Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

A guest article by Karen Childers  pinkjoystories.com

Two weeks ago, I sent the below message to 11 people. A way of holding myself accountable, taking personal responsibility, or looking to commiserate with my friends; my declaration wasn’t the first time I acknowledged that digital media was overtaking my life.

I’m writing this because I realize I have a digital addiction. I’ve had it for years and years, so it now seems like decades. I wrestle with the knowledge that I’m damaging my brain every time I multitask by picking up my phone to ‘see what’s happening.’

I’ve excused my overuse by rationalizing to myself that I do social media for work. I need to address emails and text messages ASAP to be ahead professionally. I’m just reading headlines and not commenting on OPPs (other people’s posts). I’m using social media to benefit others by engaging in the Buddhist prayer request group or sharing beautiful pictures or inspiring stories or expressing my support for a particular view or organization. I compare myself to others. If that teacher, person, or pet, can use social media responsibly, so can I. I have many ways I rationalize my overuse. But, finally, I know that my overuse is because I have an itch that needs scratching. I have some deep dissatisfaction in my mind. I have some pain that I’m trying to avoid. I need to be ‘liked,’ and at that moment, social media is the best place to fill that need. Wrong. 

My brain finds it difficult to focus on one thing at a time for very long. It takes me longer to complete tasks that should be quick. I find myself becoming distracted during conversations and have to remind myself to listen to the other person. I can barely read a short blog post all the way through without distraction. I fall asleep watching TV, or streaming, I should say, because we don’t own a TV; but, I wake up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep. My meditation practice is mostly distracted to non-existent.

My goal isn’t to quit using my devices completely. That’s not realistic in this day, where we depend on technology. It sounds like a faraway place. No Technology Land. A place I want to visit sometimes. A place I need to create for myself more often. Honestly, technology has improved my life in so many ways I can’t count. But, deleting and staying away from Facebook is a long term goal. I’ve tried a few times. I have hacks to get around the app not being on my phone. I’ve made declarations to myself when I first started waking up to the idea that digital addiction is real and that it is having profound effects on me and the people I love.

My goal is to use all forms of digital media intentionally. So, it’s not time wasted, but time rewarded.

Things I will STOP doing:

  • picking up my phone out of boredom
  • scrolling mindlessly into a void
  • making judgments because of what I see on my device
  • getting angry because of what I see on my device
  • reading comments that cause confusion and anger
  • picking up my device when I feel uncomfortable in a situation
  • feeling naked when I don’t have my device
  • picking up my device when I’m watching a movie or reading a book
  • making others feel less important because they don’t have my full attention
  • expecting to get a response to my post, text, email, tweet
  • feeling like a prisoner

Things I will START or continue doing:

  • being intentional about my use of my device
  • checking email for work during work hours
  • turn off notifications
  • no phone in the bedroom at night
  • no phone while eating a meal
  • no phone in the room when meditating
  • NO other tasks when having a conversation with someone
  • NO phone when driving in the car
  • when I think of a friend, I’ll call or email them; instead of quick exchanges, I’ll make a plan for a longer conversation
  • I’ll foster and nurture creativity
  • I’ll go outside every day
  • I’ll watch movies and read books and listen to albums, and pay attention
  • I’ll dance and move my body intentionally with yoga and pilates
  • I’ll experience the natural world and be captivated by IT
  • I’ll keep having conversations about the effects of digital addiction
  • I’ll keep sharing knowledge
What will I do in the meantime?

Will I stop taking pictures because my camera is on my phone? Will I excuse myself from group texts or delete my Facebook account? Will I stop using Twitter and Instagram? No. Quitting relationships or staying less informed isn’t the answer. My dad is on Facebook now, and we video chat, and he has a friend he talks to, and he sees my posts and photos. I know he enjoys this. I know it makes a huge difference in his life right now. My mother’s death, his sister’s death, COVID–he’s had a tough year. I’ve heard from friends that they love the photos of our adventures that I post. I maintain and nurture familial relationships and friendships, and friend groups through our text chats. These connections are essential to me.

So, I will monitor my usage. I will be more intentional. I will pay attention.

I knew digital addiction existed, and probably for me after I listened to the audiobook Irresistible.

I had some interest in How to Break Up with Your Phone but never carried it through. We are still in an abusive relationship.

I watched The Great Hack and The Social Dilemma and became terrified of the more significant implications of manipulation through social media.

I recently read Why the modern world is bad for your brain and connected the dots between my physical symptoms of brain fog, insomnia, and tension in my body– the results of decades-long screen captivation. Thank you to Lucy James for posting this on her Facebook profile today. It captivated me and inspired me to come out with this post.

