Quitting the internet is not something that most people talk about, and when they do it’s often a highly criticised choice for a variety of reasons. In many ways the internet is a paradoxical place to look for people who have chosen not to be online anymore or in a more limited way. Yet as with most life decisions and experiments, we look to the internet to hear others voices, even regarding this.
When I decided to quit the internet I found surprisingly little on the subject besides the experiences of Paul Miller as a Ted Talk and a single book by Susan Maushart. In both cases they returned to their online lives, and in the case of the Paul he said afterwards that it hadn’t made him any happier and instead he found another way to waste time in the guise of gaming.
So I’ve decided to start my own experiment and write about it on my blog, drafting my posts offline first and logging on only to post them. I decided initially to quit social media, but later also included the vast majority of the internet as well, barring a few exceptions – updating my blog being one of them. I’ll blog about my experiences living life offline every week or so, depending on how things go.
But first let’s go back to the beginning – how did I get here?
I’ve been unhappy with my internet and social media usage for quite a long time. When I was a kid I was enraptured by the internet from the beginning, but my time on it was restricted to 20-30 minutes a night. Later, around the age of 14 I got the internet in my bedroom and after that there was no limit on how long I spent on it as long as I had gone to bed by around 11pm. I remember reluctantly turning off my computer many nights, my head buzzing with all the things I still wanted to do. It wasn’t long before the internet crept into my life more and more – I would go on my computer before school instead of getting ready, on my lunch breaks, and my computer would be the first thing I turned on when I came home.
A break came when I went on an extended holiday with family where I didn’t have access to the internet for several weeks. While I was away I vowed to cut back on my usage once I came home but it wasn’t long before I got bored, and pressed the on button once more, and before I knew it I was back to spending hour after hour in front of the screen.
Over the years I tried to cut back or quit, periodically closing accounts and trying to log off only to fail every time. Often I wouldn’t manage even a few hours. For years I have been a member of RescueTime, a free application which tracks how long you spend on each activity on your computer or phone. It was my attempt to ‘cut-down’ and although I did have some success with it, I became used to the graphs and stopped being shocked by the numbers. Still, seeing the number of hours rack up on social media, gaming and the internet in general was depressing. What if I had taken that 30-60 hours a week and read or written instead. If I averaged around 5-6 hours a day for a decade that’s over 20,000 hours gone that I cannot get back. It’s not just the sheer amount of time spent that bothers me though, it’s the lack of having anything to show for it, having made no meaningful memories with anyone, I’ve learnt very little and not developed much either which leaves me feeling that none of it was worth it in the bigger picture.
In early 2016 I discovered Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect and invigorated, logged off once more for a few days. Around this same time I had received some nasty messages of some sort on social media, and so it was a blessed relief to log off and not care anymore. During those couple of days I felt calmer, more focussed, more relaxed and more like I was living the kind of life I wanted to, but the addiction of the internet drew me back in and I soon found myself spending as much time online as before.
I’m finally going to give it another go because those couple of days I spent in 2016 without the internet were some of the best I had all year. I have a lot of reasons for quitting which I’ll share below.
● Boundaries – There is a great power in not being contactable so easily online, it creates a boundary. Previously this was universal. If you were bullied at school you at least had (hopefully) home to go to where the bullies could not follow and harass you. There was a space to get away from it. Now if you are on social media, bullies have access to you 24/7 365 days a year. By logging off social media or having only private accounts for a limited circle, we create a boundary where only the people we want to contact us can contact us at times we want them to, and no one else. When we signed up to social media we erased and redefined a lot of boundaries and norms, but sometimes they are there for a good reason. It’s not a bad thing to draw lines. It’s nice to have things that are for you and only you, or just the really close, important people around you who you trust. Not everything needs to be for everybody.
● Addiction – I don’t like feeling addicted to anything. When you are addicted to something you no longer feel as though you have a choice whether you partake anymore, regardless of whether it makes you happy or not. Logging off is a way for me to regain some of that control.
● Lack of connection – Yes, you read that right. Although the internet is supposed to make us ever more connected, I don’t feel like I’m connecting with anyone anymore. People didn’t comment much on my profile and neither did I on theirs. We were connected, but we weren’t really connected. If we follow the theory that some of us are on social media because we are lonely then the fact that I wasn’t even speaking with anyone says it’s not even fulfilling that need anyway.
