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The Tension

Whenever I take a break from social media, the benefits are impossible to ignore. I can hear my own thoughts again. I am less distracted, more patient with my children. I have read more books. I am spending more time with friends. My daily word count has increased. An open notebook sits on my desk, overflowing with fresh ideas. I am meditating more. Moving my body more. I feel less anxious, more present.

This is not new. This is not an epiphany.  Every time I step away from social media, I experience the same effects.

***

I have purposefully avoided reading Digital Minimalism the last few years, because I had a feeling once I finally read it, I’d want to quit the Internet. 

(I was right.) 

In the conclusion, though, Cal Newport refutes the idea that he is anti-technology. He writes,“Digital minimalism does not reject the innovations of the Internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools.”

***

I am finding it harder and harder to turn away from what I know, from what the data and research proves, from what the psychologists and scientists are cautioning: technology is frying our minds. 

In a 60 Minutes special, Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, goes so far to say that Silicon Valley is “hacking our brains.” They are engineering our phones, apps, and social media platforms to intentionally get us addicted to the need to “check in” constantly.

He compares the act of checking our phones to playing a slot machine:

Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, “What did I get?” This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit. What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.

Often when I go on Instagram, my notifications alert me to an onslaught of hearts and comments and DMs. The majority of the messages are kind, encouraging, validating. Your kids are so sweet! You are a great Mom! I love your posts!

Honestly? The feedback feels good. A little too good.

It feels like I played a slot machine, and won. 

***

Cal Newport writes, “People don’t succumb to screens because they’re lazy, but instead because billions of dollars have been invested to make this outcome inevitable.”

According to a recent study, adults in Canada check their phones, on average, 275  times a day. 

There are so many layers to the tension, I can’t even count them all. The older I get, the more drawn I feel to a quieter, more private, less digital life. The more I read about phone addiction, the less I want myself (and my children!) cultivating lives dependent on smart devices. The more Instagram turns into TikTok, the less I want to be there. 

***

Cal Newport is a New York Times bestselling author. He does not participate in social media. 

This makes sense for him, of course. He proclaims the importance of deep work, solitude, becoming a digital minimalist. Nobody would trust him if he didn’t practice what he preached.

I write about motherhood and my experience with infertility. Sometimes I wonder how well I practice what I preach. “Maybe this is the title of your first book Son,” a friend jokes, “You could write Digital Minimalism for moms.”

***

Another friend asks if it needs to be all or nothing. Maybe you can just hop on and post when you want to, whenever it feels fun? 

She’s right of course. Sometimes Instagram is fun.

Then again, Cal Newport would say it’s easy to be seduced by the small benefits of each app or service, but then forget its cost: the actual minutes of our lives.

When it comes to technology, there’s always a trade-off. He poses the question: does the cost of digital clutter outweigh the benefits?

***

I have a postcard taped to the wall above my desk that simply says, “Do less, make it mean more.” 

What does it look like to pursue depth in a culture that celebrates breadth? 

I’ve been thinking lately about the future. The next five years. Ten years. What I want for my work, my career, my family. I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to pivot, to channel more energy into sharing my life with fewer people. 

It feels a little backwards, the opposite direction a lot of people would encourage me to go. 

People argue social media is a tool. You can use the tool however you want! they tell me. It’s free! 

Is it … free? 

Because I’m starting to get real honest about the cost of being on Instagram. The wasted minutes. The energy draining from my mind. The anxiety. The distractions. The constant noise.

Instagram doesn’t feel free to me anymore. It actually feels like it’s costing me a lot.

These days, the quickest way to grow a platform is to make short attention-seeking videos using trending audio. Swimming downstream. Hopping on the bandwagons. Doing what everyone else is doing.

Artist and YouTuber Campbell Walker describes this phenomenon as “the algorithm chase.”

He says in this video, “Once upon a time, the internet was full of interesting things and occasionally something would go viral. Today everything is viral, and occasionally something will be interesting.”

***

The irony of all ironies: I am composing these words in a Google document, from which will then be copied and pasted into a online and printed article which I will later (probably?) share on social media.  

Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “Good writing is about telling the truth.”

I don’t know if this writing is any good, and I feel like I just dumped all the thoughts and built it into some random article.

But it’s the truest thing I’ve written in a while.

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