I recently realized I had become an iPhone scroller. If I were bored or anxious or looking for cheap entertainment, I scrolled. Or worse, I played Solitaire or tried to reach Genius or even Queen Bee status on the New York Times Spelling Bee game. I scrolled YouTube videos for one I might want to watch, and then for good measure checked Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook posts. Sometimes I repeated this process several times each day.
I concluded my social media scrolling was lazy and undisciplined behavior. Sure, I accomplished what I needed to do each day, but I sensed that time was floating past me. Time. The most precious commodity each of us possesses. And I was wasting it.
Then, as these things happen, I noticed a book on my shelf I’d purchased last fall but hadn’t gotten around to reading. The title was Digital Minimalism. The author, Cal Newport, was a Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. Newport had been curious about the hold digital media had on so many of us and he decided to investigate.
As he studied, Newport learned that our interest in social media usually began quite innocently. That we joined Facebook to see what our nieces and nephews were doing but eventually found ourselves scrolling countless articles we hadn’t signed up for. But they were included on these sites because social media developers hoped they would hold our interest, even for a few seconds. Why? Because each time we visited one of their sites, it generated income for Silicon Valley.
And what were we giving up in return? Our time. Without thinking about what we were actually spending for these sites, we kept scrolling.
Our attraction to scrolling was not, Newport argued, as innocent as the social media developers would have us believe. Nor did it necessarily mean we were lazy or undisciplined. Over time, the developers of these sites and apps became cognizant of two things: our basic human need for social approval (hence the “Like” button on Facebook, for example) and secondly, that humans are more likely to remain interested in something when its rewards were unpredictable and intermittent, rather than steady and reliable. One Silicon Valley whistleblower, when disclosing the behavioral manipulation deliberately built into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, called iPhones and other handheld digital devices, “Slot Machines”. Yikes.
Newport recognized the value of social media. What he objected to was the mindless scrolling that people became addicted to (yes, it can be classified as an addictive behavior). He wanted to present an approach to help people become more mindful in their use of social media. So he set up an experiment to help people detox from their mindless scrolling and advertised for participants. He expected forty or fifty people to respond. Instead, sixteen hundred people answered the ad.
The participants in Newport’s experiment were required to detox from all unnecessary social media sites for thirty days. They removed social media apps from their phones to make it less easy to pick up their handheld devices and mindlessly begin scrolling. During the thirty-day period, they examined how they used their leisure time and, more importantly, how they wanted to use that time. Newport argued that a reexamination of leisure time was crucial to a successful digital detox because people would fall back into old scrolling habits if they didn’t have anything meaningful to replace the time they once spent aimlessly scrolling.
The participants in the detox reported that they began reading real books again, exercising and taking walks, building things, spending time with their families, engaging in face-to-face conversations, drawing, painting, writing, and otherwise making mindful choices about how they were spending their leisure time.
Once the thirty days were up, the participants were offered the choices of which apps and social media sites they wanted to reintroduce to their phones and which, they then concluded, would be time wasters. After the detox period, it became much easier to make responsible and mindful social media choices because their information was more clear-sighted.
Which brings me to the Slow Media Movement. Newport explained that this movement, which originated in Germany, was based on the premise that social media use should focus on quality, not quantity. It’s a version of the popular Slow Food Movement, whose premise is that we should focus on eating delicious, healthy food rather than fast food or junk food. Likewise, in our social media consumption we have the choice between a small amount of high-quality offerings or a large amount of low-quality fare. As Newport writes, “The key to embracing Slow Media is the general commitment to maximizing the quality of what you consume and the conditions under which you consume it.”
As I write this, I’m in my thirty day digital detox. I still check emails and texts and use my phone for directions and music. But my Facebook app, my Instagram app, and my Pinterest app are no longer on my screen and I don’t plan on reintroducing them when this detox is finished. I don’t play Solitaire anymore and I haven’t been a Queen Bee in several days.
However, I am reading more books, journaling (both with words and art), exercising, and feeling like I’m more autonomous, more authentic, and more like I’ve gotten my life back. And I’m also writing more letters. Imagine that.
Slow Food, Slow Correspondence, Slow Media. All mindful. And all good.