Confessions of an Addict and a Recovery Plan with Friends: Bye, Social Media!

Dear Life,

I have been cheating on you. But they mean nothing to me, I swear! At night, after my husband turns off the light, and we say goodnight with a kiss, and the doggies settle into sleep, I switch on my iPhone’s flashlight with the intention of reading my book, but I am seduced. My finger touches the phone’s smooth surface, presses lightly, and scrolls through comments of anonymous strangers about what I might have missed. I don’t even know all their real names. It started innocently. Birthday wishes, adorable photos, reunions. But those have virtually disappeared as angrier, outraged posts overtook them. Did you know the Facebook “Like” button was intended to put positive feelings in the world? I’ll let that sit a minute.

Last night I had an intervention: The Social Dilemma, a must-watch documentary on Netflix that pulls the curtain back, showing me what I have known for a long time but have not wanted to admit:

I am an addict, a user. Of social media and the device that delivers their hit. Sure, I can go days without it, but then the need for a hit is strong and I’m using again. Social media is destroying the real social fabric (an even greater irony than the fact you may reading this on Facebook; but, hey, let the medium carry the means of its demise. We know they’re listening.)

The life I cheat on. (Can you spot the other addicts)? [Photo by Robin Aronson]

My drugs of choice are Facebook and Twitter, and they are doing existential damage, stressing my body and our body politic. Their algorithms are designed to manipulate our minds, to feed us more of what we “like” and linger over, so that by now what I see is not what you see, and we are led to believe that the “others guys” are insane or evil or stupid. Then we call each other names and the world sinks of its own weight. It is time to quit.

My addiction is also the delivery device. With every notification, the phone seduces me. Someone tagged me in a photo? I’m back using. I got a text? Let me read it this very second, no matter that I’m mid-conversation with my child, mid-searching for a word to write, mid-epiphany in a quiet moment. An invasion of the mind and body snatchers.

Good news — there is a cure. It involves some withdrawal. But it will be easier if we are in this together. We are not going off the grid, throwing our phones in the ocean, as lovely as that sounds. But I don’t have a landline, and so the phone stays. Here’s my plan, and I encourage you to try it with me.

First, the easy ones.

  1. Turn off all notifications. (Go to Settings, Notifications, and press “off”). I already feel better.
  2. Leave the phone in another room while I’m working, so I am the one who decides when to check it, not the buzzing or flashing device itself that wants to grab my attention. I haven’t checked all morning, and that asking me if I’ve donated to a campaign yet this week can surely wait an hour or two for me to respond. But folks, it has to be out of the room, not face down on the desk, in arm’s reach.

With me so far? Let’s keep going.

3. Delete social media apps from the phone. (Come on! You can always put them back if it makes your life worse, but I don’t think it will. I think it will be a relief.) I already slept better last night, without “doom-scrolling” Twitter.

Here’s the biggest, hardest one, which I haven’t done yet.

4. Delete my accounts. Deleting apps from my phone won’t be enough; I use Facebook on my computer. And though sometimes I use it for good, it is so broken, and doing so much damage, that until it gets its act together, or Congress acts like the grownup and makes it, I am gone. Let these words be my goodbye post, @MarkZuckerberg.

If you can’t go this far yet, start with setting limits: only visit weekly, for a pre-set amount of time; avoid the angry manipulation from nefarious actors dividing us more; read and post only positive and loving stories, and baby photos, and books you love and prayers for healing. I’m not saying stop your activism. I’m saying get offline and actually do activism. Or do more of it.

There will be withdrawal. Let’s learn from that. Let’s learn from how often we reach for that phantom phone. Ask ourselves what exactly are we seeking distraction from — uncomfortable thoughts, or pain, or boredom? Let our twitching fingers show us that how powerful the addiction is, and let us feel the strength of taking our power back.

You can still call and text and e-mail me, or find me here, I just may not reply as quickly. Let’s take a walk, or have a chat on that phone. Let’s catch up where we left off. With each other.

Love,

Laura

Hanging up the iPhone: An Apology, Some Praise, and Five New Rules

Dear A,

We need to talk.

First, I am sorry. When I wrote about throwing away your iPhone, I did not intend to equate you with a 2-year-old tantrum thrower. No way. You are the farthest thing from it.

I was trying to say that parenting gets harder as kids get older, and that a wise teacher once counseled that good parenting sometimes means changing your mind even in the face of strong resistance. I am sorry for how I wrote it. I’m not a perfect mom, or a perfect writer. It’s hard to end an essay. It’s hard to know the right parenting path.

Second, I am proud of you, and of how you communicated with me. You handled yourself with restraint and respect, telling me you were mad at me, and that you would talk with me about it later, privately. You said you worried you would be teased, and that because the story is on the internet, anyone could happen upon it.

Let me set the record straight. You didn’t cry, wail, or tantrum in the slightest when you read the article. You explained why you were angry with me with a calm dignity that most adults (myself included) can’t muster. I admire your maturity, your clarity and your patience.

Being a parent is soul-filling fun. I love being with you. And sometimes being a parent is hard, because you want to do what’s best for your kid and it’s not always clear what that is. So you check your values, you talk with friends you respect, you may even ask your own parents for advice, and in the end you go with your gut.

(Actually, that’s a good prescription for handling difficult choices you encounter at any age.)

I hope you will accept my apology and also my praise.

Now what did you think about the rest of the essay? Do you understand why I am concerned about the amount of attention you give your iPhone? Do you agree that it is super tempting to check Instagram?

