Imagine: Dear Young Readers, are you ready to opt out of a digitally drugged culture?

The scary thing is that we have accepted this digital clutter so much in our minds and our lives that it has become normal to see people preferring to be on their phones than talk to the person next to them.

social media addiction, screen time


Dear Young Readers

You might be a little tired of the older people referring to you as the “iGen”, or the “App generation” or even as the Wi-Fi powered generation. I get that it can be really annoying especially the underlying judgment or even the hypocrisy of it as they themselves are so addicted to their gadgets but constantly criticise you for, “Why are you always on your mobile?” So you might even wonder at why I am writing this column for you. There is a simple reason for this; I work with young people and I am more interested in their minds and recently I have been researching, reading and experimenting a lot in this area which I would love to share with you.

The Problem: What are we up against?

“Checking Likes is as addictive as smoking!” This is what Rhea, a 21-year-old told me in half-jest while sharing her struggle with social media. The pressure of showing the world and her ex-boyfriend that she was happy and cool had pushed her to constantly keep posting pictures of how much fun she was having after the break-up. As she commented, “Every like I got for my posts was a way to show the world that I was worthy till the time it became an obsession.” This was so true as we human beings are wired to seek connection, be visible and be seen as worthy and “likeable”. Social media companies exploit this need to a level that starts working against us as rather than seeking real, authentic relationships, we start craving the superficial likes as a mark of our worthiness. No wonder studies are showing that we are lonelier than ever before. Despite being connected 24X7 we are most disconnected.

“You are not the user; you are the product”

This is a very powerful statement made by the author Seth Godin. We are not the customers of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc, we are the products they are trying to sell to the sponsors on whose money these multimillion dollar companies run. Through complex algorithms and configurations, they are able to work out each person’s interests and affinities and pitch the right sponsors and advertisers to keep us lured and trapped. In that sense, we are not using them, they are using us for megabucks.

Getting us hooked

Have you noticed how we keep checking our posts, emails, WhatsApp repeatedly always in the hope of seeing something exciting? Possibly half the time we might not even find anything but that does not stop us from checking repeatedly. You want to know the reason? It is the fact that the reward is intermittent, delivered unpredictably that gets us so addicted to it. Cal Newport, in his book Digital Minimalism, quotes a Facebook designer saying that what they aim to do is create “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure,” and that gets us hooked in no time.

The dark side of ‘fast and easy’ pleasure

Do you find that you would rather go for activities that are “fast and easy” and avoid the ones that tend to be “slow and flow”? “Flow” is a concept that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced mihai-chick-sent-mihai) coined while researching activities that make us lose sense of time and our own selves like reading, writing, drawing, hiking, playing an instrument, etc. These are brain strengthening activities which build our muscles of focus, productivity and creativity. This is the main reason that late Steve Jobs and many other innovators from Silicon Valley do not allow their kids screens because they understand the damaging impact. They should know as they have designed them so!

How our minds are getting colonised

The scary thing is that we have accepted this digital clutter so much in our minds and our lives that it has become normal to see people preferring to be on their phones than talk to the person next to them. Or to choose to play a game with all its ready dings of pseudo-pleasure than sit down and craft a story or just go for a walk in the wilderness. During a holiday, we spend more time chasing Instagram-worthy pictures rather than actually enjoying the moment while it lasts.

The Solution: What can we do about it?

Now, you might be dismissing me as a Luddite, but I will be the first to admit that I have this huge tendency to be addicted to my gadgets. However, what tipped the scale for me was the realisation of how much of my attention was getting drained by techno exhaustion. That is the time I decided to do some experiments on myself and came up with simple strategies that really worked for me. Since then I have shared them with many young people I work with and most have taken to them well. So, now that you have read up till here, why don’t you go ahead and try some of them.

Start with intention

What gives you a sense of joy, brings value to your life and makes you more creative? If there is an app to help you do that, then choose only that one. For example, you might be a photographer or artist and want to showcase your art on Instagram or your music on YouTube. When you have a clear intention, then you know why you want to use an app and the next step is to decide how often and for how long. You might decide that every weekend you would upload a new song or series of photos and therefore through the week you might want to delete the app and reinstall it on weekends. Many times, young people use the internet and gaming as a way to numb the pain in their life caused by mental health problems or other difficulties. If you sense that is the problem, then please speak to somebody you trust and who will understand what you are going through. Sorry, but screens are not going to take that pain away.

Dumb down your phone or computer

This is that Rhea told me when I asked her how she managed to detox herself. She did a serious digital de-clutter and removed most apps on her phone. I took her advice and removed Mail, all social media apps and many other apps that just randomly sat on my phone screen. I have made access to my social media so inconvenient even on my laptop that the temptation to do a “quick peek” does not even arise. When I am offscreen, I lock away my phone and laptop as I have noticed that “out of sight out mind” really works.

Build substitutes for your fidgety fingers

In this experiment, I reached an interesting realisation which has been really helpful in my detox — we humans love to fidget with our fingers. Even our ancestors, monkeys and chimpanzees loved to fiddle all the time — picking nits and grooming their little ones, using sticks to pull out ants from anthills, swinging from trees to trees. I realised that more than actually seeking these apps what I needed was something to do with my twitchy fingers when I was idle. So I started finding substitutes like doodling or writing in my diary which immediately settled the urge. Maybe you can think of something that your fretful fingers would like to do? Strum a guitar, pummel the dough, try pottery whenever you feel the urge to go down the rabbit hole of the internet.

Do it in a group

Social media apps use our need for connection and visibility as a way to get us addicted. One perfect example of this is Snapchat “streak.” Why not use their strategy to detox yourselves and stay connected at the same time? Form a group at school or in a college where you all keep track of or even create offline “streaks” of how many hours a day you kept for deep work or “flow” activities. Meet regularly and have some off screen fun — play board games, have a go at your instruments, go for treks, start dance clubs but make sure the gadgets are locked away.

Choose “slow and flow” over “fast and easy”

While writing this column whenever I felt a little stuck I could sense the twitchy gremlins creep up on me to go for a quick buzz from the internet. However, I was alert to the lure, watched them with curiosity (“I see that you are trying to hijack my mind”) but did not give in until the time they faded away and left me to my writing. In fact, what I love about my digital declutter (still work in progress) is that I have much more time to do things that add value to my life.  So go on and check out of that little gadget that gives you dings of pseudo- pleasure and check in on real fun and reclaim your life.

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