Lost time: Unplugging from the unreal world

“What if I had 10 extra hours a week for hobbies or for generally getting stuff done?,” “why is looking at my smartphone the first thing I do on a morning?,” “why is every other person (me included) “dodging” around each other in the shopping mall because their faces are glued to their smartphones?,” “why did she take her phone into the toilet cubicle?”.  Some questions I've asked myself recently. These have helped me to put my social media “addiction” into perspective.

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It's not enough to just enjoy the moments with your nearest and dearest in a restaurant anymore. Instead, we can check in to said restaurant and post photos of the evening. And of course the evening went perfectly to plan…says Facebook. We can check into hospitals, polling stations, and perhaps the trendiest place of all….gyms…as we all try to prove our worth and gain acceptance in this social media obsessed world that we live in. From the moment children are born their parents “share” their faces forever. You can even Instagram your whole day in a video if you choose to do so. It's all about the likes. The age of living in the moment has well and truly gone. That's why so many people are struggling to stay sane and mindfulness has boomed in recent years.

In Ruby Wax’s words: “Our brains are not computers, they don't need charging; they need to rest, and there is no rest. Who has time to rest?...It's become a dirty word. The only time you can legitimately rest is when you're in the restroom. Every tweet, Facebook entry and text is sucking out your energy. That's why you always forget where you parked your car.”

What changed?

Well, obviously the world has changed as technology evolved, and most of us living in western society decide to follow the “prescribed” path of change. I'll always remember my Grandma’s question of “what is this internet?” and my long pause as I contemplated how to craft an answer.

I'm old enough to remember “Friends Reunited,” a basic networking website where you could find school friends. It was cumbersome and relied on emails, but definitely a novelty. Then, along came Facebook and this enabled me to find my friends, acquaintances, and random people at the click of a button. It became so easy to share holiday snaps, information in a group, and connect with family members who lived far away. Pretty cool as it bridged the distance and reunited me with so many school and university friends.

As other social media apps evolved, so did better technology and smartphones. We had so much more choice and options to search and “broadcast”. Social media in this new age added a dimension of social approval, or our constant need for. It became a way of justifying our self worth, often versus the images and activities of others. See, social media is like a slot machine, enticing us to check for updates, likes, and news. That's the addiction. And addictions consume our attention and time.

How much time?

Smartphones impose hundreds of unnecessary interruptions each day. The number of people using social media is not only increasing, but is accompanied by how much time people are spending each day on it. Recent marketing studies estimate that the average person will spend more than five years of their lives on social media. And the distractions extend to messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. Why pick up the phone and listen to the voices of your close friends and family when you can set up a WhatsApp group? It's sad that I have to make an appointment with my best friend for a phone call these days because we're both so “busy”. Busy doing what? Sadly, just existing in “busyness”. 

It's normal to see people checking social media when in a queue and when they're eating their dinner. Sadly scrolling is also common when we try to talk to each other face to face. Or when we have the option to take in a beautiful scene of nature…maybe crashing waves, dreamy clouds, or even a shooting star.

 Image: Sam Ryder and Lois Gaskin-Barber.

Image: Sam Ryder and Lois Gaskin-Barber.

I'm guilty. I estimate spending at least three hours a day on social media (mainly on my commute). My love of photos channels my attention to Instagram. I truly believe it’s a great app for connecting images (some not so good), words, educational videos (in my case cooking and weightlifting), and people. That said, it also makes me miserable. Putting it into perspective, my addiction is scaring me and only now -- after many failed attempts -- am I really trying to curb my social media usage.

I am not alone in my addiction. Smartphone addiction is a very real thing and by its nature, most people are unaware they have it. According to U.K. addiction specialist Port of Call, 10 of the more serious signs that point to phone addiction include:

  • Having your phone in your hand 24/7
  • Your phone battery not lasting the day
  • Constant worry about losing your phone
  • Using your phone in social settings
  • Obsessively checking your phone without any reason
  • Experiencing ‘phantom vibrations’ – When you think your phone is vibrating in your pocket, then realising it was a false alarm.
  • Using your phone even while watching TV or eating
  • Panicking if you leave your phone at home
  • Procrastinating from important work or schooling by using your phone

My friend who chose to be social media free says: “Between work, hobbies, the gym, study and family life, social media is pretty low down the list. I don't have time to do all the things I actually want to do for myself, let alone see what other folk are up to.” “I am sure I am in the minority. I have spent hours lost on social media but I choose not to now. I switch off my phone or leave it in another room. I even leave it at home when I go out and just try and enjoy the day.”

And my sister has recently kicked the habit: “I’m completely avoiding it as I realised how much time I spent on it. Now…I read or go and have a coffee with someone, or call someone…it’s lovely to hear a human voice.”

Baby steps to detox

So what steps -- if any -- am I taking to curb my addiction and what’s prompted me to try to change?

It’s been on my mind for a while as I’m aware of how many “free time” hours I have in a day and that I’ve chosen to fill this time with Facebook and Instagram scrolling. It makes me feel sad when I think of all the hours I've wasted on social media as I won't get that time back. Talking to my sister briefly about why she kicked the habit has also inspired me as I’ve looked up to her from a very young age (she is always on my side).