I know I tend to be a worrier. But a lot of parents have the same worry. We worry that your generation is falling into an addiction still too fresh to be understood. Our gut tells us this is a problem. All of us are trying to figure out limits on them.

I know you understand some of the dangers. We have talked about the 15-year-old boy from our neighborhood who died because he was looking at his phone when he crossed the street. We’ve talked about the unknown effects of radiation on the brain. You have heard your baseball coach tell of how he helped an adult who fell because he didn’t notice the sidewalk end. We got some chuckles from watching this video of a guy falling into a fountain because of his phone.

But it’s not your physical safety I am most worried about. It’s that I look around and see people—young and old—not talking to each other. It’s that so many people go to their phones when they are bored, instead of anything else: write a poem, go for a walk, daydream. I don’t want that to be you, or your brother, or your friends, or me, or Dad.

So what should we do about it?

I’m not going to throw away your phone. I acknowledged from the start that it has some fine social attributes—like making plans for a pick-up basketball game, or hanging out at the Pier, or just saying Hi. But it can’t take over.

So here’s what I suggest.

1. You may continue to take the phone with you to school in your backpack. I know you like to play games, or take photos, or whatever, on the bus ride home. I’m cool with that. It’s fun. Be sure to text your grandparents and aunts sometimes, too. They love hearing from you.

2. When we are in the car together, turn it off and put it in your backpack. I like to talk with you. And if you don’t feel like talking, we can listen to music. We’ll be sharing the experience.

3. When we get home, put it in the closet, not out on the counter. Out of sight, more out of mind.

4. After dinner, you can check your phone, let’s say for 20 minutes, if homework’s done. Then say goodnight to your phone and put it back in the closet.

5. Here’s the good part. I will put my phone away, too. I want to break the habit of checking for new e-mails every twenty minutes (or more). After the work day is done, mine is off.

I’m not saying this is going to be easy. But I trust that we will get used to it and maybe even be grateful. We will keep each other honest. You are a reasonable and wise person, and I’m guessing you will find these guidelines reasonable and wise as well.

One more thing. When we go on a loooong road trip, you and your brother can turn on the phone and play some games, but if I find you guys looking at the screen instead of Half Dome, we’re gonna have a problem.

I love you to the end of the universe,

Mom

Hanging Up the iPhone

Knowing your gut and standing by it is the holy grail of parenthood.

As a mom of two boys, twelve and eight, there are some circumstances where it’s easy to follow my gut: swimming lessons, completed homework, good manners. Other times I waver, caving to pleas for junk food (why must Gatorade be so red, Cheetos so orange?).

Right now my gut tells me to bury my twelve-year-old son’s smartphone in a cement grave. But do I have the fortitude to do it?

Last year, in anticipation of him becoming a middle schooler, we gave him his Dad’s old Android. We thought we were being moderate, in a neighborhood where kids get iPhones for elementary school graduation. We wanted to be able to get in touch after school — and Dad wanted a new phone. We should have given him a no frills, just-for-calls, flippy deal. Because that old clunky Android still had games and texting, giving him his first addiction to tech, and leaving us nagging him about Putting The Damn Thing away.

Mistake number two came less than a year later. As The Damn Thing got slower and older, our sweet, mostly-responsible son asked if he could buy an iPhone with his own money. We were caught off guard. We consented, sliding down that slippery slope.

Pay attention, learn from my error. Don’t take your eye off the ball like I did. It doesn’t matter that he used his own money. Because buying a kid an expensive gadget is only part of the problem. The other part is a kid having a sleek, user-friendly pocket full of video games, 24/7 social interaction (and attendant hurt feelings), instant gratification, and increased addiction. Add to that my saying Yes to Instagram under the naïve misimpression that it was an outlet for artistic photography, not a Facebook alternative, and we had ourselves a problem.

It’s not that he’s using his phone to search for porn (yet). He uses it for appropriate things – checking scores, keeping in touch with friends, playing a few games. Even if (hypothetically speaking) he screws up and sends a less-than-kind text, it provides life lessons – how to make a sincere apology and take responsibility for your actions.

It’s not that it’s inherently evil. It’s that it’s always there. It has become another member of our family. It comes with him everywhere, and if it’s not with him, he is jonesing for it.

I’m no saint with mine. I get the addictiveness. But at least my habit started at age forty, not twelve. That’s forty years of having to find other solutions to boredom, like books and bike rides and conversations. Forty years without radiating reproductive organs. (He may want children someday.)

The first generation iPhone was released on June 29, 2007, six years ago. In my defense, in the scheme of things that’s not much time for us parents to have figured this stuff out. Here’s my dilemma: if my gut now tells me that my child should not have an iPhone, one I gave him permission to spend a lot of his own money on, how do I take it away? How do I extract him from the social connection he feels from texting or “following” his friends? Have I gone to a place from where there is no turning back?

I hear the voice of the Mommy and Me facilitator from toddler years: You are allowed to change your mind. You are not stuck with every mistake you make. It’s not all fun, after all: having an iPhone bought us more rules, more bending the rules and more nagging about following the rules. And it brought me the unease you feel when you are going along with something that feels wrong.

Now that’s a feeling that a middle schooler can relate to.

I know what I should do. If I can work up my nerve, I should explain that we tried something, I made a mistake, and my gut is telling me this isn’t working. The added benefit is modeling how to listen to your own values, not your peers, when figuring out the best way forward.

I’m not expecting this to be easy. The tantrums of a two-year-old who had to give up my keychain-as-toy is going to be a delightful memory when facing the tantrum of a middle schooler asked to give up his iPhone. If I work up the bravery to take this step, you’ll know from the sound of wailing wafting from our direction.