I could cite numerous studies and resources about the impact of social media on mental health and suicide rates. I could explain how the internet in its entirety has morphed into an eyeball harvesting machine rather than the tool it’s supposed to be. I could quote my father and say that screen time rots your brain. I could point to former high-level Facebook investors and employees who don’t let their own children use the tools they created and how they have even admitted to the dangers of screen time.
But the simple truth is, I’m happier without it.
I really am. And that’s about the only reason I need. Because I know that the more time I spend in front of a screen, the worse I feel. And coming back to “the real world” has this whiplash effect, especially at the end of the day. I look up from my phone or computer after being on for a long time and suddenly I just feel really alone- regardless of what I was doing on my phone or computer or how productive I was or if I was interacting with another human being online.
I get the same feeling from a good book sometimes when I read for hours on end and then I look up and holy snap back to reality, Batman! I’m in my bedroom, not Number 4 Privet Drive.
It’s somehow worse with a screen though compared to reading a real book. Even reading a book on a screen feels worse to me than reading a paper book or listening to an audiobook.
And I think the reason is that somehow the devices have cultivated a feverish “what’s next?” mindset that leaves us unable to sit still mentally speaking. I find that when I read on paper, I will read more carefully. I’ll reread if necessary. But when I read a library book on the Libby app, I skim and scan like I do when I read blog posts online. When online and when reading books on screens, there is an element of anticipation and almost anxiousness that makes me feel more focused on the next thing, the next link to click, the next tab to open, the next, the next and the next, to the point where even if there are no links or tabs like with a digital library book, I still can’t concentrate as well. And I suspect that this habit can or could bleed over into when I read on paper as well.
I’m much happier, I’ve found not using a computer or a screen. I still use them as it’s hard to not use the tools they offer. I do love some of those tools. I love Spotify. I’d much rather have all the music I could ever listen to for $5/ month without having to clutter my room with CDs. I love having maps with Siri who tells me where to go so I don’t get lost when I’m driving somewhere and I’m not distracted looking at paper directions. I like not using a typewriter and having to fuss with a ribbon.
I like journaling on my phone- writing this much with a pen would surely have given me joint issues by now, I journal so much and so often. And it’s nice to be able to search through my past journals so easily in a digital format. Plus it’s more secure to journal on an end to end encrypted platform than to have papers lying around for nosy family members to pick up. I’d probably say the only activity I prefer doing digitally than using an analog method is journaling. Journaling and research. The hathitrust library and my university’s online selection is excellent. But I think I could get by with having to use a physical library as long as there was a decent catalog system to search with.
And I’m really thankful for having access to library books on Libby especially covid. I think if there’s one thing I learned from the shit show that was the 2020 pandemic, it’s that digital substitutes for the real deal are just that- substitutes. I could substitute my dish soap for shampoo if I was really desperate but it’s not something I’d do on the regular.
It’s great to have substitutes as options in a pinch (or in a pandemic). But they shouldn’t be the default option all the time.
We make a lot of substitutes in our lives. Sometimes without realizing it. At breakfast we substitute donuts for fruit. We substitute scrolling for solitude. We substitute porn for intimacy. We substitute getting the photo op for actually being in the moment.
Sometimes we have to substitute things. We substitute FaceTime for an in-person visit. We substitute distance learning for traditional school in a classroom. We had to make those substitutes because that was the best and safest choice.
But if there’s one thing I want for 2021 it’s no more substitutes.
Even if the substitutes are “easier.” In fact, they usually are.
We all liked getting a substitute teacher in school, especially the tricksters among us. But having a substitute, while easier, may not always be better. Having substitute teacher you can nudge into letting you off the hook with homework is all fun and games… until it comes time for the exams and then you’re unprepared, wishing you had the original teacher back sooner, even if they were more difficult and a bit grouchy.
But the good things, the best things rather, are rarely easy.
Ordering takeout is easy. It’s much easier than cooking for yourself. But we all know home-cooked meals tend to be healthier and too much takeout and restaurant food pads our waistlines while starving our checking accounts.
Streaming a film from home is easier than going out to the movies. But I much prefer the feeling of seeing a movie in theaters. Somehow the vibe or the aura or whatever you want to call it is just better. To me, it justifies the extra time and money of going out to the movies.
FaceTiming a friend is easier than going out to meet them, especially in winter weather. But if there’s one thing COVID has proven, it’s that physically being with someone you care about and being able to give them a hug is irreplaceable and unreplicable.
Substitutes aren’t all bad all the time; sometimes they’re lifesavers. But a life filled mostly or only with substitutes isn’t a life a want to live.
I still can’t say for certain why, but spending time in front of a screen, no matter how “productive,” just doesn’t feel like living.
The best way I can explain it is like it’s a state of anti-flow. It’s like becoming a lost soul in the movie Soul. Using a screen is like being inside a casino. You lose track of time, you’re sequestered and insulated from the outside world, even from reality itself. Sure it’s fun but it’s not that fun and it’s quite real either. Exiting such a place or a state of anti-flow feels like realizing just how dog-tired you are after a long day only once you collapse into bed. And boy are you exhausted.
Exiting a state of real flow, by contrast, feels energizing and enlivening. It’s like after a really beautiful and intimate session of love-making, and you feel like you could climb a mountain or run a marathon.
I never feel like this after sitting in front of a screen. Sitting in front of a screen leaves me looking for a way to recharge my batteries, usually via a nap or a snack. I find analog activities to be much more restorative, even if the outcomes are the same.
And if there’s one thing for sure, 2021 is going to have to be a very restorative year for us both individually and as a whole.