Notes From a Digital Detox

Public Domain Unsplash. Unsplash

Or, what happens when you go without Facebook and Instagram for an entire month.

On August 1, I deactivated Facebook and Instagram. For the first time in years, there was no way for me to peek at my friends' lives by reaching for my phone. I felt solitary and cut off from a flow of information that I'd previously taken for granted, but that was the point of my 'digital declutter' – to reset my relationship with technology, as advised by author Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism. I needed to "wean [myself] from the cycles of addiction that many digital tools can install."

Now a month has passed and I am better positioned to evaluate my digital decluttering experience. First, I noticed that there were actually two habits to break, the first being the frequent physical handling of my phone and the second being the information it provided. Curiously, the former was the easier habit to break. I quickly grew comfortable leaving my phone at home and going hours without checking it because the urgency was gone. This felt liberating.

The second habit proved more challenging. I didn't realize how much I'd grown to rely on a steady stream of data about my friends' daily goings-on, as trivial as they might be. I felt out of the loop, mostly when we met up in person. There were group references to things everyone else had seen on Instagram, and I'd have to be caught up before the conversation could continue. The flip side of this was that I felt more genuine curiosity about my friends' lives because I literally had no idea what they'd been up to since the last time we'd talked.

One aspect of the decluttering experience that I didn't anticipate was the sense of having less downtime throughout the day. Previously, social media was a short mental escape that I engaged in for a few minutes at a time, but once it was eliminated, I just moved on to the next task on my to-do list. I didn't replace those mini social media breaks with anything else – a mistake, perhaps – so it felt at times like I never gave my brain a break.

Newport writes about the importance of filling the social media void with high quality leisure activities, but that was never my problem; I was always content to spend the evenings reading a book, baking desserts, going for a bike ride, or hanging out with a friend. What he doesn't address are those mini breaks throughout the day, when there's too little time to get into an activity, but my brain still needs a quick respite. But then perhaps that's a problem in itself that developed as a result of social media use and would go away over time.

What now, you're probably wondering? I reactivated Instagram yesterday and spent under ten minutes catching up on posts. None of it fascinated me. I accidentally reactivated Facebook when I used it to log in to my Spotify account – another reminder of how integrated these social media accounts are in our lives – and intend to deactivate it permanently. (I want to keep my Messenger account, so cannot delete it.)

This next stage requires me to think carefully about my philosophy of technology use, another one of Newport's suggestions, and to determine how I'll use Instagram going forward. My plan is to limit myself to one login per day, enough to stay in the loop, but not pull me in too deep. I also intend to post infrequently, as maintaining 'digital silence' removes one complicating factor, with no likes to chase.

The experience was eye-opening. It showed me how obsessed we've become as a society with our devices, but also how necessary they are if you want to have a relatively normal social life. I'd encourage anyone to do a month-long detox because it does recalibrate one's perspective; but I've realized, somewhat disappointingly, I can't give it up entirely.