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

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.