I was on the toilet scrolling through Reddit, hoping that a cute animal GIF might give me an endorphin hit. It was Thursday and I was jonesing. Because four days earlier, on a dark Sunday evening, I’d sworn off social media for a week. No Facebook. No Instagram. No Twitter. Now, nearing the end of the week Reddit had become my train-tunnel-sized loophole. I was learning an important lesson about myself. Social media, it turns out, wasn’t the thing keeping me glued to my phone. Instead, what drew my eyes inexorably towards the screen was an intense need for escapism.
My justification for scanning Reddit impulsively every couple of hours was that the self-proclaimed front-page of the internet wasn’t really social media. After all, I reasoned, I’d long forgotten my Reddit username and password and wasn’t commenting in any of the threads. This justification was important because without it, how else could I fill my time on the crapper? What other option could there be? Surely I couldn’t just sit there in silence examining the dried toothpaste on the sink. That was madness.
I did have a very good reason for ditching social media for a week. For nearly a month I’d been glued to the political hellscape of my Twitter feed. Politics has long been like sports to me. Except the rivalries and ideological tussling have higher stakes. My twitter feed is hardwired to my anxieties. My ability to cope is linked to firing off caustic tweets.
Facebook and Instagram, on the other hand, had become emotional sedatives. I’d kept these feeds free of politics. I’d curated feeds filled with updates from my neighbors, luminescent photography, nostalgic kitsch, and weird historical facts. These things calm me. They remove me from reality.
My phone, then, had become a kind of digital social speedball: Open Twitter for a massive dose of adrenaline, rage, and anxiety. Switch to Facebook and Instagram to calm down and feel the sweet anesthetization of the pretty and the mundane.
But with politics getting uglier and Instagram getting prettier, I found myself half-participating in conversations and offering vague, distracted answers to my kid’s questions. My drug of choice was turning me into a jerk. Meanwhile, I half-participated in my family, who flitted around me like shadows. Sometimes, I’d become dimly aware of my wife’s voice or my kid’s babble only to look up and find they’d been talking to me, looking for a response. I’d have no idea what they’d been talking about. I’d take a stab at an answer hoping for a lucky guess. It was a problem. My parenting was suffering.
Recently, for instance, I’d curled up on the couch on a weekend afternoon while my wife was out and opened my apps. My boys were in the family room by themselves. I was vaguely aware of a distant din but too focused on my feeds to be concerned. By the time I came to, realizing the pair required lunch, I discovered that not only had they raided the cabinets like scavenging waifs, but they’d also built a fort out of the rubble they’d made by essentially dismantling the family room. It was a disaster. Something had to change.
I brought the idea of a social media hiatus to my wife. She was eager to join me. Her social feed fix comes from Facebook. And while she never lost herself as thoroughly in the scroll, we both agreed we spent too much time tap-tap-tapping beside each other on our phones while minutes and hours of our time together were stripped from us.
When we started the social media fast, I did not expect the level of anxiety I felt. I had this inescapable feeling that something was going on the world and I couldn’t know what it was. What if it was important? The thought filled me with dread.
Google news and my daily briefing from Alexa on my Amazon Dot didn’t help because I was beholden to the pace of reporting. Sure, that meant the information I did receive was more thoroughly fact-checked and vetted. But the hit of immediacy was lost. So was my ability to scream into the digital void and make myself feel better.
I also didn’t expect to feel so isolated. I could look out my windows and see my neighbors pass. But I could only infer what was happening in their lives. Could I have gone out to ask them how things were going? Sure. Did I have the time to do that? I didn’t feel like it. There was shit to do. I’d rather just read a sentence about their kid’s lost tooth and be done with it.
At the same time, I found myself building social updates in my own head. I’d come up with some funny thought or observation and reach for my phone, only to remember it was off limits. That thought would die with me. Unless I told my wife. But then it would die with her.
I’d take pictures of my kids and my dog. I’d lovingly edit them in my favorite photo-editing app and then realize there was no place to share them. What was the point of taking the picture in the first place?
About two days in, I had a particularly strange moment. My kids had come home from school and after getting them a snack they began playing some kind of game with their stuffed animals. After several minutes I became aware that I was simply staring at them. Just passively watching. I scared me, frankly.
Then one night, in bed with my wife, I remembered the Reddit app. I opened it up and felt immediately soothed by the random collection of news, memes and pithy weirdness. For her part, my wife was on her own phone, looking at new hairstyles she was considering. We didn’t talk except to show one another our screens.
This sounds terrible. And perhaps it is terrible. But in that moment, I was not worrying about anything else in the world. I was only concerned with how smart and cute that otter was in that one GIF. I was only thinking about people favorite horror movies and Parks and Rec memes. I was not, however, worrying about how to pay for our kitchen remodel. I wasn’t obsessing over my son’s poor math test performance. I wasn’t thinking about the next day’s work deadlines. My mind was, in a sense, free.
I’d like to say that by Friday I’d learned to fix my habits. I’d like to say there was a grand change and I shook off the obsession with my phone to re-engage with my family in a meaningful and emotional way. That’s not what happened.
Which is not to say I didn’t learn anything from the experiment. I did. Like every other parent in the world, I’m very much unable to find time for myself. One recent study has even suggested parents can only find a scant 30 minutes a day to call their own. And clearly, getting my head out for parenting for a moment is something I need.
The problem is that I need to find a better, healthier way to escape than to disappear into my phone. The most obvious solution may be to downgrade to a dumb flip phone and do away with the portal to distraction, but that might be too extreme. Because the fact is that the phone is very good at taking me out of the moment. It may just be that I need to use its ability to do so far more thoughtfully.
Maybe this means only using social media when I’m on the toilet, or during a prescribed time when it’s least disruptive to my relationships. Maybe it’s about locking down time limits, the way I do with my boys who are also screen escapists. We’ve limited their TV time to the hour between getting off the school bus and their mother’s return from work.
Clearly, I need similar limits. And those limits should also extend to the content I’m taking in. I don’t let my children watch programs that will freak them out. So why am I filling my brain with the stressful madness of Twitter? I’d do well to apply reasonable rules there too.
It’s funny. I’m always telling my boys to have moderation in all things. What I’ve learned is that I may need to take my own advice.