On Saturday, October 12, I have only one thing scheduled on my calendar: “Empty Day.”
There are no ambassadors for this event, no Bob Geldof types leading a musical tribute. There’s no hashtag, and a look at the website is like taking a refreshing trip back to the World Wide Web of 1996.
Damian Bradfield, the British tech entrepreneur and president of WeTransfer, appears to be involved in this low-key effort. And he took a few moments to promote it on Russell Brand’s Under the Skin podcast recently.
“It’s literally a day we are asking people to leave social media alone,” Bradfield explains. “Go to the cinema, organize a picnic, whatever the [bleep] it is, it doesn’t matter. But just don’t take your phone with you, and see what it would be like if your Twitter feed was empty for that day.”
The website for Empty Day offers some old-timey-looking memes that you can post in advance to signal your out-of-business status that day, too. And while Bradfield talked about the possible impact a one-day shutdown of social media might have on advertisers, the intention is to demonstrate how many of us are so consumed by the gravitational pull of our phones that we are unable to relax and disconnect in any meaningful way, even when we want to.
“Sometimes you need to go cold turkey, and realize nothing is going to die or be affected,” he explains.
I for one am very much looking forward to Empty Day; I can’t remember the last time I had one. Like so many of us, sometimes I don’t know what to do when I’m not looking at my phone. So I pick up my phone.
I was jolted to awareness about this months ago, while driving from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to meet a good friend for our first-ever weekend of creative writing. We each had projects we had wanted to do but kept putting off; hers was a novel, mine was finishing another draft of a screenplay started long ago. The idea was to challenge ourselves to make serious inroads into those projects, which represent something deeper: the work our souls long to be doing, outside our work-work. Yet because my ability to concentrate has diminished drastically in recent years, I was secretly worrying about how I would focus.
And so on the way I tuned in to an episode of Dr Mark Hyman’s Doctors Farmacy podcast that had caught my eye. It featured Cal Newport, the unplugged-in author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.
If the literature on how social media impacts emotional wellbeing tends to be confusing, Newport says there is good reason. For every peer-reviewed study indicating social media causes loneliness, anxiety and isolation – and there are many of them – there are others suggesting that if used correctly, the various platforms make people feel happier. What’s important to point out is that the latter kind tend to be biased.
“I did a literature review recently and almost every ‘positive article’ did have a co-author who was a Facebook data scientist,” says Newport.
It may be well known that not spending time with actual real people is not good for us, that the “otherism” caused by gazing at curation leads to discontent – but the Facebook lobby aspect should be noted.
What stopped me cold, though, was Newport’s next point: that social media damages our ability to focus intently without distraction, to do what is known as “deep work.” And there it was: the reason I have such a hard time concentrating.
“If you are just used to, in general, pulling out the phone or the tablet or opening another tab as soon as you get a little bit bored, to give yourself a little hit of stimuli, it permanently changes your brain, at least for the long-term,” he says.
The context switch that happens when we stop work to check social media leaves something in our brains called “attention residue.” And as Sophie Leroy, an associate professor at University of Washington Bothell School of Business in the US, has demonstrated in several studies, that attention residue reduces our cognitive abilities over time.
Even if you only do it a little bit, the harm is palpable. Newport likens it to an athlete saying “I only smoke on the weekends”.
I realized that I’d been struggling with my concentration for so long I couldn’t remember when it started. That I constantly turn to social media for work ideas, but also as a diversion whenever I bump up against a barrier. And I wanted it to stop, before my brain changed forever.
And so I deleted Instagram – my own particular social media drug – and stayed off of it for a full month.
First off: I fielded a grand total of four queries from friends asking if I was okay. Basically no one really cared about my “content”.
Reassuringly, I started to feel better right away. In days I was regaining my ability to do better and deeper work than I’d been able to do for a long, long time, and had new respect for how my fantastic, elastic brain performs when given some rest. Instead of staring at my phone, I watched some good films, read three books and got to the bottom of a couple of important life tasks. And after three years in the making, I finished that screenplay draft.
There was a big internal shift, too. I felt a sense of peace that had been eluding me for a long time. Life was calmer. Better.
But then I went back on, of course, and it’s been a constant push-pull ever since: deleting, adding it back, swearing off it, dipping back in. Like a person who realizes they’ve perhaps been drinking too much, but don’t see themselves needing Alcoholics Anonymous, I’m negotiating with how to keep this thing in my life – a thing I do need to interact with professionally, and enjoy personally – without it taking over.
That’s why I loved the way the American writer Heather Havrilesky addressed the issue in her Ask Polly column on The Cut this summer, in response to a reader in their early 20s.
“Social media can slowly lead you away from yourself, make you feel paranoid and feed you the illusion that your life is flat and colorless compared to other lives,” she writes. “And the more time you spend on social media, the harder it is to track how far off your chosen path you’ve traveled. Your compass gets warped. Your instincts become dulled.”
Havrilesky doesn’t argue for quitting social media altogether, because she must use it herself too, and she likes it even as she hates it. Instead she advises us to always stay aware and conscious of how we are feeling about it.
There are so many more worrying aspects to our obsessions with screens to serve as a motivator. My brother, who is a third-grade teacher in Canada, tells me that his students this year are very different from previous years. They are scattered, unable to follow simple instructions.
As author Jean Twenge wrote last year in her book iGen, anyone born after 1995 has only ever known a world of screens. This generation is more motivated and switched on and they live more safely than the millennials before them, but she reports that they are also exhibiting unprecedented levels of anxiety as they enter university and the workplace.
It’s not just the youngsters; I’m seeing it in people in my 40-something age category too. It’s there in how speedily some people reply to a message or the way I feel when a friend pulls out her phone while we’re talking and starts to pay attention to someone else. In the way I know I do that to others, too. There’s the terrible division social media fuels in our society, where poorly sourced or wrong information becomes a meme, then illusory truth. How it forces everyone to choose a corner and defend it, whether the topic is racism or whether #blackcatsrule.
And then there’s the question raised at the end of the disturbing Netflix documentary The Great Hack, about the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It asks how susceptible we are to manipulation by those who possess our many data points. Can I be manipulated? Of course I can, I’m only human.
Yet as a person who has spent two decades producing content for all sorts of media, trying to embrace each technology as it emerged, social media satisfies my urge to gather information and tell stories in all sorts of ways.That’s why I don’t want to quit it entirely. I still want to play, but play safer.
And so I’m going to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with the occasional bit of Newport extremism from time to time, starting with Empty Day.
I’m going to “recalibrate and reconnoiter” how I’m using social media and how I’m feeling about it and I’m going to do it, as Havrilesky advises, “all the time.”
“We all have the option to back away and protect ourselves, repeatedly – not just in social media but in our social interactions in general,” she writes. “That’s not weakness, it’s sanity.”
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Ann Marie McQueen
Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.