A few months ago, I noticed that I’d developed some weird habits surrounding my social media use. I was checking my Facebook and Instagram accounts at least 10 times a day, but I almost always logged off feeling disappointed or slightly depressed. (Apparently, I’m not alone. See How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms.) I follow a number of news organizations on my social media accounts, and, as a result, my newsfeed is a strong mix of political and environmental news, advertisements, and updates from friends and family. Despite the occasionally interesting or inspiring post, I still felt bogged down by news of mass shootings, scathing political remarks, and updates about the declining state of our environment – not to mention the slew of mediocre food pictures and narcissistic “selfies” that seem impossible to escape.
Why did I continue to spend so much time on a platform that I wasn’t enjoying? I have no idea. It was as though I would black out and then wake up to find myself blinking at my Facebook profile. How did I get there? What was I looking for? The apps on my Smartphone allowed me to check Facebook notifications at stop lights and skim through Instagram photos while waiting in line at the check-out counter. Every potential moment for quiet reflection was in danger of being interrupted by a strong pull to comment, like, share or respond. The more I became aware of this nagging desire, the more uncomfortable I felt about it.
The day of the Paris terrorist attacks was the day I logged off. I’m fully aware that turning something off doesn’t make the problem go away. But, for our mental health and sanity, it’s OK to take a break. Take a breath. The world won’t stop turning if you temporarily tune out. It’s been a little more than a month since I decided to log off, and I couldn’t be happier with the awareness and centeredness that I’ve gained since then. Here are the self-imposed rules I created, and the steps I took to establish healthier digital habits. You can choose to follow any of these recommendations that seem inspiring, and tailor them to fit your needs.
Log off social media for one month. I uninstalled the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone to prevent myself from logging in during brief “dull” moments. I logged out of Facebook on my desktop, but accidently kept it bookmarked on my toolbar. This bookmarked toolbar was how I found myself unconsciously blinking at the Facebook login page about 10 times a day for the first week. I discovered that I’d been treating my Facebook page like I would an afternoon walk, or a refill of coffee. While working at my computer, if my mind needed to switch tracks or take a short break, I automatically clicked the Facebook icon to start mindlessly browsing. I would only browse for 2 or 3 minutes (I think …) but all those short minutes add up.
I finally broke the habit by removing the bookmarked icon from my toolbar and creating access barriers (the need to physically type my login information before accessing my accounts). It took nearly two weeks for me to quit reaching for that icon when I felt bored or restless.
You can tailor this rule to fit your lifestyle. Maybe you’re happy with the time you spend on Facebook, but Twitter and Snapchat seem to consume your time. Also, if a month is too long, try a week, or even a weekend. The goal is to gain awareness about your social media habits, and to cut back on “zombie browsing.”
Be grateful for the privilege to disconnect. Whenever I became tempted to log in and break my detox, I repeated this mantra to myself: “Unlike millions of people around the world, I have the privilege to disconnect, however temporarily, from news of violence and exposure to language that is negative, racist or fueled by hate. I choose to be grateful for that privilege, to appreciate the beauty of this unique moment, and to be here, now.”
This became my favorite part of the entire process, and it really helped me gain appreciation for my fortunate circumstances.
Don’t check email at home. Only check your email from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. When I started my digital detox, I was in the habit of checking my work email once or twice each evening, just to make sure nothing crazy happened that needed my immediate response. This is just unnecessary; I’m not a cardiac surgeon who needs to be on-call to save lives. It can wait.
I was in the habit of using my phone to check work-related and personal emails in the morning before I even got out of bed. I can’t believe I was doing this. It even hurt my eyes to look at a screen so early in the morning, but I did it anyway. I told myself I was preparing for the work day, but I was actually stealing from that wonderful, early-morning alone time when the rest of the world is still asleep and coffee tastes better than ever.
