Thoughts On: Digital Distractions

Be like the flowing river, Silent in the night. Be not afraid of the dark, If there are stars in the sky, reflect them back. If there are clouds in the sky, Remember clouds, like the river, are water, So, gladly reflect them too, In your own tranquil depths. Manuel Bandeira

One of the biggest fears for the modern human being isn’t to do with financial security or career fulfilment. It isn’t to do with losing loved ones, or dying alone and being eaten by our cats.

It’s called Nomophobia. The fear of being without your mobile phone.

As a society, modern technology has revolutionised the way we engage, interact and behave with one another. Never have we been able to be so connected, to be able to share the moments of our lives with not just our close loved ones, but with anyone we can think of on the planet. For someone who lives on the opposite side of the world to the rest of her friends and family, technology has been the lifeline that helps me feel like I’m still a part of my home life.

But, as with anything that exists with an addictive quality, abuse of it is never far behind. Numerous psychologists, psychiatrists and educational supervisors have reported the damaging effects of obsessive mobile phone use on the mental well being of young people. This includes a variety of studies reporting on the increase in insomnia, anxiety, depression, low self-worth, low self esteem and even suicidal thoughts, linked to excessive mobile phone usage.

It's not just young people experiencing these effects.

The online societies that we are building through our phones, are just that - they’re online. They’re heavily constructed, and built around promoting the perfect moments of our lives, or at least that’s what we’ve managed to make them look like.

A change gon' come - as the wonderful Sam Cooke croons - and it already is. We’re starting to see more people call out the ‘perfection’ filters they apply online. There’s a rise of the ‘ugly’ selfie and people talking more openly about how their obsession with looking perfect for their social media audience, has led to a downfall in their mental well being. It’s an increasingly popular way of existing online, yet I can’t help wonder what other pitfalls await in this way of being. There is a danger to sensationalising mental health, and using this as a means to achieve further online status.

I recently travelled across the world with my partner and it was wonderful. Genuinely a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I loved sharing parts of our journey online and letting our friends and families know what we were getting up to.

I’ll admit, I liked receiving an influx of likes and comments when I shared a photo. My partner is a little more reserved in his practice of social media, and I regularly got messages from friends saying they were glad I was keeping them updated on our journey. But many of those messages also came with added comments that stuck in my mind. You know the comments I'm talking about, because you, like me, have thought them or made them yourself at one point or another. For many of us, we’re unable to observe someone else going through a positive experience without it calling for reflection on what we ourselves are doing - or not doing - with our own lives.

At the end of our trip I was exhausted, in more ways than one. It wasn’t that I felt obsessed or addicted to my social media, or my phone, but it stopped feeling good. I knew I needed a break. I needed to re-centre a few priorities in how I lived my life on a daily basis.

So I took a week off from digital distractions. I know, a week isn't a life changing amount of time (although it can be in some scenarios), but a week was a starting point. Now, as a freelancer, this can be tricky. I knew I’d still have to stay connected to my emails (or lose work opportunities) so with that in mind, I set some ground rules:

  • No social media - I removed Facebook from my phone a few months ago, so that was easy, but for this week I also removed Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Messenger. I was not to post, look or engage with any social media for the week.

  • Pre-schedule my work content - I pre-scheduled all my work content and then removed notifications.

  • Turn off notifications - For any other apps, such as my email or anything that typically distracts me, I turned off all notifications. Even my Whatsapp.

  • Emails - I set myself one time slot a day to check my emails (usually in the morning, to free my headspace for the rest of the day).

And then I took a week off. The first few days I really had to fight the impulse to check my social media. This is where physically deleting the apps from my phone proved most helpful. I started replacing the times I would normally spend aimlessly scrolling with something more productive, like reading, writing, reliving old photo memories. I scheduled more FaceTime and actual face time with friends and family both here and back home. That itch to check Instagram and Twitter every hour faded away, until by the end of the week, I forgot why it used to be the first thing I checked most mornings.

The biggest change I noticed though was in my general outlook. I’m going through some pretty big life transitions, and have been for most of 2017. Taking a break from digital made me realise how much I’d been comparing myself to others. It isn’t that I haven’t had any positives this past year, but they felt overshadowed by what I perceived as others success they shared through their social media.

With that removed, my own personal positives felt, well, good. I got to appreciate them for exactly what they were, sans comparaison.

The main reason I returned to my digital distractions after a week off was because I took part in a large scale, month long fundraising campaign for a charity called One Girl - and social media was one of the main ways I was trying to raise awareness! But by the end of my week, I was reluctant to return.

Would I recommend a break from digital? Absolutely. With a new job under my belt and plenty of real time distractions I’m taking another break, for a much longer period this time.

And I’m already excited for the extra head-space I know it’s going to afford me.

Tips for breaking away from digital distractions

There is virtue in work and there is virtue in rest. Use both and overlook neither. - Alan Cohen

  • One day, one week, one month - It doesn’t matter how long you take off from digital distractions, it’s not a competition, but do it so you feel good.

  • As a bare minimum make use of your phones ‘Do Not Disturb’ function or tap into your settings and turn off your notifications from there. I highly recommend deleting apps altogether.

  • Set digital time frames: if you need to check your phone make sure you set a time limit. There are heaps of apps now available that monitor how much time we spend on our phones - invest in one to help you cut down on your screen time.

  • What do you keep wishing you did more of but think you don’t have time? Make a list and when you feel that itch, pick something from your list and get stuck in.

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you sneak a peek - I repeat, this isn’t a competition! It’s about investing more time back into your mental well being and seeing where you could better spend your time to benefit you. If you end up jumping onto Instagram and liking 20 pictures of kittens, that’s totally fine too.

Copyright © 2020 Elaine Mead | Coffee&Books

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