LOUISE O'NEILL: Digital detox: Why I switched off my phone

Every month without fail, I turn my phone off for 24 hours, writes Louise O’Neill.

The sense of relief is indescribable — I feel grounded, calm; I read more, I am able to concentrate on my work with a laser sharp focus. When I need to return to the real world of emails and text messages, I turn my phone back on, anxiety climbing up my body and lodging in my throat. Within minutes, I am exhausted again and it’s my own fault.

Recently, my father asked me to put credit (!) into his Nokia (!!) for him, and I looked at the ancient block of ‘technology’ with something between amusement and confusion. He has always hated the idea of being easily contactable, so much so that he refused to have a house phone installed when my sister and I were growing up. He bought a mobile phone begrudgingly, but he drew the line at the idea of a smart phone. 

Having long mocked his Luddite ways (sorry, Dad), I now think that his distaste for being beholden to technology seems eerily prescient and something I’m increasingly tempted to emulate. 

Should I ditch my iPhone? Should I get the sort of basic phone that can only be used for phone calls and text messages? But... the fear starts to creep in. What if I need to urgently transfer money and I can’t get to my computer? Should I use my phone for phone calls, texts, and internet banking? Wait, what if I’m watching a movie and I know I recognise an actor in it but I can’t quite figure out what other movies I’ve seen him in? Would I just have to sit there, racking my brains, rather than checking IMDB and getting an instant answer? And let’s face it, if I didn’t have Google Maps on my phone, I may as well never leave the house again lest I find myself irretrievably lost for hours upon end.

But while convenience and instant gratification lie on one side of the coin, constant, low grade white noise lies on the other and I am weary of it. I’m tired of the plague of the WhatsApp groups, leaving my phone aside for 20 minutes and returning to 789 messages that each requires witty and intelligent responses. I’m tired of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through Instagram and seeing how we have all become brand ambassadors for our own lives, spinning content out of our families and holidays and gym schedules and clothing choices.

I’m exhausted from checking Twitter and being hit with a barrage of abuse; or seeing racist, misogynistic, vicious comments fired at people I love and respect. I’m tired of it all and yet I know I’m completely addicted to it at the same time. I could delete my Facebook account but I justify it as a way of keeping in touch with friends who live abroad, ignoring the fact that perhaps we’re not all that close if it’s that easy to lose contact with them. 

I use social media as a tool for self promotion, posting photos of good reviews and links to articles I’ve written, directing people to places to pre-order my newest novel. (Ahem.) ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’ is a phrase frequently bandied about but sometimes it does feel as if real life is becoming nothing more than an empty simulation, a computer hologram that we are trudging through. Likes are what matter, rather than real love. If you don’t maintain an active social media presence, do you even exist?

I have undoubtedly benefited from using social media. I’ve become friends with interesting, accomplished people, people who have become real life friends as well. I have been introduced to ideas about race and gender and sexuality and disability and body politics that were revolutionary to me at the time, and I am so grateful for that. And while I have always argued that it’s simplistic to blame social media and the internet for the exponential rise in anxiety disorders this generation has seen, I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that it might have had some impact. 

Our phones have become like an adult security blanket, a Blankie that we hold ever close to us, for comfort and reassurance. Sometimes I like to pick mine up and scan through the apps, as if checking to see that they still exist. I’m not even aware that I’m doing it half the time; it’s something akin to a compulsion. I’m horrified by that, and unnerved by reports that Silicon Valley experts stringently restrict their own screen time, or that Bill and Melinda Gates refuse to give their children access to smart phones until they turn 15. What do they know that we don’t? (I think to myself while I adjust my tinfoil hat.) I believe 2018 is going to be the year where we all start to analyse our behaviour around the internet. For me personally, the questions I’m asking are this. Why do I feel the need to be active on social media? And what is it feeding in me?

What was so wrong with silence? Or even boredom? I would argue that some of the greatest creative and cultural achievements have been formed out of some combination of the two. Have we lost our ability to sit with our own thoughts for even a few minutes? What are we all so afraid of?


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