Samuel Rosenberg: What six weeks without technology taught me

Sunday, September 10, 2017 - 2:44pm

Last semester, I wrote a column about my psychological dependence on social media and its detrimental effects on my self-perception and outlook on life. I’ll admit that the column felt a bit didactic and self-aggrandizing, especially since it’s already a relatively well-known fact that social media makes us sadder, distracted and mentally unhealthy.

But beneath all my masked desperation, I figured talking openly about the compulsion of constantly checking up on our online outlets was a sure attempt to alleviate my anxiety. Unfortunately, it didn’t help much. What did help was going on an actual social media cleanse during this past spring semester, where I participated in the New England Literature Program. During the six-week retreat, I journaled, read novels and short stories, hiked mountains and lived in a communal space with 40 other students from the University at Camp Kabeyun — all without the distraction of technology.

From early May to mid-June, this intense, enriching and eye-opening journey into self-reflection was made even more rewarding without having access to my phone and computer. Because my peers and I had to adapt quickly to the program’s academic rigor and the woodsy environment of Alton Bay, New Hampshire, my impulse to use social media dwindled by the end of the first week. It was as if NELP was extracting all the toxins that social media embedded within me. For once, I felt genuinely present with the natural world, with myself and with the strangers who would eventually become my friends over the course of a few weeks.

Despite my positive experience in living a temporary life without technology, I had temptations to learn about what was happening in the “real world.” Occasionally, the other NELPers and I would go into town and check stuff out at a pharmacy, and I would happen to glance at a newspaper or magazine. I recall seeing headlines about Trump firing Comey, the Manchester terrorist attack and “Wonder Woman” earning big at the box office. My parents also mailed me newspaper clippings and Rolling Stone magazines that delivered the latest pop culture news.

These glimpses into the non-NELP world left me both anxious and aggravated. Of course I wanted to know whether or not the new season of “Master of None” was critically well-received! Of course I wanted to read about all the summer movies and albums that were released! Of course I wanted to know if Trump was destroying America! As an avid consumer of news and pop culture, I felt like I had a responsibility to keep myself updated, but seeing everything at once, especially without the instant compartmentalization of social media, was extremely jarring.

My compulsive need for online interaction and discourse was fed through a typewriter in the NELP dining hall, cleverly nicknamed “Alt Twittman.” It was the closest thing we had to “social media” at NELP: an ink-blotted cesspool of stream-of-consciousness tangents, funny NELP “memes” and referential jokes about the authors and texts we were reading. This faux Twitter not only filled the void of social interplay via textual communication, but it also gave me the satisfaction that I craved from engaging with people online. It was my nicotine patch, so to speak.

When I retrieved my phone on the last night of NELP, it was almost like touching it for the first time. I felt its long, aluminum frame, its artificial black screen, its sleek, skinny shape. There was something alien about it. As I turned it on, the glowing white Apple logo appeared, almost like it was awaiting me to welcome me back to reality. Then, my home screen popped up. The first text I received was from my sister, telling me that Ben Platt had just won Best Actor at the Tonys.

On the trek back to Ann Arbor during the following two days, I slowly readjusted to using my phone again, only texting family and friends one at a time and checking Pitchfork, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Once we reached Michigan, I checked Instagram and was instantly hit with a colorful feed of pictures from friends vacationing and starting their internships in New York and Los Angeles. Summer had begun, and yet I felt so unrelaxed.

I wish I could say that not being on social media for a month and a half was totally liberating. For the most part, it was. But at times, it wasn’t. I don’t believe there is a easy, definitive solution to escaping social media or lessening its impact on our lives. It’s not as simple as completely logging off or deactivating your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. It’s not easy to just give up something that connects us to everything, even as it corrodes our self-esteem and distorts our worldview. Because even without social media, I still encountered loneliness, alienation and self-doubt. I worried about having to catch up to what my friends were up to, what movies, TV shows and albums were coming out. I was forced back into a place I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape forever, and I had to accept it.

As bleak as that may sound, I believe there was a lot of good that came out of my unfiltered, technology-free experience. Having been on both sides, I can say that the key to feeling less addicted to social media is moderation, a virtue I try to practice almost every day. It’s undoubtedly a challenge and requires lots of self-discipline. Especially given the recent social turbulence in Charlottesville and the storms ravaging Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and South Asia, being off social media can be particularly anxiety-inducing and almost feel irresponsible. But by dedicating a good amount of time to unplug — putting Airplane Mode on during class, deleting the Facebook app, going on a run without your phone, reading a damn book — you not only relish in the pure rewards of delayed gratification, but get to experience something truly meaningful.

It’s OK to sometimes use social media as an escape, but once in a while, make sure to escape from social media.