By cutting back on time spent looking at my laptop and phone screen, I started sleeping better. After two weeks of quality sleep, I finally developed an early-morning yoga routine. Instead of lying in bed, hitting snooze and lazily scrolling through email and Facebook, I now stretch by the fireplace and sip a cup of coffee while the sun rises. I can’t believe it took me so long to make that change!
Turn off the TV. I don’t have a TV or Netflix account, but I’m including this “rule” for those of you who do. If you feel like you spend too much time in front of the tube, a digital detox is a great time to cut back. You may decide to only watch 30 minutes a night, or to never watch TV during dinner.
Think about what your perfect week would look like. Where does TV factor in? Design your detox rules around that vision. I watched a few DVDs on my laptop during my digital detox, but because TV time isn’t a problem for me, I didn’t feel like I needed to limit my consumption to form healthier habits.
Don’t look at your phone while at dinner or with friends. With our Smartphones, we have the incredible ability to search online for the answer to any question that arises during conversation. But I’ve noticed we often reach for our devices before we really think things through. What happened to old-fashioned debates — and the ability to actually use our memories?
It’s also just rude to be on your phone when someone is trying to share a meal or participate in a conversation with you. After I decided to keep my phone safely tucked away during meals and outings, I began to offer a more engaged, tuned-in version of myself. (Warning: After you initiate this change, you may start to really lose patience with other people on their phones. You’ll start noticing this rude behavior more and more often.)
These last three recommendations are not rules that I imposed on myself, but small ideas for moving forward:
Wear a watch. After gaining newfound distance from my Smartphone, I realized that I was still digging through my purse to find it whenever I need to check the time. Wearing a watch will cut back on the number of times you need to reach for your phone each day, plus it looks classy.
Keep reading material close at hand. There are definitely situations where you find yourself waiting longer than expected. Maybe you’re in a doctor’s waiting room, or picking up a friend who’s stuck in a meeting. Whatever the situation, you can deter pulling out your Smartphone by having a copy of an interesting book or magazine close at hand.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reported that the average U.S. consumer spends 40 minutes per day on Facebook. In comparison, readers of a median speed take about 4 hours to read a medium-sized book (64,000 words – think “Brave New World”). If every U.S. consumer substituted time on Facebook with time spent reading a book, they could read one book every 6 days – that’s 60 books a year. Can you image how well-read we would be if we spent 40 minutes a day reading?
Send a postcard or hand-written letter. It doesn’t seem like many people do this anymore, but receiving a beautiful, hand-written postcard or letter is so exciting! Walking to my mailbox is one of my favorite household chores; I always hope for a small, heart-warming note tucked among the bills and coupons. I have a bundle of letters that my brother wrote me while stationed in Iraq, and they’re one of my most treasured belongings. Like wearing a watch, sending a hand-written letter just feels classy and timeless. Have fun and use some special stationary. Print off a few pictures to share, or include a beautiful dried leaf or flower that stands out to you. A letter or postcard written with love is truly a keepsake.
Looking Back on my Digital Detox
I definitely had a few slip-ups during my digital detox, and I didn’t do a perfect job of sticking to my rules. But just because I slipped up a few times didn’t mean my whole plan was shot. I effectively changed the way I interact with and use my social media accounts, I’ve cut way back on screen time, and I’ve replaced a few negative habits with healthier ones.
I also had a great realization about my personal relationships. By weeding out the white noise and distractions, I narrowed in on the people who I really wanted to talk to. If I missed somebody or wanted an update, I called them (and vice versa). I ended up having a 3-hour-long phone call with a friend who recently moved to Seattle, and I placed more phone calls to long-distance family members than ever before.
This experience helped me realize that Facebook is a binky for loneliness, but that time spent with a loved one— or a dedicated phone call if you live far apart — is a cure. If you do a digital detox, the people you engage with regularly will still be in your life, but, judging from my own experience, the interactions you have will be warmer, more genuine and better focused.
Hannah Kincaid is an Associate Editor for MOTHER EARTH NEWS. She works on the magazine’s natural health beat, and in her spare time she focuses on restoring her century-old farmhouse, studying native plant medicine and practicing yoga.