It’s 2015, pre-Trump-Kardashian-Rodman. Almost normal times, you might say.
I arrive home to my Onehunga flat after a long day at work staring at a computer screen writing. My flatmate is talking to me. Asking me how I am, how my day was, etcetera.
Like a true mature and intelligent woman of public relations, I am scrolling through a series of memes. I hear nothing and I don’t respond, even as my flattie’s pleasantries escalate to a torrent of insults.
“If you suck, don’t respond,” he says.
It was about this time that I earn the nickname “Multi” thanks to my inability to multitask when it comes to being on my phone.
I didn’t realise exactly how much of an addiction I had till I got the screen-time tracking app Moment.
Heavy use of social media has already been linked to depression and other mental illnesses and I don’t think many people would be surprised by this. Cell phone addiction also has a label – nomophobia – and it’s not a New Zealand, nor Western, nor developed world-only problem. This year I have been in Auckland, Northland, Tokyo, Honolulu, Bangkok, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, and in each one of these places people are glued to their phones, though admittedly much less in rural or coastal areas like Chiang Rai or Arugam Bay.
Moment recently informed me that on one day during travels – mulling over not much while waiting in airports – I spent a whopping six hours or 30% of my waking time on my phone. Four hours is somewhere about average – about 20% of a waking day.
So, after seeing this, I decided to take a digital detox while on a surf and yoga camp in Sri Lanka. It wasn’t a full detox, I still had to use emails and whatnot and occasionally checked social media from my laptop only, but I did take all apps off my phone.
The impact was both highly interesting and disturbing.
The first thing that happened after this was that my daily screen time decreased significantly – from four to five hours a day to between 27 minutes to an hour.
I am writing a novel. I have been for years. It resurfaces every year, some scenes recycled, the plot changing like tides in the ocean. On this trip, without distraction, I had hours free in my day. Hours. And what happened? I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. And finally, there is clarity (CLARITY!) on the plot this godforsaken book and – hold me to this – I estimate I will be finally done by December (2018, for the record).
The second thing that happened – and this is significant – was a greater acceptance and love for my body.
Instead of scrolling past pictures of slim and much-taller international supermodels with long, supple legs lengthened by Louboutins and perfect, inflated pouts, I was observing all sorts of women in the surf: bigger thighs straddled around longboards, hair tangled down tanned backs, bright eyes and broad smiles – just sheer natural beauty.
Some of them – including me after months of months of travelling and far too much rice – had a soft layer of fat over their bellies and jiggling round buttocks as they ran down the beach with their boards.
I’d watch them paddle into soft green waves and launch effortlessly onto the faces and think how much more of an awesome measure of beauty that was over a static, excessively-airbrushed image of a supermodel that has legs longer than my entire torso?
Don’t get me wrong, supermodels are beautiful, no doubt. But are we placing unrealistic expectations on ourselves to look 100% Instagrammable 100% of the time, like them? Yes.
In Sri Lanka I slowly started – in the space of only days – falling in love with the pieces of me I’d come to loathe over the past 30 years. The stretchmarks on my inner thighs, the rolls that develop around my hips, the round and wobbly bum that a Brazilian woman in Arugam Bay proclaimed was “very south American”, a belly button pinched and puckered by piercings in my teens and an upper lip that, when I smile, wears as thin as my patience in 5pm Auckland traffic.
If social media is doing this to me, what the hell is it doing to our teenage girls?
What is it doing to our new mums whose bodies who have changed drastically due to the very fact they have produced an ENTIRELY NEW HUMAN BEING IN THEIR STOMACHS (well, uteruses) and they now have a variety of insta-Mums who hashtag #sixweekspostpartum with a set of abs harder than mine were when I was 19 and training for the Worlds in cheerleading?
Are we breeding a new level of self-loathing that will see us contend with more and more youth hospitalised with severe eating disorders and the like?
Our ideation of beauty becomes what stares us in the face most frequently – from advertising to Instagram photos to women we see in the surf. But if society dictates what we see by way of being in front of us FOUR HOURS EVERY DAY, then that has to have an effect.
There was also a huge shift in my focus generally.
Sans a phone in my hand all the time, I stopped thinking about what everyone else was up to so much and started thinking about what I needed to be doing.
I took in Sri Lanka’s Weligama and Arugam Bay, the tea plantations, the open safari and the markets with all five senses, not through a small LCD screen.
Through tears I read about the Rwandan genocide in The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz. I learned about the Thirty Years War in Global Order by Henry Kissinger. I mowed through Tim Winton’s Breath in a day and noted down quotes from Paulo Coelho’s Manual of the Warrior of Light in cursive in my little Deadly Ponies notebook, which has now grown into small collection of quotes from books I read ADD (time period After the Digital Detox).
I worked on my capstone project, which aims to address post-partum depression at a community level, and spoke about social entrepreneurship with people by the pool.
I voraciously read about Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war and noticed small things like the blue paint of the United Nations and its logo emblazoned across a wall at Batticoloa near Colombo, remnants of the international intervention needed for such a violent past.
Most importantly, I stopped the mindless and habitual scrolling. I stopped comparing the highlights reels of others’ lives with the full-view picture of my own. I stopped trying to get the best picture of me enjoying myself and actually just enjoy myself.
I read books on mindfulness and surfed twice a day and just breathed.
And, as cliqued as it sounds, I felt more alive and in tune and engaged with the world than I have in a long, long time.
So where to from here?
A friend has done the epic thing of launching New Zealand’s first digital detox day, which I will be wholeheartedly embracing, and this time going entirely “off screen” for the day.
I’ll keep running the Moment app and continue to monitor my screen time, ensuring it stays under an hour a day. Social media checking can be done on my laptop after work – I tend to much less time on social when I access via desktop. I would also like to implement a “weekends only” policy for social media, although working in PR makes that slightly problematic, so a “weekends only for personal social media” policy might have to suffice.
We should meet up for coffees with our phones away. We should enjoy holidays or dinners or moments with our family without documenting it all the time. I am certainly guilty of this.
Ultimately, I think it would be great if we could all go back to a Nokia 3310 for epic games of snake, stellar and unmatched battery life and a time where you had to tap the number 7 three times in order to text the letter “R”.
Life was much simpler then you know.
Before Trump-Kardashians-Rodman et al.