Into the Void: The Digital Declutter

How do we face social media addiction as tech-fueled citizens? What are the implications for our personal and professional relationships, and how can we use our digital devices with greater purpose?
Are you addicted to your phone? Take this test: The Smartphone Compulsion Test
Cybersecurity company Comparitech recently released a study into average screen time in the US and around the world, showing that most Americans spend, on average, over seven hours a day on their devices.
More recently, I began to take notice of how much time I spent on my smartphone: the little five to six-inch screen in my pocket buzzing and dinging hour after hour, beckoning me for just one more tap, one more swipe. So today, I finally forced myself to make a tough call.
It's time to take a break from social media, for a little bit.
This fresh decision will allow me to push content and things out to you that I find valuable about the world while limiting my own contributions to the damaging culture that I now believe social media perpetuates. While my family and friends might be displeased with this decision, I think it will allow me to grow much closer to the right people. In the past, I wasn’t entirely sold on doing this and thought it was a massive undertaking - so why did I do this now?

Framing the Issue

Social media addiction sounds like a way to put away real-life problems, like being bored and facing the emptiness that goes with it. I'll go on a limb and say that in general, education and social behavior in China, for example, do not prepare people well to face boredom and the "stress of the emptiness". The same can be said for people in the United States. The notion of hobbies and pushing yourself to hone a skill outside of your work doesn’t seem very developed.
By using social media, you're comparing your everyday life to people's highlight reels. A problematic habit is using our phones before bed and after waking up in the morning. However, scrolling in bed exposes our eyes to blue light, tricking our brains into thinking it's daytime, and this loss of sleep can lead to chronic fatigue, which can lead to even more serious cardiovascular disease.
Phone addiction and social media overuse can lead to Novel Information Addiction, which is defined as the obsessive craving to seek novel information whenever bored or uncomfortable. A few examples are: checking new Instagram posts every 5 minutes, browsing Wikipedia for trivial information, reading innumerable blog posts about self-improvement (without actually doing any work to implement them, I might add), refreshing your news app, etc.
Steve Jobs once pitched the iPhone as “the best iPod ever”, and it revolutionized how we could interact with personal electronic devices. But today, these devices are used for a totally different purpose than for what they originally intended. Social media’s rise as an addictive force is just one facet of a larger issue.

How is social media harming us?

In 2016, Andrew Sullivan wrote an article on how social media finally broke him. Social media usage today is built on adaptive algorithms, selling products that are being designed to be as addictive as possible - to keep our attention. So, when Facebook introduced the thumbs-up button in 2009 to promote social interaction, it slowly redefined our need for acceptance and attention in social settings. That need made us invisible as people, and so many of us today are defined by whether others like us or not based on what we post online. I am guilty of this and truly had to accept that this is what I had become. I’ll set out exactly how I overcame this mindset below.

Overcoming it all

A really simple question to ask yourself is this: Does this app, website, or service support what I value in a way that nothing else can?
If the answer is yes, ask yourself, is this the best way to support this value? For example, I decided against social media use as it does a really good job of creating pseudo relationships. You can view people's lives from afar without ever truly being involved. A quick like here, a small comment there... it takes all the effort of maintaining real, meaningful relationships away.
If you still feel the need to use a platform for a professional purpose (although I still don’t believe its necessary, even for business, more on this in a later article), be sure to set purposeful rules to use the platform, optimize your use to maximize its value while minimizing cost to your time and energy. What are your time and attention costs?
A Silicon Valley executive had a brilliant idea: to make a standing appointment at a certain day and time to discuss anything with anyone. If you set this as “open office hours” for yourself, this will encourage people you might not normally cross paths with to get in touch with you, without fear of judgment.

A monthly plan to remove toxic social media

I wanted to share a 30-day plan to help you cut non-essential technologies from your lives. This is not a detox method, which implies that you’ll pick it up again later, consider this a time-tested route to form new habits. Other methods, like simply deleting social media apps, are often not set up for sustainable change - it's too easy to say the fix didn’t stick because you lacked the self-control.
Apple ScreenTime monitoring to increase your awareness.
Notice your feelings before, during, and after using your phone. Also, pay attention to how much you interrupt an activity to check your phone.
Delete all social media apps, do something else you like, and enjoy your free time.
Disable all notifications except anything essential/emergency, and delete non-essential apps (you can always re-download them later). This means, no social media, gaming, or dating apps.
Put your charging station outside your bedroom. Nothing in your room. Put your phone in the bathroom if you’re in a studio apartment.
Find other meaningful activities that don’t involve your phone. These could be things like reading, writing, or exercising.
Make your phone-free zones in your house, maybe your kitchen table. Or even time periods? (i.e. no phones after 6 pm)
Practice basic mindfulness - when you reach for your phone: stop, breathe, and just be.
Use concentration exercises to reclaim your attention (can be something as simple as repeating multiplication tables).
Keep a notebook handy for things to look up later. If you need a phone for emergency purposes - transfer your SIM card to a flip phone, or delete all non-essential apps.
Reflect on not using your smartphone for the past few days.
Minimize digital annoyances like email, and any unnecessary apps.
Monitor phone use, rinse, and repeat.
A Quick Tip: Buy an actual alarm clock that buzzes and beeps instead.

Final points

It’s no secret that leaving social media may make us seem disconnected from close friends and family, but with this change, you have the ability to pick up the phone and call or form genuine, personable relationships with the people who actually matter in your life, not some random friend you made in college that you haven’t seen or spoken to in years.
Stop mindlessly clicking and scrolling and instead schedule texting and calling times for yourself.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking that online interactions are a viable substitute for meaningful human interaction.