Gen Z has practically been on the internet since they learned how to make use of their opposable thumbs. But what once was a conscious exercise has been stripped of the luxury of choice, especially since our current context requires us to be chronically online. We attend all our classes on Zoom University, meet up with friends in Telegram groupchats and Discord servers, and post curated proof of life on every social media platform we have—and it’s this exhausting upkeep of our virtual worlds that is prompting a widespread digital detox.
In a 2021 study conducted on adolescents based in the UK, 34% expressed their desire to use social media “far less than they do today”, with some thinking of taking a short-term break and others contemplating on permanent deactivation. Respondents blamed the information overload they experienced at the onset of the pandemic for their long-term state of disillusionment and ultimate desire to go back to simpler ways of living.
True enough, those who succeed in taking time off the internet always claim to return to their authentic selves or emerge with an unmistakable sense of clarity. It’s even evolved into a source of appeal for those in the dating scene, since online unavailability creates an aura of mystique that removes any of the relationship drama commonly associated with social media.
Not everyone can pull off such a stunt though, so we collectively seek out the few who are kind enough to impart their knowledge. We see this in the demand for instructional material such as New York Times bestsellers Digital Minimalism, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport’s how-to for intentional curation; and How to Do Nothing, Oakland-based artist and educator Jenny Odell’s multidisciplinary manifesto of resistance. Both books consist of holistic recommendations to reclaim our time and attention from systemic forces that seek to capitalise on them, ranging from mass-deleting apps on our phones to even observing birds in their natural habitat.
But trying to live by every single piece of advice for managing our online-ness often triggers a period of self-flagellation, primarily because these calls to action cater to a relatively small subset of people. In the fast-paced, dog-eat-dog world we inhabit, only the privileged can truly afford to take a pause. “The type of person who is better off without social media is someone whose communities and connections are readily accessible in real life,” explains Angela Lee, a doctoral candidate from Stanford currently building a behavioral intervention for social media users. “Many people rely on social media as a central part of the information infrastructure and a means of connection with geographically distant communities, most especially teens and adolescents raised in a socially connected environment.”
The notion that the world continues to turn without us can be hard to stomach, and having to catch up on everything we missed upon our return could be more nauseating compared to witnessing them live. Yen Noche, a 21-year-old communication research student based in the Philippines, attempted to take a social media hiatus twice and failed both times due to her social obligations to her friends and co-workers. “We’re so used to knowing almost everything about everyone so if that amount of knowledge is taken away from us, it can be a very big change that can be difficult to deal with,” she says. “Personally, I couldn’t help but think, ‘What are people doing?’, ‘What’s happening while I’m gone?’, and even the shameless, ‘Are people missing me while I’m away?’”
This principle can be applied on an even larger scale, as choosing to take a break from social media could mean missing out on crucial opportunities for collaboration against social injustices. In fact, if we choose to log out when times are tough, the very action could be misconstrued as refusal to participate. Ali Abdulemam, cybersecurity expert and founder of pro-democracy platform Bahrain Online, recalls how the landscape of online activism has changed since he was first involved in the late 90s. “Before, we would have to plan for years for an uprising. Now, with online posts, you can steer people in the direction you want without having to exert much effort,” he says. “While offline problems are the ones that create the fire within us, the revolution’s reach can’t be as far and wide without the use of online tools.”
Given the effort it requires to fully disconnect, it’s unsurprising that of us resort to bandaid solutions such as app blockers or accountability buddies instead. And it’s not our fault either. Those who think so, and continue to impose that digital detoxes are just a matter of discipline, are tone-deaf and out of touch. Without deliberating on the grander political factors at play in such discussions, we can never properly critique these platforms, question what they have become, and challenge what they can be.
Since extricating tech from the way we operate is a complex (read: lengthy) process, all we can do at present is try to make our use of the online sphere work in our favour—remembering that the tools we have were created to serve us, and not the other way around. “Rather than put a hard stop to using online platforms, it’s much more realistic to adopt changes that allow us to reassess our mental and emotional health while understanding how social media fits into the picture,” explains psychotherapist Dr. Markesha Miller.
Dr. Miller goes on to identify two key reframing techniques: “Knowing the purpose of social media in your life allows you to set expectations and guidelines with how you use it. Regardless of the relationship you identify with each platform, there should be boundaries that allow you to keep your usage healthy and beneficial. Be very specific in what you engage in and don’t be afraid to block any energy that does not support your purpose for being there.”
Instead of framing the situation as an individual moral lack, let’s consider passing the burden to the Big Tech that are responsible for this perpetual cycle of attention commodification. It’s no secret that social networks constantly scheme how to turn the Venn diagram of our online and offline lives into a circle. And as if harvesting our personal information and designing features that alter our brain chemistry wasn’t bad enough, they’re now keen on building a metaverse, where “every device is smart and every other entity is swathed in proprietary content meant to signal its social credit.”
It seems there is no existing in modern society without the internet: we are indefinitely fused together, joined at the metaphorical hip. And as depressing as the concept may sound, it actually might be okay—for now. Amidst the virtual clutter, being online has also brought us a great deal of joy: from lazy cat videos to livelihood opportunities. Maybe we can amplify the good that we find along the way and channel it in our everyday interactions. Hopefully, this will be enough to keep us afloat, as we wait for a more ethical, decentralised web to govern the way we live our lives.
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