Digital Discipline: A Modern Mental Health Necessity?

Recently, I decided to take a month-long break from social media. This was partly prompted by books and articles exploring the benefits of ‘digital detoxing’ (like Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism) and partly due to reservations that had been rumbling around inside me about my use of social media platforms for a while. Although I wouldn’t call myself an avid social media user (I already have certain rules in place about my phone use, such as not going online before 9am on weekdays and not accessing social media after dinner), I was still curious as to whether an outright ban might yield any benefits. So I waved goodbye to Instagram and Facebook (Twitter and Pinterest not bothering me much as I rarely use them). The prospect of going offline for a month felt liberating, and in an odd way, rather thrilling too.

The main thing that struck me about being offline for a while was that I didn’t miss social media nearly as much as I thought I might. Okay, for the first few days I found myself checking emails a lot but other than that, not thinking about posting or commenting was actually quite a relief. I had a little more space and time to think about my own life, and my own reactions to events without the cloud of other people’s voices. And not exposing myself to certain types of conversations on social media meant that I felt I was seeing things a little clearer, too.

Of course, there were times when I felt a twinge of social media longing. For example, events like the fire at Notre Dame made me want to tap into that sense of collective experience that social media can often bring. But for the most part, I didn’t feel that I was missing out on anything – in fact, it made me realise I know more than I really want to about other people’s daily experiences. The fact that I feel guilty saying that, says a lot I think, about how we view the digital existence that now seems to run parallel with our lives. That I feel ‘selfish’ for not wanting to absorb 50 updates in five minutes is telling. That not liking and commenting can be seen as a personal affront is an odd feature of how we now seem to be viewing our relationships and the world.

View of Notre-Dame, Paris, through archway

And those relationships – the ones that actually exist outside the realms of social media – can, I found, also be positively affected by a digital vacation. In the absence of seeing friends’ updates on Facebook I found myself making more effort to meet up with them in person in the actual outside world. When a friend invited me to join her for lunch I jumped at the chance – even though I was busy – because I felt like I hadn’t ‘seen’ her in such a long time. I spent more time having in-depth discussions with my husband, less wrung out by keeping up to date with acquaintances and instead enjoying long, lingering conversations with the people who, ultimately, always matter most.

I also found myself enjoying experiences slightly differently. Without the prospect of sharing images on my blog or Instagram the amount of photos snapped on my camera took a sharply downward turn. That left me free, perhaps, to enjoy things for their own sake, with less concern about capturing them on my camera roll. Had I ever noticed, I wondered, that my heart tended to beat a little faster every time I uploaded a new photo or caption to my feed?

That anxiety – something that existed within me long before social media arrived, I should point out – also felt the benefit of a hiatus. Before I took my digital leave-of-absence I had noticed it starting to spiral, pressing down on me like a dark and fractious cloud. Although I can’t say social media was wholly to blame for that, a few weeks offline showed me it was certainly exacerbating the situation. I was processing information for much longer than it took to consume it. That innocent picture, that happy holiday snap, the emotions they sometimes conjured. With the gift of hindsight, I had to wonder, did I really need to know?

Of course, all this makes me think about my blog and the frequency and type of information I’m putting into the world. Is it useful? Is it inspiring? Does it clog up someone else’s precious time?

If, of course, the answer to that last question is yes, I wholeheartedly encourage you to hit ‘unfollow’.  What I share here and on social media should be something that adds value – because if it doesn’t, what I am even doing sharing it at all?

In looking forwards, then, my new digital watchword is ‘discipline’. And while I’ll be having more digital breaks in future, I certainly won’t be giving up on social media for good. I re-entered the Facebook world a little early this week to keep in touch with updates on my son’s school trip, happily ignoring the slew of red notifications I’d missed during my absence. And next week I’ll reacquaint myself with the squares of Instagram – albeit with a little less enthusiasm and rigidity than before. I’ll be taking a look at how many people I’m following, what sort of information I’m consuming and ultimately, how what I’m absorbing serves me.

Because in our modern world I think perhaps it’s necessary to do that.

And also, to remember that our time and attention belong only to ourselves.