dramatically and change our behaviour in a way that doesn’t let it get under our skin
January is built - and subsequently collapses on - good intentions. The New Year New You pressure of staring down the barrel of the next 12 months loves a good cliché, and across the land people are resolving to be fitter, thinner, to rise earlier and walk more, cut spending, cook more, drink less, stop smoking, read more, and sketch out an ideal version of themselves. Focussing on the macro only works when the micro pieces are assembled, otherwise we build houses on hollow ground and then give up when the foundations sink.
But a newer resolution has grown in ambition over the last few years: the digital detox. Going offline, deleting Facebook, using Twitter less, weening oneself off Snapchat, lowering the amount of time spent on Instagram, not impulsively checking email, and giving Bejeweled a rest, are now January ambitions cited just as often as knocking cigarettes on the head or losing a few pounds are. The conclusion must be then, that as lauded as the internet is, being online is a bad habit, and something that needs to be quit.
Like smoking, drinking, and not exercising, social media is increasingly interpreted by people as bad for them. It is fashionable to talk about going offline. The fashion part is in part about notions. People want to express that they do not mix with the great unwashed, that they’re cooler than that, more present than that, more mindful. “I’m not on Facebook” is quite like “I don’t watch soaps.” By not being on a social media platform, you are therefore above it. At a time were living in the moment, being present, and mindfulness are fashionable states, there is an admission that social media is none of those things, and therefore, for us to fulfil the best, least addled version of ourselves, we must forgo it.
The behaviour part is about social media as a bad habit. Companies spend millions trying to make their platforms compulsive, so that they are linked to our dopamine reward systems. They are therefore habit-forming. We find ourselves scrolling without actually taking in information, or repeatedly refreshing or checking email or social media feeds even though we have done so very recently, sometimes in the last few seconds. We know - or those of us who remember the pre-internet days yet are now caught up in such habits - that this behaviour is bad. We feel bad. Taking in the nonsense information that populates social media may offer an initial high if our own content is shared or affirmed, but after a while it gives us the same dull feeling of watching the trashiest of television - stuff that you know is making you feel dumber.
Social media thrives on the feeling of being involved, gaining approval, affirming our sense of our own self through being visible. But there is an increasing kickback to this, as more and more people on social media question not just the use of such an enterprise.
Most resolutions tend to fade, and we slip back into old habits. Will the increasing number of people going on digital detoxes face the same fate? If one left social media completely, there is a fear that one would disappear. Not just from a social group, but from one’s own digital landscape. For many people, their emotional interior - our thoughts and feelings and confessions - has been turned inside out and smeared across social media. That is where we live and think and emote. To step away from that would not just make us invisible to others still on social media, but in a way, invisible to ourselves. Are we tweeting and posting photos to make ourselves known to other people, or to project ourselves for our own benefit? Who are we doing this for?
While we think we may be participating and connecting online, social media wrenches us away from our own lives, and from our own selves. It denies us the feeling of being present, of being in the moment, of appreciating something and leaving it at that. It is not about keeping in touch with people, it is about the temptations we succumb to and the diversions we construct to do anything but be by ourselves - in all the meanings of what it is to be “at one”, let’s say, with yourself. We crowd ourselves with versions of other people online, and paradoxically, that can also make us feel more alone.
That is what you’re feeling along with all the other reasons cited to go off social media - the noise, the compulsive checking, the time wasted, the attention span depletion, the anger and rudeness, the bad news, the envy, and so on. In this context, a temporary January digital detox makes sense only if we don’t return to social media at all, or when we do, cut down dramatically and change our behaviour in a way that doesn’t let it get under our skin, that allows us to keep it a distance where it feels like we’re in control, that we are our own selves, and not just another thumb scrolling a feed, or a profile instead of a person.