● Lack of importance – It’s not really what life is about. 99% of what we read is completely irrelevant to our lives and has no bearing whatsoever. The majority is so forgettable that I can’t even remember what articles I ‘had’ to read yesterday that would have pained me to close my browser instead. What was I reading last week? Last month? Last year? Five years ago? Forgotten it all already. Books on the other hand tend to linger in the memory longer, we get lost in the world that the author had created and how that book made us feel.
● End the excuses – As Bill pointed out to his friend in The Winter of Our Disconnect if you have time to spend 40 hours a week on the internet or gaming, you have time for other more important things you keep making excuses for. I want to stop making excuses for why I haven’t fulfilled some of my important goals in life.
● The emotional cost – Going online is being exposed to a constant barrage of people who are constantly outraged, this drama, this disaster, this new danger etc. This isn’t to say that we should get complacent about world news but studies have shown that when people are constantly shown dramatized news which only shows negative stories like shootings it has an effect on the way they view the world and the way they feel– and when we view stories like this all day everyday it can make the world seem a lot more frightening and scary. I think that news is important but the lack of balance and ever-increasing sensationalism isn’t healthy, especially when you are constantly reading this all day long. It’s highly concentrated negative news without all of the other mundane life interspersed or positive news to balance it out. Regular life is not concentrated this way (usually) and instead is full of a mix of negatives, positives and neutrals.
● Lack of focus and concentration – My focus has plummeted. At least when I was studying there was a balance between light-hearted reading and academic reading, now it’s all just tiny news articles, tweets, photos and emojis. It doesn’t seem to have done my brain much good to be honest.
● To stop living other people’s lives and live your own – I don’t want to constantly be reading about other people who are out actually living their lives and achieving things while I do nothing with mine.
● Sleep – Staying on your phone or laptop late at night can also affect your sleep which in turn can affect a lot of other things for you, like your appetite, mood, stress and ability to cope with things or think clearly. This is definitely the case for me.
● Who is it for? – These days you can end up with an eclectic mix of friends on Facebook – work colleagues, former work colleagues, classmates from school, University pals, people you had to do a group project with, family members – so when we write something, who is it for? I think Susan Maushart is quite right when she says that ‘There is no targeted recipient at all.’. And if we think about it a bit more, there is no guarantee that anyone will see it, let alone read it or even respond to it. Unlike when you start an actual conversation with someone. It’s much like shouting into the void.
● Escapism – Going online has become for many people, including me, a way of escaping life and dulling out that ever nagging voice that we’re not achieving as much as we would like to.
● Stalking – Almost everyone seems to engage in this, even just a little, but the problem is it keeps people in our minds and memories, when otherwise without the internet they and the memories associated would have naturally faded with time, along with the pain they caused us. By having the option to look people up we keep the wound open longer than it needs to be and don’t let it heal. It keeps people closer to us than they would be otherwise.
● The bigger picture – I am not spending my time the way I actually want to be in order to fulfil the kind of life I really want. I don’t want to look back in ten years’ time at a twitter account with 50k tweets or 1000 friends on Facebook. I want to have progressed in my reading and writing goals, have travelled more, strengthened my relationship with my partner, have more pets. When I think long-term about what I want from life Facebook and Twitter etc. are really at the bottom of the list.
How I’m going to do it
Okay. First things first. I did set my digital life straight before quitting. I didn’t spend too much time on this step this time because in the past I’ve used this as an excuse to delay my logging off and end up not quitting, so I sped through it, tidied up my inbox, deleted all my social media without saving anything and all in all I think it took me two days max. Before I logged off I also gave some thought to what I might do once I had quit, and write a list of activities tailored to me and my goals based on what I wanted to achieve by quitting. I felt that this might help me from wandering too much once pulling the plug.
All that being the said, the internet isn’t an entirely bad place and if quitting is something you are considering you could try setting time limits, or just quitting some apps or maybe only social media. Personally there are a few things I’m keeping, like email, myfitnesspal, my blog, Facebook messenger (free photo messaging!) and so on. And I’m still going to Google things occassionally, but I definitely feel the need to step back and re-evaluate. I like what the Minimalists have to say – ‘Does it add value?’ – this is a good way to think about our internet usage. I feel that a good 95% of my internet usage the past decade has not really added any value to my life, if anything it has just taken away. All the majorly important things in my life have nothing to do with the internet at all and never did. But it’s not too late. There is still time for me to log off and go live my life. To surmise my thoughts:
‘Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and I could not spare any more time for that one.’