The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated our time spent online. As early as June 2020, PC Magazine reported an unprecedented increase in time spent online. Since the pandemic began, Facebook saw a 27% increase in daily web traffic. TikTok saw a 25% increase. Zoom gained a 2,900% increase in daily participants. We collectively spent 3,800 years each day in Google Meets, and Microsoft teams recorded a record 2.7 billion Microsoft Teams meeting minutes in a single day.
I started to notice the effects of our mass migration to online connection about three months into the pandemic. My iPhone screen time was up 50% on average, totaling 3 hours of mobile screen time alone. In addition to my 8 hour (remote) workday, that’s 11 hours of screen time a day. My eyes felt fried. The joints in my wrist and arms began to hurt. I compulsively checked my phone throughout the day. I increasingly felt isolated. For example, my partner and I sat in our living room one night for about an hour, but didn’t say a word to each other while we scrolled through our social media feeds. Something had to be done.
I picked up a book titled Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport from a contact-free library order. The book was published in 2019, on the dawn before the first COVID-19 cases appeared in Washington state, almost as if it predicted the future- we all needed a lesson on digital self-care. Newport thoroughly analyses the impact of the increasing digital world on our physical, social, and emotional well-being. He offers several suggestions on ways to be more mindful of technology usage, one of which was to remove a digital device from use for 30 days and reflect on your need for that device afterwards.
At first, I thought, that’s your thesis? Unplug yourself for 30 days! Not possible my friend. I’m in too deep. After a few days, and increasing discontent with life, I decided to put down my iPhone for 30 days. I dug out my old basic phone, and basked in the 2007 nostalgia.
About 15 days in, things were going well. I was able to keep-up with the George Floyd protests on the radio, on my computer, and with my colleagues at work. I still made my semi-nightly phone calls with my 80 year old Grammie while I did the dishes. I still functioned. But one thing was missing- music.
After work on a Friday, my partner and I did what any 20-something couple would do during the pandemic. We ordered two things: curbside takeout from a local restaurant, and a curbside MP3 player from a nearby Best Buy. I unboxed the device. It had six buttons, and a clip to fasten it to my clothes. Upon plugging the device into my computer, the tiny screen lit and welcomed me to a vaguely familiar world.
The internet is an excellent time machine. I logged into my iTunes account, clicked the “purchase history” button, and a list of songs spanning from about 2009 to 2013 appeared. Some songs in my library had also originated from CDs. These disks left my possession a long time ago, but their MP3 offspring live strong. I transferred my music, one-by-one, via drag-and-drop, to my new MP3 player. Then, I left my house without any mobile connection and went for a walk around my neighborhood.
Let’s pause here for a minute and ask, when was the last time I went for a walk around the neighborhood without an internet connection? I quickly felt a free, youthful feeling in my chest as I took those first few steps off my apartment complex. It was like learning to ride a bike all over again. The absence of distraction provided the privilege of awareness. The peace of a notification-free walk allowed me to give space to the my environment. I noticed the sidewalk differently, with its mismatched concrete slabs. I paid more attention to the condition of the housing stock and pondered the average age of each home. I contrasted the architectural style of the early 1900s bungalows with the modern-day mass-production equivalent. Two-flat duplexes appear to be carbon copied throughout my college neighborhood. I appreciate the attempt from the City of Minneapolis to make the streets more pedestrian friendly, with dedicated bicycle lanes and pronounced crosswalks, as a long-range planning method to eradicate the car-dependent past.
The absence of distraction is critical to deep thought. Yet, many are not able to achieve focus due to an abundance of distraction. Scott Galloway mentions this issue in his new book Post Corona. While the internet is a blessing in this bleak time period, it also promotes an increasing concern for our wellbeing. Superabundance, defined by Galloway as the the deliberate removal of natural stopping cues with the intent to increase the addictiveness of a product (think social media, online trading platforms, auto-play video, etc.).
I have since returned to my iPhone, with the help of new tools I learned from Catherine Price’s How to Break Up with Your Phone. There are many resources to combat superabundance. Screen time apps can help you manage your smartphone use. Mindfulness practices can help you manage binge eating that box of CheezIts. I practice digital sabbath on the weekend. And, I still use my MP3 player to this day, even though Apple Music suggests I subscribe to get 70 million songs free for 3 months. When I see this prompt, I smile, because I really only need a few of my favorite albums, and what I truly need is a few hours of distraction-fee time.