When I got my first iPhone, I was momentarily unimpressed. I already had a cell phone, so what was the big deal with the shiny device everyone else seemed so enamored with? But just a few minutes after my purchase, I was in a car watching the GPS follow us down the road on the map on the screen and I was rapt. This was technology, magic, and directions all rolled into one.
I knew things would never be the same.
The ubiquitous mobile phone has changed all of our lives and that’s exactly how the creators want it. There are thousands (millions?) of people devoted to developing apps and interfaces that keep us with our faces near screens, eyes glazed, thumbs typing away for hours each day. And often long into the night.
I worry that I have an unhealthy relationship with this device.
For me, Social Media is the gateway drug. In the beginning, I claimed that I joined Facebook to stay in touch with remote family and friends and to have strategic conversations with the digital advertising clients who I was working with at the time. Back in the day, social networking existed solely on desktops so when I was away from a computer, I was really away.
But when the app became available on my new, shiny mobile toy, I could not escape. I checked in everywhere. I posted witty updates and tag friends and places. I quoted insightful articles. I was in the maelstrom of social media, and I reveled in the connectivity, the community of it all. I loved it.
Until I didn’t.
The honeymoon came to a screeching halt for me somewhere in the summer of 2016 when my world seemed to tilt on its axis. I was never an online voyeur, but when I accidentally caught a so-called friend in a blatant lie due to a social media post that I happened upon, I felt angry and betrayed. And then, well, That Election happened. The ugliness preceding and proceeding it permeated my peaceful online world.
I was swept up in the mire. The device that formerly made me feel so warm and fuzzy and part of the lovely human experience was now a source of anxiety. People whom I thought I knew exposed themselves as racists, as misogynists. My freshly tapped rage spilled out from my thumbs into the digi-verse and I could not put it down and I could not look away.
I cowered in my kitchen, tilting at windmills in the comments section while my wonderful family was playing and talking and living in the very next room. My fitful sleep was punctuated by Neuromancer dreams in a Blade Runner landscape. Interestingly, I’d never been haunted by the book or film respectively, but the Pandora’s Box I’d opened in my online life somehow triggered apocalyptic fears.
I knew it was time to stop.
That year I took a month off from Facebook and I was surprised to find the transition painless. Since then, I’ve scheduled regular digital fasts which help me realign my priorities, and I have automated limits on my phone for social media use each day. I read more paper books, which I prefer to eBooks anyway. I play with my kids and talk to my husband more. I sleep more peacefully and my dreams no longer pulse with electricity and hate.
I have unsubscribed from most of the political groups I used to follow and participate in. The few I have spared are important and personal causes, but I try to use them as educational sources rather than a community of ‘friends.’ I rarely read comments anymore, anywhere. It helps when you don’t go looking for those itching for a virtual fight, even if they aren’t people you know, or even people at all.
I’ve also reverted to offline information gathering where possible. I look at actual clocks to find out the time. I check the thermometer instead of a weather app. I reply to emails on my computer rather than on the run. I keep my phone in an inconvenient spot to limit the opportunities to get sucked back in. I make an effort to interact IRL with actual human beings rather than via texts.
Truth is, as a modern entrepreneur and writer, I can’t permanently log off, and I do still love connecting with friends and family on social media. But to stay sane, I have to make sure that the machines serve my purposes, and not the other way around.
Otherwise I’m just a ghost in the machine.
This essay originally appeared in Fete Lifestyle Magazine, February 2019.