There are many other films, books, and articles on this topic–I Googled it, of course.

I’ll also Google treatments and see where that takes me.

I wish anyone who reads this the best. Keep looking up!

If you would like to have a more extended conversation, I’m so ready.

Two weeks later …

After I hit send on that email message, I received a reply requesting a guest post on this blog. Here I am. I also received a text message praising the email and admitting they too could relate. Another friend exclaimed that it had gotten worse since COVID. Still, yet another agreed that it was a problem, but not ready to “come out.” 

One friend carefully crafted a longer response. She admitted that it had become a problem for her too. She has taken steps to curtail her overuse, implementing some strategies that speak volumes about who she is and our relationship. She mentioned that she does not pick up her phone in the morning before she talks to herself and God. This bit of advice would turn out to be the best. It translates for me as I go for Refuge, generate Bodhichitta, and self-generate. Making my intention for the day to benefit others and transform everything into the path. 

I started paying attention to my itches–the ones that begged to be scratched. The ones that propelled me to pick up my phone. I discovered some things that are helping me get over this compulsive behavior. 

Recognize, reduce, and abandon 

First, I must admit that making declarations like I’m not ever doing certain things again, and expecting that to stick, was a completely flawed approach. I realized that soon after I hit send on that email message. I checked emails and texts immediately after! Am I a failure? No. I’m flawed. I have delusions. I decided to adjust and take this on like any other bad habit. I need to recognize the problem first. Think deeply about where this bad habit is taking me, what are the benefits of letting it go, and make a plan to reduce and eventually abandon the action of habitually and mindlessly picking up my phone for a nice scroll through the newsfeed. 

When taking the ‘pick up my phone syndrome’ as far as I can, I see myself, on my deathbed, clenching my phone, scrolling into oblivion—wasting my chance—wasting my spiritual life. I think about the years of damage to my eyes and my brain. I think about my short attention span and how it will only get worse. I see how my monkey mind is scattered and can’t recall details without a device’s aid. Eventually, will I be able to produce thoughts on my own, without the device prompting me? I don’t want to find out. I use this line of thinking to increase my wish to reduce and abandon my overuse problem. Will I allow a bad habit that I can do something about to keep me trapped in a cycle of suffering? NO. 

Recognizing also includes the fact that a phone, Facebook, email, or any other form of digital media is not inherently bad. The problem lies in mindless overuse that is rife with delusion spurring obstacles. The problem is allowing myself to continue without making an explicit intention to use my phone, social media, or any other screen to benefit others. May everyone be happy. 

Side question, I ask myself:  

Facebook is not inherently bad, but do you want to use something created by a university computer geek named Mark Zuckerberg to rate girls, Hot or Not? 

Not. 

Now that my intentions are clear, I’ve made my declaration, and I’ve decided to tackle this as my project, I start paying attention. I received a notification on my phone that my screen time was down by 85%. This is encouraging. I feel motivated in my quest for a technology-free life. 

I see a tweet by Chrissy Teigen expressing how she is trying to find a screen life balance, too. I feel connected to Chrissy. And, like many other times, #DeleteFacebook is trending. I am not alone. I think most of the population is suffering from some form of screen captivation. 

I begin to understand the need for boundaries. Time limits and rules or guidelines are necessary when adopting a new behavior or letting go of an old one. I am constantly being interrupted because ads and irrelevant content lure my attention. That’s not ok with me anymore. My attention is precious.

I decided that I only need 5-10 minutes to visit with my device. How many times a day? That seems to be where the challenge is for me. I’m working through how I use my phone. I’m looking at what I think are the necessary applications. I’m not keeping distracting apps like games or social media around. While tracking apps and usage monitoring on my phone are useful now, I do not want to depend on software or another app to curb my enthusiasm for picking up my phone. 

Ask questions

I started considering questions like do you need another picture to add to the over 34,000 digital images your phone says you currently have?

Why do you want to post this picture? 

Are you expecting to see another email besides the one from Costco that you saw the past 100 times you looked? 

Do you need to confirm or seek out the answer to every random query that enters your mind? [insert Google or IMDB search]

Do you expect to read different headlines? Ones that are joyful and uplifting instead of depressing and anxiety-inducing?

What are you seeking?

I also pay attention to the kind of mind or situation that prompts me to pick up my phone. I notice that a super uncomfortable situation causes me to run to my phone so I can try to disappear into it in an attempt to hide from this painful discomfort. 

