In HuffPost UK’s 28-day scroll-free challenge, we’ll be trying to find a better balance with social media. Coinciding with the Royal Society For Public Health’s Scroll Free September campaign, we’ll be publishing experiences, tips and motivation. Sign up for our daily email featuring tips and motivation – you can start the challenge at any point in the month.
Every year the swish Swiss design company Punkt run a competition to win one of their MP01 dumbphones, the prize coming with the caveat that the winner must blog about taking a holiday (or “vacation”) from technology. I enter every year because the idea of escaping the reach of mobile internet appeals to me, and also their internet-free phones are beautiful. I have never won, but this summer I accidentally took a holiday from the internet, and I don’t think I’ve ever regretted an accident more.
I spent a week living in a tiny, two-room cottage in the wilds of Aragón. The cottage was about twenty minutes away from the nearest village, and most of that journey was along near-impassable dirt and stone tracks. When I looked out the doorway of the cottage I couldn’t see another building. Olive groves stretched up the dry, dusty hills as far as I could see, with hilltop horizons preventing the sight – and sound – of roads and houses.
On the first long evening I read a fun novel, and my instinct when I finished it was to recommend it to a friend. But when I clicked through to WhatsApp on my phone I couldn’t send a message: there was no internet coverage. I can live with this for a week, I thought. But as the days passed, I realised it wasn’t just information and entertainment I couldn’t access, but the most simple forms of practical communication.
I remembered once reading an article about wolf populations growing in Spain, and then I had a mental image of twisting my ankle on the root of an olive tree. Not only was I unable to tweet a gif or post an Instagram story, I wouldn’t have been able to call an ambulance if I needed one. No one would hear me if I screamed: no one would save me if a pack of wolves sauntered over to kill and eat me. Those are extreme examples of what could happen when isolated, but I think the reason we are psychologically hardwired to feel lonely is for our own safety. An animal that strays from the herd is going to get eaten, a person who breaks their leg and has no way to get medical help may well starve to death.
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We need other people in our lives, we need to feel connected to others. People who are sociable tend to live longer, and they often are (or at least appear) to be happier. And with mobile internet and smartphone technology, we are able to be social while we’re on our own. I spend a lot of time alone – I usually work from home in front of a laptop, and my main “hobby” (if it counts as a hobby) is walking my dog, which 99% of the time is a solo activity. As someone who has a long history of depression and anxiety, spending so much time alone is potentially risky, yet it is something that I happily choose to do, at least, happily choose to do when I have the internet to hand.
Because – as long as my phone is working – I am never alone. Online, I am part of multiple communities, with people from all the different parts and ages of my life. I can have a serious conversation about politics with an old colleague, a casual chat about books or films with a friend from when we were students, a deeply personal exchange of emotional heft with someone I’ve known since childhood… But I can also find strangers who can give me tips on caring for my dog, I can find recipes, jokes, recommendations: through direct and indirect interactions with other people, I can feel connected to society.
Social media allows us to be less alone, whoever we’re with. Used effectively, it can help us engage with people who share our interests and – crucially – our values. Yes, I can find the other ten people in the world who have read the same obscure old novel as I have, but I can also find people who approach being alive in the same way I do, which isn’t how most of you do.
When I accidentally walked out of 4G reception, I was suddenly alone, and more alone than I had been in a long time. I have close friends and family members who live thousands of miles away, but – when I have my phone in my hand – they are right there. Having access to social media is, for me, an act of self-care. A phone doesn’t just give us something to “do”, it gives us a way to “connect”. I know that sounds corny, but for me it’s true. A phone isn’t a substitute for friendships, it’s an essential tool to maintain them.
This September HuffPost UK is challenging readers to back away from their social media feeds for 28 days in order to find new balance in our relationships with technology. Coinciding with the Royal Society For Public Health’s campaign Scroll Free September, we’ll be delivering the tips and motivation you need via a daily email. And the best part? You can sign up to start the challenge at any point in the month. So what are you waiting for?