Lost time is definitely my trigger for change. Here’s the thing, I complain incessantly about not “having time” to read books, put in the work to hit a lift or movement at CrossFit, write, or to even have a nap. Yet somehow, my fingers can instantly pick up my phone and once I’m in that zone, bang goes another 30 minutes of my life. Social media is consuming as much of my time and conscious attention as possible  -- and that’s what giants like Facebook want.

More recently, I’ve also held back from posting or sharing thoughts and photos. A good thing as the questions hit me of “why is Facebook the outlet for my life events?” and “why will this make me feel better if I share this information with Facebook?”. I know why I used to instantly do it: the dopamine or “feel good” hit when the likes and comments come piling in.

The realization of how hard it is to stay off my phone and iPad has really hit home. I literally have to switch off the devices or leave them in the car to resist temptation. This in itself has called me to action and led me to appreciate the act of picking up the phone and hearing a voice, or arranging a coffee with someone, rather than further limiting my attention span and memory capacity.

Despite my struggle to kick the habit, I do try to embrace all the positive aspects that social media brings on my commute. So out with Facebook and in with educational podcasts, videos, and books. Yes, I actually did the opposite of pushing back on technology and bought an iPad. My new toy is for my writing, which is good for my soul. It always has been.

Speaking of which, I love to receive a handwritten letter. The very act of writing by hand and receiving a letter calms both the writer and the recipient. Heartfelt words penned by hand are not instant in delivery, but can be cherished. With the added bonus of no paranoid sinking feelings when a Facebook message or text message remains unanswered for a matter of minutes (see my blog “Time to talk...or time to write?").

Then there's my attempts to meditate. You may ask isn’t mindfulness the opposite of technology? But technology isn’t going away so how about using apps like "Headspace" or “Buddhify” to give the mind a well-deserved rest? Technology doesn't always have to be a bad thing.

And reading books…yes, those beautiful bundles of pages that don't make notification noises or have a camera to video you doing it. Not to mention, just anything that makes me move…exercise is definitely my feel-good drug, but walking and embracing nature is something I don't do enough of (see my blog “The best things in life are free”).

When I indulge in what used to be a regular thing -- a phone call -- my best friend and I talk for around two hours. We don’t use FaceTime or Skype so I can’t see her expressions, but hearing her voice conveys a deeper level of emotion. What's my excuse for not making more calls? “I don't have time”. Yet I have time to post yet another Instagram photo.

It’s not real!

Why does social media make me feel so miserable? The reality is I know “unplugging” would make me more productive and give me a sense of freedom. I wouldn't care about what others have or do and wouldn't need to use social media to “filter” my insecurities.

Social media is a great tool for filtering. Ever noticed how no one posts about the daily mini meltdowns that may afflict us – like a tantrum (from you or someone else, mini me or adult), or a failed trip (surely better to get there then post a photo of a beautiful scene to hide that mishap).

Many of us (me included) suffer from trying to be perfect rather than real, setting unrealistic targets and standards. I keep having to remind myself that social media has created a culture of self-comparison that didn’t previously exist, yet I still feel anxious inside when I see more photos and posts about others succeeding in life. The effect: anyone with sinking self-esteem has little chance of believing in themselves and their own achievements.

Add the fear of missing out to the mix: Facebook is great for bringing groups of communities together as you can share information and updates in a group. But what if you don’t want to be on Facebook, yet want to know what’s going on in your gym or club?

I’ve learned that images doing the rounds that just aren’t real relate to appearance, relationships, partying (parties are never that great and always invariably lead to drunken drama), travelling, food, diet, fitness, babies and pets, clothes, and perfection. Life is indeed messy and we are all human. I’m clumsy, I spill wine over myself (and even puke it up), I binge on chocolate when I want to, and dance really badly. I’d actually hate to pretend to be someone I’m not online, but yes, I’m still working on quitting.

What happens if you do quit?

I haven’t mastered the complete detox, but when I have completed “bursts” of no social media, my life changed for the better. The main benefit was concentration and focus: suddenly I didn’t forget so many things and my days at work and home were productive, rather than short bursts of activity interrupted by notifications and scrolling. There’s a shift from being absorbed with what everyone else is doing to what you are doing and need to do to enrich your life. Surely self-care is absolutely a good thing?

When I was in someone’s company, I was truly “present”. Yes, with them. No phone out on the table or in front of my eyes -- allowing plenty of room for conversation and to truly appreciate the value of relationships.

Other benefits included improved sleep and a prevailing sense of calm inside. For once, maybe I felt like I was enough. I lived life through my senses and my soul, not my phone.

Social media is here to stay

There’s no escape…this blog will find its way onto social media and I post my poetry on Instagram (it’s my dream to publish a book). I just don't want to lose so much of my precious time glued to it, and I don't want to lose sight of who I really am.

It’s the way we use social media that can change our lives. Technology has enriched our lives in many ways (think of how easily we can instantly capture moments). Learn from it as there’s a vast world of knowledge out there -- and share genuine life events (why not share and be thankful for things you're proud of, like buying a house or participating in a competition, for example?). Social media can be so powerful for spreading awareness on many fronts, from missing people and animals -- to charitable initiatives. Exchange kind words and support on there, and be playful -- but mindful of reality and time.

Time is the one thing that will eventually run out.  As the inspirational U.K. teenage cancer victim Stephen Sutton said, “You have 86,400 seconds today. Don't waste a single one.”