I decided to make a plan for my usage. I deleted more apps and turned off notifications. With lower expectations, I use my phone on my own time. I use it for limited activities. I will make a plan with family and friends for emergencies if I am unreachable. I will make an intention to be intentional about my usage. 

I started using a notebook again. I write down ideas or things I need to look up or add to a list — I use this notebook instead of my phone. I have considered buying a camera to replace the need to have my phone on picture-taking adventures. I do not want to buy another thing, though. My minimalist lifestyle is spilling over into my digital life. I am Marie Kondo-ing, my digital life. If it does not spark JOY, then it must go. Thank you for your service, bye-bye.

My most significant insight revealed itself. This device that professes productivity and relief from boredom kills my productivity and creates a lethargy that dulls my senses, like brain fog. I see myself in a thick fog, clutching my phone. 

Another rule or guideline I observe is: out of sight (or hand), out of mind. I do not hold my phone when I am not using it. I leave it across the room when I am working. It is not in the bedroom at night. I have text messages on my laptop, so I turn those off when I need to concentrate, which is always. 

What am I filling my time with now that I have increased productivity and I am not allowing myself to scroll and click into an internet hole? Things that nourish me and fill me up. I spend time watching the sunrise and set every day. I am studying Universal Compassion and enjoying my meditation practice again. I am getting through my reading list. The joy of cooking has inspired me. I brew kombucha. I exercise and enjoy nature. I listen to music–whole albums, the vinyl kind– instead of one song at a time or an internet playlist. I watch documentaries and select movies. I enjoy close relationships that I nurture. I observe the world around me instead of clicking my way into a digital hole of data points. Someone waved at me from the street for the first time the other day. I use these things to spark joy. 

Relationship questions arise

Relationships: How do I relate to them on social media? Do I use social media to communicate solely with anyone? Am I using social media to cultivate and nurture relationships? I think about Dunbar’s number and the idea that we can only be capable of a certain number of close relationships. Are my close relationships suffering from my overuse problem? 

I will continue to have video chats with Dad, family, and friends. I will examine my “friends list” and consider my personal Dunbar’s number. Which relationships am I going to focus on and nurture? I’ll start with the most important, my spiritual guide, my partner, my close sangha jewels, and my close friends. I’ve heard that you can love all living beings without exception, but you don’t have to have lunch with them. That eases the overwhelming feeling of wanting to be everything to everyone. 

Going forward 

I consider that when I die, the only thing that will be left is a set of data points and a box or apartment full of items that will disperse to friends, family, and the needy. What am I leaving behind? 

I’m going to continue Marie Kondo-ing my digital life. If it does not serve me or spark joy, I will release it from my grip. 

I will continue to extoll the benefits of cleaning up our digital lives. I know that Facebook isn’t a real representation of friendship. The people I want to talk to and be with right now aren’t here anymore. Not on Facebook or this Earth. I experience grief every day. 

I’m not alone. This problem isn’t going to be as difficult for me because I have support. I think about people who are alone and have a digital addiction. They use social media for their connection to the outside world. My advice for these people and anyone who knows people like this, please call each other. Have video chats, meet up (at a safe distance and wearing a mask as necessary), but make one on one, interpersonal connections. Have deep, meaningful conversations. Ask each other, “How are you doing?“. We all need more of this.

Kids these days need role models. They are fighting an unfair battle. Again. Tik-Toking their way through climate change, the kids have a challenging future ahead of them-like all generations, but these particular ones will need some extra-special attention. I want to model good digital behavior and responsibility regarding climate change, which is essential to me.

Information or what we learn in this life can increase our love, compassion, wisdom, and wish to help others.  Information can also be resigned to a collection of irrelevant data points.

Mindfulness

I set my intention for the day. How will I use my talents, how will I use my devices, and how will I use my time? 

I will generate joy and benefit others.

Our capacity for consuming and processing information is great, but our capacity for love is even greater.

How am I processing the information I receive daily via my digital devices? 

Am I nervous, anxious, depressed, and afraid? Am I angry or confused? Am I overwhelmed and feel like I can’t get my digital life organized? Too many emails to read? Too many pictures to catalog? Too many files to file, in folders, on desktops and home screens. 

I work in digital media. Now, I feel a bit like a tech-bro who doesn’t allow their kids to use social media or own an iPad. The insights I’ve been able to glean over the years have helped nonprofits, Buddhist centers, filmmakers, and friends. I hope to continue to help them inform, entertain, and love others.

In the immediate future, January is retreat month, a good time to disconnect, set boundaries, go inward, and experience the peace of a technology-free life. A life lived intentionally. 

Keep looking up!

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