Digital Quitting | Pushing the Wave

Digital Quitting

Breaking free of the social media spiral

Reflections, 26 May 2024
by L.A. Davenport
A Little Head Space-Walking in the Peak District
A little head space: walking in the Peak District.
A lot is said these days about the need from time to time for a digital detox, or a “period of time during which you intentionally reduce the amount of time you spend online on your devices”.

It’s hardly surprising. Anyone with a smartphone, which includes most of us nowadays, is aware that it is all too easy to spend too much time glued to a screen, scrolling endlessly to no real purpose and not engaging with the world around us, to the extent that many people seem unable to think of anything else to do with their downtime than reach for a device.

As I write, I am sitting on a train. The vast majority of people in my carriage are looking at a screen or talking on the phone. This includes a man across the aisle from me who is scrolling through videos on TikTok without headphones, and thus has his phone on full volume. The result is a collage of sound snippets filling the air that reminds me of channel hopping on a TV, with each clip just long enough that they become impossible to ignore.

Before you think that this digital addict, who is generous enough to share his online experiences with the rest of us, is some maladapted teenager with no sense of or interest in the world around them, he is in fact a well-dressed professional in his mid-thirties with a bunch of flowers on the seat beside him. Someone who, in the weary old cliché, should know better, or at least one would think.

Constant distraction

Over numerous studies conduced in recent years, all this time online has been found to be associated with, among other things, self-image problems, low self-esteem and poor sleep, as well as depression, anxiety and weight gain, the latter presumably due to the attendant increase in unhealthy eating and lack of exercise.

Why should this be? There are a number of proposed reasons, such as:
  • the perpetual distraction from constant notifications, leading us to check our phones on a frequent basis;
  • sleep dysregulation, due to overstimulation and exposure to blue light from looking at a screen just before bedtime;
  • fear of missing out, or FOMO; and
  • negative social comparison, which is amplified and intensified by constantly seeing images depicting other people’s apparently wonderful lives on social media.

Another facet of this overuse of our smartphones is doomscrolling, a term coined in early 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, and relates to the excessive consumption of bad or negative news while mindlessly scanning social media.

It seems to start off as wanting to stay informed about what is going in the world, but is quickly linked to confirming pre-existing negative feelings and can border on compulsive behaviour.

Naturally, people suggest we should do something about this, and there are all sorts of approaches, including digital detox challenges, to help us take time out from our devices and find a little more balance in our lives.

Yo-yo detoxing

There some, however, who question whether a temporary timeout from our smartphones is really that effective, and I am not sure whether digital detoxing, much like short-term detox and diet programmes, is even the right approach.

Intermittent or yo-yo dieting, such as for a wedding or summer holiday, has been shown to be not only ineffective at controlling weight over an extended period but also detrimental to long-term health, as it can result in weight gain and increased fat, and loss of muscle mass, as well as an increased risk of stress, heart disease, gallstones and binge eating.

Although we don’t have much data for this, and it would be hard to prove empirically, I would imagine that it would be much the same for yo-yo digital dextoxing. After all, most people can stop themselves from engaging in a negative habit for a short period of time but may end up indulging themselves even more than before when their time of abstinence is over.

In my experience, the only true way deal with these issues is to make permanent, positive changes to our lives so that we do not feel the same need to be sucked into, for example, endless scrolling and spending all of our free time staring at a screen.

The toxic effects of Facebook

I have felt the need to do this several times over the past few years, as the internet as a whole and social media in particular has matured and evolved.

I joined Facebook soon after it launched worldwide, and watched the site sour from an apparently low effort means of keeping in touch with people into what it has become today: a ruthlessly exploited and monetized repository for millions of fleeting interactions that have almost no ongoing meaning in our lives, beyond the nagging reminder that the entire point of the site (at least from the user’s perspective) was an illusion.

After a while of feeling the toxic effects of Facebook, in particular FOMO and negative social comparison, I decided that the only solution was to leave it altogether. It was a wrench at first, as I had many friends, and still have a few, that arrange their social lives through the site. However, I decided that it was better to miss out on the odd party or pub outing to feel better about myself and my life in the long run.

More than that, I spent so much time either on or thinking about Facebook that I wasn’t getting done the things I needed or wanted to do in my life, especially for my writing, and I had the sense that I was drifting further and further away from the person I wanted to be and the things I wanted to achieve.

I wasn’t the first person who come to these conclusions, of course, and certainly wasn’t the first to leave Facebook, but I was an early unadopter, as it were, among my group of family and friends. It consequently led to certain amount of bemusement, ridicule and disdain, and plenty of people who questioned why on earth it would be necessary.

“How are you going to keep in touch with people,” was a constant question.

“Do you really thinking that gawping at people’s holiday photos and offering a thumbs up to a photo of their dinner constitutes ‘keeping in touch,’” was often my reply.

