Tuesday, February 20, 2018

My Idiosyncratic Parameters for Digital Media

I've been thinking a lot about the Internet recently, particularly social media and smart phone use, and I know I'm not alone. Recent news about teen social media use and mental health has led to numerous responses, including this rather lovely meditation on "tethering" oneself to the material world.

Like so many others, I feel the appeal of social media, its promise for connecting over distance with old friends, faraway family, communities that share my interests and passions and questions, folks I find inspiring. I also feel, deeply and fully, the goodness of celebrating beauty and the serendipity of certain online discoveries.

But also like for so many others, social media's appeal, and my succumbing to it, feels not-quite-right: it's like a sweet liqueur that tastes nice in very small doses but sometimes leaves me feeling slightly clammy and off-kilter.

The question of why the Internet--and especially social media--is so appealing is hardly mysterious: many researchers have shown how the very structure of the software is designed to addict, in the name of capitalist profit brought about by increased "engagement" and advertising revenue. The question is whether it is possible to engage while also resisting the built-in mechanisms that lure us into more engagement than is really good for us.

I have friends who have sworn off social media altogether, or who never really got into it. These friends are not anti-technology; they just never saw the appeal of Facebook, or they recognized that they were in too deep and decided to close accounts. I do not hear these friends bemoaning what they have lost.

Other friends do digital detoxes: a day a week, or an hour an evening, or every day until noon, or a week a month--some sabbath-like portion of time during which they fully disengage from social media or the Internet or their devices, like a regular hard-reset. In my own experience, these resets reorient how I experience time and how I perceive even the times I am not detoxing, especially if I keep up the practice often enough.

For my own children, I am committed to almost no online engagement, following the old guidelines of no screen time before two and no handheld devices before (at least) twelve. M, who is four and a half, watches maybe three hours of children's programming per week on my laptop, and we have two or three family movie nights per month. P, who is 20 months old, isn't interested at all, except in trying to steal my phone from me.

And there's the rub: whatever my boundaries for my children, what I model for them is just as powerful as the rules I hold them to. So what am I modelling? 

Because of the constraints of my professional and personal life, and my own preferences (let's be honest here), I find that in addition to a weekly sabbath, disciplined parameters are the most helpful way for me to find a healthy engagement with social media and the Internet and digital devices more generally--one that feels consistent with my hopes for my little ones, as well. But of course, I slide into less healthy habits, and so this Lent I am putting some concrete parameters back into practice.

I share them here not as a generalized model of what everyone should do. These are highly idiosyncratic and have much to do with my own quirks and strengths and weaknesses, my interests and obligations. I offer them, though, as a conversation-starter. I'm curious about others' practices as well, and I always find it much more helpful to read concrete detail than general ideas.

So here they are: My Idiosyncratic Parameters for Digital Media

1. Refuse all push notifications on my phone except for messaging (MMS, iMessage, and Messenger) and email (personal gmail is silent; work Outlook has a tone, to keep me up-to-date on days when I'm working from home while chasing my kiddos. This lets me ignore non-urgent emails until later while addressing time-sensitive notes right away, without any pressure to repeatedly check my email, avoiding the Pavlovian response).

2. Check in on Facebook only on my computer, never my phone, and also only once a day at most. I mostly use Facebook to keep up with old friends and a few groups that are currently relevant in my local or broader community. Keeping it off my phone keeps me from mindless scrolling in the small gaps of life. 

3. Curate my Instagram account very purposefully and check only once in the evening, at most (generally when I'm nursing or rocking P to sleep, after his eyes are closed). I use Instagram to follow personal friends or people whose lives inspire me: creative makers like artists, farmers, quilters, poets; women in my stage of life or a stage or two ahead who exemplify some of my parenting / householding ideals; and also folks whose difference from me challenges me in life-giving ways rather than just mirroring me back to myself. In other words, Instagram, for me, is mostly like a series of lifestyle magazines. 

And instead of scrolling through my feed, if I've gone a few days, I visit people's profiles and read their posts in chronological order, like an old-school blog. This doesn't trick the algorithm so much as bypass it, and it certainly doesn't increase others' engagements with my posts. In other words, I'm not gaming the system so much as just refusing it, and the only reward I get is a more measured, sane experience. This is not possible if I'm trying to keep up with hundreds and hundreds of accounts--but should I be trying that? I also try to slow down and comment instead of skim-gobbling up images with partial attention: the slowness and the commenting feels more human to me, as well. 

4. My Twitter account is pretty much just professional interest follows, and I check Twitter maybe five times a month when I'm stuck eating lunch at my desk during office hours. I know Twitter is a lot more compelling for some people, but it's just not a thing for me. Having a particular scenario when I check it makes me feel like I have an organized date to dip in once in a while and find an article to read I might not have otherwise seen. 

5. I try to treat blogs like magazines (and I also subscribe to print magazines!): catching up when I'm sick or have a quiet non-working meal to myself (this is rare) or when I'm putting P down to sleep. I have let go of "keeping up" with everything I used to read online, as my life is down to very limited leisure time in this phase. It is what it is. 

6. I try not to do things on a screen that I can do with material objects, especially around my children. This means printing articles I want to read at home, checking out print books from the library, grading my students' essays in paper form. Honestly, this helps with my eye fatigue, but it also helps my children see what I'm doing more concretely: if I'm reading on my phone, they don't actually know I'm reading--I could be watching a video or shopping or texting a friend. But if I'm reading a book, they know precisely what I'm doing. I also narrate my phone use when I'm around them: "I'm texting Grandma right now!" or "Let me look up directions to the restaurant"--to concretize my activity and push that increasingly privatized realm of activity back into a more communal space.

To be clear: these are not the ways most of these platforms ask to be used or are structured to be used, and refusing these structures sometimes puts me at a disadvantage. I never have first dibs on nice used kids closed in Facebook buy-and-sell groups, for instance, and I'm sure people see very few of my Instagram posts. I haven't built a Twitter following to advertise my publications, and I miss friends' posts about life events that they assume I've seen. But these sacrifices seem worth it to me, particularly since I also try to keep in touch with close friends via email, paper letters, phone calls, and even--yes--in person.

I'm curious: what are your practices? What quirks and structures do you have in place? What would feel like a more healthy relationship to digital technology?


  1. Your practices seem so wise!

    Mine are different because of living alone. I'm still trying to sort out how to reduce involvement in social media. Because of my current & future children's books, I need a website & an active online presence. Twitter & FB also inform my social justice commitments. And FB has permitted ongoing contact with & support of far-flung family members, both nuclear & extended. So there are good reasons to be there. But it's also all too easy to stay up too late "just reading one more thing." So I need to, & will, come up with a "bedtime" for devices (or browsers if I'm working on a piece of writing) that precedes my own bedtime by an hour or so.

    1. It is so very contextual, isn't it? I think the bedtime is a fantastic idea. I definitely feel more...centered? rooted? planted in my physicality and spirituality and full self?...when stay away from lit up screens during the last part of the evening, too.