Ever find yourself in a social situation and you wonder how different it would be if nobody had the option of going on their cell phones? Imagine being at a party and never having the option to escape the conversation by checking Twitter or Instagram. Or sitting in class, and actually having to pay full attention to what you’re learning rather than scrolling through Facebook on your laptop. Impossible, I know. Would there be more meaningful conversations? Would we have deeper connections with each other? And what would it do for us personally, to be without digital media for even a day? In 2016 it’s hard to imagine, but we are in fact the last generation to know what life is like with and without digital media. We were there for the beginning of the digital revolution, and sometimes I like to remember what life was like without it.
It’s hard to imagine ever having the patience or tolerance to sit through the sound of dial-up internet when we have so many apps on our smartphones and laptops that can now instantly connect us. For that reason, I love digital media. I love that I can stay connected with so many people and learn about the rest of the world even if I’m just in one place, and at the same time being able to share my own life. But there came a time when I realized that looking at my phone was the last thing I did before I went to sleep and the first thing I did when I woke up, when suddenly my relationships were being built through a screen rather than in person, and when I couldn’t decipher the difference between where my real life began and my digital life ended.
So I just stopped. That’s a lot to easier to say than it is to actually do because as much as we might need it sometimes, taking a digital break felt like overcoming an addiction where you feel like you’re constantly craving something or walking around without a limb, and the withdrawal symptoms feel a lot like this:
Despite the initial withdrawal period, there were several days this year where I’ve unintentionally gone without digital media, such as when I went to California and my service didn’t work or because I was constantly on the go my cell phone would suddenly die. Being disconnected like that initially felt so unsettling. What if something happened and nobody could reach me? What if I had a cute picture I wanted to post on Instagram? What if Kimye broke up and I was the last person to know?! This lasted about 10 minutes, and then the panic subsided and the peace took over. That’s the thing about getting off your cell phone – the idea of it is so daunting but when you actually do it, it’s not bad at all. It’s actually really awesome.
After not having the option of being on digital media for the first day of my trip, I then made the conscious decision to not be on it at all. I started to document things differently, and just for myself. When I went to Santa Monica Pier I would sit and people watch rather than taking photos of every beautiful view. I would write down funny things that happened in my old journal just for me to remember, rather than tweeting them out for the rest of the world. When I did take photos, I gave myself a limited amount of time so that I wasn’t seeing my entire experience through a camera lens, and then spent the majority of the time just taking in the sights and being in the moment. If you’re using your phone to take photos on a trip I find that it’s always better to turn off your WiFi so that your notifications don’t distract from the moment and so you don’t feel inclined to post a picture online right away. Instagram and Facebook will still be there later. The moment you’re in right now will be gone in a flash.
There are so many mental health benefits of getting off digital media. Not knowing what everyone else is doing makes you immune to the negative side effects of social media such as FOMO and constantly comparing your own experiences to everyone else’s. It also helps you appreciate moments for what they are rather than what they should look like online and what caption should go along with them on Instagram. Going offline was also slightly dangerous because most people assumed something terrible happened to me but rather than encourage me to go back online, it just made me realize how much of my life is spent communicating through texting and Messenger instead of actually talking to people. It encouraged me to pick up the phone more and actually call people to hear their voices instead of translating my life into a series of emojis.
When I went home to Ireland after my trip I started to make more of an effort to get off digital media and be present for people. As a teenager I would usually be on my laptop or my cell phone when having any kind of conversation with my parents, but since moving away from home I find that the time I spend with my parents have become more and more valuable. It’s sometimes necessary to get work done and it’s fun to browse the web while talking to friends, but it’s also really important to be present for the conversations in our lives, especially the conversations we have with our parents. When my dad would come home late at night from work, I started to make it a routine that I would leave behind my laptop and my cell phone and go sit with him instead and ask about his day. Surprisingly, these conversations about his work day evolved into really inspirational stories about his life experiences that I had never heard before. It’s funny how much more people will open to you when they don’t feel like they’re bothering you and it’s made me appreciate the value of a real conversation so much more. I learned more about my parents that summer than I ever had, and although we can learn so much from being online you’ll never get life advice that’s quite as crucial as the guidance you get from the people who raised you.
Since being back in the city and back at school it’s been nearly impossible to stay from digital media again. As someone who gets anxious easily, the constant flow of emails, group chats and online assignments can make me feel so unsettled, and I’m always tempted to throw my phone away, go back to Santa Monica and disconnect from everything. Unfortunately digital media is now a huge necessity of student life, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways of escaping it every once in awhile. I’ve managed to find a few ways to help me disconnect for at least a few hours everyday that has improved my mental health significantly:
- Invest in a watch – I used to often rely on my phone to check the time, but once you’ve checked the time it’s easy to then check your notifications and scroll through Twitter and Instagram. Use an actual clock to set your alarm clock for the morning so your phone isn’t the first thing you look at, and get a watch for class so that you’re not constantly tempted to look at your phone.
- Don’t use your phone for everything – I don’t use my phone to listen to music. I still use the iPod classic I’ve had since I was 14, and my friends are constantly concerned about it. But when I’m on a road trip or just walking to class I like to fully be immersed in music for a while without getting distracted by notifications. Same goes for your laptop – although we use our laptops for electronic calendars and to do lists, there’s no harm in keeping a physical calendar too, filled with cute pictures and personal notes that makes tasks seem a little less daunting.
- Go places without your phone – It doesn’t have to be a trip to California. Since being back in the city, I make an effort each day to go somewhere without my phone, whether it’s going out for dinner or even just a trip to the grocery store. Even if it’s just 15-20 minutes a day, you’ll be surprised at how much it boosts your mental health and relaxes you.
- Handwrite notes in class – Not only will you be immune from being distracted, but studies show that handwriting notes is more effective in helping you memorize information rather than typing everything up on a laptop. You can learn more about learning styles and studying, too, here.
- Read an actual book or listen to a podcast – At the end of the day, I am always tempted to sign on to Netflix to help me unwind. But not only is that disruptive for your sleep, it’s so easy to go online after you finish an episode (or 10) and then scroll through Facebook. Instead, I try to save my TV shows for during the day and read a book before I sleep, but if you don’t like reading, listening to podcasts are a great alternative to entertain you while also giving you a break from looking at a screen. A personal favourite of mine is the Serial podcast – I usually doodle or write in my journal while I listen.
This holiday break, or anytime really, try to find time to break away from your phone, from social media, and make time for some of the other things that really matter. Let us know your best self-care strategies when it comes to our digital lives @RUStudentLife.