That usually met with either an acknowledgment that I had a point or a shrug. (There were some who were much more positive, but I didn’t dwell on those response, of course, as they were confirming what I already believed.)

I went through the exact same cycle with Twitter and Instagram, and ended up arriving at exactly the same conclusion: the only really meaningful solution to tackling the negative consequences of social media, and the resulting lack of time and energy for my personal projects, was to quit.

It should be said, however, that leaving those two platforms was easier than with Facebook, as I didn’t that have many friends or acquaintances on either, and the reaction was consequently much more muted.

WhatsApp all about?

The biggest challenge came when I began to look at the amount of time and energy I was putting into WhatsApp. This is the almost ubiquitous messaging platform, the main strength of which is that it works across phone operating systems, although they put a lot the emphasis on the relatively recently introduced end-to-end encryption (so much so that it makes me wonder whether user’s messages are really that secure, at least from the avaricious eyes of Meta, the current owners).

It occurred to me several times over the past few years that the endless notifications, the attendant sense of needing to be ‘present’, and the pressures of keeping up with an ever-growing number of groups, often created for the most minor of reasons, was taking its toll on both my work and personal life out in the real world.

Also, it seemed to me that many of the interactions on WhatsApp were undertaken ‘just because’. They weren’t necessary, important or informative. They were simply someone speaking for the sake of it, to make the chat continue to exist and to justify having pulled their smartphone out of their pocket or bag in the first place.

After a couple of false starts, I decided in early January this year to take the plunge. I sent a few choice people a message that I was quitting WhatsApp but would still be accessible via Apple Messages or SMS, and then deleted the app and all its data.

I blithely suggested it was because I don’t want to be using the same messaging service as Matt Hancock and Michael Gove, and even though I was joking there was a slightly childish grain of truth to it.

But mostly it was about gaining back not exactly time but a certain kind of mental space from the smartphone equivalent of a toddler constantly tugging at your trouser and calling out your name so you will look at a something utterly normal they just found on the floor.

The really fascinating, and sometimes saddening, aspect were the reactions.

This may seem like an exaggeration, but some people, friends of mine, made it very clear that they were offended and had taken it personally that I left WhatsApp. Some others were plain angry, while many were perplexed in the extreme and questioned me several times on why I was doing something so excessive and bizarre, something that so obviously ran counter to everything we understand of the modern world.

Some were appreciative and others even congratulatory, but the violence of the responses that leaving WhatsApp engendered, far worse than when I left Facebook, left me a little shocked.

After some reflection, I realised that the very extremity of people’s reactions showed I was onto something and had made the right decision. Only someone who is blindly doing something that they don’t particular enjoy but don’t think they are able to question replies in that way: they are merely expressing their frustration with their own apparent inability to quit.

(I know this from having taken a break from drinking alcohol several times. The range of responses I have had each time has been quite remarkable.)

The consequences of leaving WhatsApp have also been interesting: I have, as I expected, gained an awful lot of headspace from leaving the platform, and that is a big positive; but on the down side, it has been much harder to keep in touch with people than I anticipated, as they no longer check their text messages, but head only for WhatsApp to communicate with people. Consequently, they do not even see that they have a text to read.

Breaking the cycle

Overall, and despite a lingering slight sense of FOMO, which is more like an automatic reaction than an authentic feeling, the last six months have underlined to me that much of what we say and do online, particularly on social media, is disposable.

Yes, digital quitting, as opposed to detoxing, is going to have, by its very nature, a bigger impact on your life, as permanently leaving anything is more definitive and consequential that simply taking a break or pausing for a while.

But the reality is that we only do a lot of what we do in our lives simply because we have done it before and we are creatures of habit. Particularly for older people, who did not grow up with a phone thrust into our baby hands as the digital equivalent of a dummy to keep us quiet, the use of a smartphone is not inevitable, and we all did other things before they were invented.

For example, we read actual magazines and books, we gazed out of the window at the passing countryside (I am still on the train), went over things in our minds, played card and board games and, God forbid, spoke to each other in a sociable and friendly manner, as a result of which we learned about each other’s lives.

And some of us took the free time offered by a long journey to work on a column, rather than ‘keeping up’ with groups and chats that don’t really have as much meaning or import as we, and the company behind the platform would like us to, think.

By thinking that we are unable to keep ourselves unoccupied without some kind of virtual outlet, we are in danger of seeing ourselves as incapable of existing independently, and as isolated and unable to connect to the real world around us. That leads to dependency, which quickly becomes addiction, and that is ever-harder to break when companies spend billions researching and developing ways to keep us hooked.

We owe it to ourselves to break the cycle and step away from our digital dependencies. Quitting is the only answer.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

0 ratings
Digital Quitting | Pushing the Wave