20 Jan 2015

Taking a moment off social media

10:00 am on 20 January 2015

I’ll be the first to admit, I am a heavy internet user. I’ve amassed tens of thousands of tweets; had dozens of profile pictures and I have a favourite Instagram filter.

I don’t have any particular feeling about this. It’s not something I am proud of, nor am I particularly ashamed of it. But I’ll admit to some trepidation at the idea of tracking how much time I spend on my phone every day.

It wasn’t my idea. It was NPR’s. Apparently those of us with smartphones are rarely bored – and boredom is when inspiration strikes. So New Tech City challenged listeners to track how much time they spend looking at their phone using an app called Moment.

Apparently the US average is just shy of three hours. “OK,” I thought. “I can’t be much worse than that.”

Day one was 298 minutes - almost 5 hours. I picked up my phone 57 separate times. It’s even worse when you consider I only dowloaded the app at lunchtime. The rest of the week averaged around six hours.

Moment alerts you when you’ve been on your phone for a set time. I chose to set it at 15 minutes, thinking that’d be long enough I’d never actually have to see the notification. But I underestimated how much time I actually spend on my phone – reading longform articles, listening to podcasts while aimlessly scrolling through Twitter, reading entire novels in bed.

Every time a notification would flash saying “you’ve been on your phone for 15 minutes,” I’d grit my teeth and mutter. “Shut up. You’re not my real Mum.”

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Photo: Unknown

“Under the happy smiles is addiction’s ugly face” screamed a headline in the Dominion Post in 2013. “There are people who can’t be away from it for any great length of time because they’re hooked,” it quoted psychologist Sara Chatwin as saying.

People can and do become addicted to the internet, and to social media, of course. But so often, the things that happen online are marked out as somehow different to the real world. We write articles about cyberbullying. As though it’s somehow completely separate to what goes on in playgrounds and workplaces. Selfies are apparently the sign of an entire generation’s narcissism. Because thinking you look cute today and wanting to share that is inherently a bad thing? Twitter and Facebook are time-wasters, not ways that people connect with the people we care about. (Or don’t care about. Who amongst is hasn’t posted a photo purely to infuriate that annoying frenemy?)

Do I think I am addicted to my phone and by extension the internet? No. 

I could probably stand to stop having it in my bed. But then I’d need to buy an alarm clock. I can and have taken time away from the internet. It’s good for my brain, both creatively and emotionally. I’m not great at being bored, but time away from the internet reminds me to do the things I like with the people I like – whether that’s on google chat or in person.

On The Weekend on Radio New Zealand National this week, I spoke to blogger and prolific tweeter Morgan Godfery, trans* advocate Megan Bowra-Dean, and from Youthline, Briana Hill to talk about social media and mental health.

We talked about connecting with people - using the internet for that, and whether social media can be good for your mental health.