Why you should delete your favorite apps this holiday season
And other helpful tips for mindful tech use
The holidays are here, which means the season of indulgence is upon us. But aside from the turkey, the heaving piles of mashed potatoes, and an altogether absurd amount of wine, there is another form of excess to worry about: screen time overload. Indeed, the scourge of mindlessly staring at your phone looms — perhaps especially so when you are supposed to be spending quality time with loved ones.
It's important to remember that not all screen time is bad. That teen on their phone at the Thanksgiving dinner table may be addicted to TikTok or have never developed social skills, or they may be talking to someone who, unlike their family, understands their queerness. Technology is always ambivalent in its uses.
But it's become undeniable that technology has the ability to do harm. We are long past the days when the internet or the smartphone showed nothing but promise. Recently, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, launched something called the "Contract for the Web", an agreement signed by groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation nonprofit, Reddit, Microsoft, and Facebook. It states that the internet will be a force for good. That such a contract is even necessary speaks to where we are as a culture: suddenly reeling from the consequences — distraction, disinformation, and sometimes, even depression — of the historic change wrought by digital technology.
So what can we as individuals do? It feels like we're constantly engaged in a fight with our devices, which are at once vital and infuriating, delightful and an incessant drain. Simply dismissing technology isn't the answer. Doing so comes with social costs: Imagine trying to coordinate an event or meet friends on the go without Facebook or a smartphone. You could do it, but it would be a pain, and it may mean you're excluded from social events.
A better approach is to mitigate the harmful effects of tech.
The first step? Remove the most tempting apps from your phone. Think of this like not keeping chips in the house if you're trying to eat healthier. The tempting apps are the ones you open reflexively, perhaps while waiting for the bus, or in any quiet moment. Probably this is Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter — but it could be anything. Get rid of it.
In taking your go-to apps off your phone, you relegate their use to the times you're seated in front of a computer. It also clears head space, so that you get a break from the constant stream of stuff. Boredom or downtime is good for you; it helps generate or synthesize ideas, or simply recharge your mind.
Similarly, picking a day to go phone- or social-media-free can provide a weekly reset of the addictive tendencies cultivated by the very design of social media, the way in which it beckons us to constantly check an ever-updating feed. It sounds like a small thing, but it can do wonders for clearing your head, because the platforms that dominate our lives are noisy, acrimonious, invasive. Part of dealing with the place of tech involves deliberately trying to shift focus from social media to slower or alternate media.
For example, you might try using an aggregation app like Nuzzel or Flipboard. These pull stories from social media without you having to engage in all the chatter around them. You can also turn to the burgeoning world of newsletters, which allow you to foster relationships with particular writers, as well as return to a more intimate, focused approach to consuming online content. It's less about the barrage of Twitter, and more about the specific solitude of reading the thoughts of one person.
The point more broadly is to acknowledge that digital technology is built to appeal directly to our desires, and we exist in a strange moment in history in which it may actually be healthier not to indulge them. It is, ultimately, about delayed gratification: acknowledging that tech is fundamental, but that it's also as potentially destructive as it is edifying.
Technology is, to belabor the metaphor a bit, somewhat like Thanksgiving dinner: It can be rich and beautiful and warm, but it can also make you sick if you overdo it. And while true change will only occur at the social level, we can at least try to mitigate the effects of technology where we can — and pick times or methods to thoughtfully, but firmly, log off.
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