One hundred years ago last March, as the first lockdown loomed and the nation’s unhinged toilet roll hoarding reached fever pitch, I turned to my spiritual practice for a sense of serenity and order: lists.
To-do lists, playlists, reading lists, wish lists; they’re the scaffolding that keep me upright when things feel wobbly. In an effort to quell my rising unease, I made a lockdown list of activities and rituals I thought would keep me sane during the four to six weeks I figured I’d be stuck at home.
I found that list on my phone the other day and I wanted to smack the delusional moron who wrote it. “Start meditating”, it began, sanctimoniously, “Have activities for the kids’ days planned ahead”. Who did I think I was? When I got to “Spend more time in the garden” I literally yelled “Bitch, where else are you going?”
Looking back, I really thought I could organise my way through a global crisis. But of course, I forgot about that list the moment grim reality hit, and instead spent the spring and early summer of 2020 treading water in a permanent low-grade panic along with everyone else.
The only remotely sensible suggestion on that list was to limit screen time on my phone – but the stress of trying to keep a handle on my job while looking after young children sent me in the opposite direction, snatching increments of a podcast while getting lunches ready, checking work emails every few minutes, or covertly scrolling through Twitter while the smalls watched Stick Man for the ninetheenth time and justifying it as my only gesture of self-care.
The days were (and alas, still are) looong, and my phone quickly became my refuge, my entertainment and my only link to other adults. But over time, and with a steadily growing social media habit, it became a torment.
Of course, social media can do good, by keeping us in the loop with loved ones, inspiring our projects or creating a sense of community. It’s just unfortunate that it also has the power to make us feel completely shit about ourselves while conditioning our brains to go back to it, over and over again, in pursuit of distraction and dopamine.
For me, Instagram was the worst, and a quick scroll became a near constant impulse. It was driven by the need to remind myself that the world was still out there, but what I usually found in those squares were people who seemed to be coping with the sky falling in much better than I was. I was looking for solidarity, but found only sourdough.
The problem wasn’t my friends’ feeds, nor even celebrities lamenting the strictures of lockdown from their infinity pools. At 38, I know better than to compare myself to someone with a jet, a stylist and Tracy Anderson on speed dial. Sadly though, I’ve not yet nailed the same approach towards, say, someone whose chic home renovation account I found when looking for a backsplash.
My kryptonite for many years now has been a Mormon mommy blogger who somehow makes being the mother of five young children look like a nonstop party. Her New York apartment is neat as a pin and brimming with cool stylistic flourishes; her kids are unfailingly clean, smiley, and engaged in one enriching activity after another under her tender direction. To top it off she looks phenomenal, even in these strained times: healthy, rested, fashionable, HAPPY. Meanwhile my kids have gone feral and I struggle to maintain a bi-annual leg-shaving schedule.
It’s unfair to present such unattainably perfect images of motherhood under the best of circumstances, but at this particular moment it borders on irresponsible. Of course, shiny blog lady must have shitty days like the rest of us, especially right now, but it’s Instagram, right? Presentation is all. The filtered fictions of ‘normal’ people are the hardest to spot and the most damaging to buy into, and seeing so many women and mothers adamantly thriving through the crisis on my feed gradually started to erode my self-esteem. Not that I stopped scrolling.
Taking action, eventually
I only gave my increasingly toxic relationship with social media any real thought after my 5-year-old raised a red flag while trying to convince his dad and I that he’s old enough to walk to school. “But Muuum,” he wheedled, “think of all the time it would save you guys! Dad could play more golf, and you could…” he cast about for a maternal passion, “look at your phone!” It was a knockout punch.
In shame, I tried to cut back, but it wasn’t until I watched the deeply unsettling Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma a few days later that I was galvanised to take a more hardline approach. Who could fail to feal fearful as the disillusioned architects of our online lives – Google, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter – recount with shellshocked remorse how their technologies had slipped their grasp and mutated beyond their control?
Not only do these platforms gobble up our private information and bank our habits, they weaponise that data to manipulate our behaviour in ways that commodify and slowly dehumanise us. Towards the end of the doc, each talking head is asked whether they would want their children using social media. They all reply, with uniform horror, ‘absolutely not’.
I had deleted the Instagram and Facebook apps from my phone before the final credits had rolled, ready to go cold turkey.
At the start of my self-imposed social media exile my brain itched for a hit of instant-access entertainment, and I wondered how Chrissy Teigen was doing more often than I’d like to admit. But I soon realised that not knowing the latest gossip made no material difference to my life whatsoever, and my FOMO faded.
By not putting myself in the crosshairs of accounts that were, whether overtly or covertly, shilling skincare, clothes or homewares, my bank account recovered from my earlier impulse spending. Best of all, not seeing the kinds of posts that made me judge myself as a person, or as a mother, by comparison meant that I could just get on with my life without feeling that I was lacking in some way.
Progress isn’t linear
So, I was very pleased with myself for getting over social media, like it was a bad boyfriend I’d finally binned off. But algorithm-engineered habits die hard.
A month or so into my ban, I was out walking when I saw our local landmark, the Bass Rock, glowing in a pool of sunlight against an otherwise gloomy sky. I felt the familiar impulse to post a picture before remembering that I was on a ban, and re-pocketed my phone. It wasn’t until I’d walked on a bit and the sunbeam was swallowed by the clouds that I realised I could have just taken the picture for my own enjoyment. The idea that an image or a moment is only worth capturing if shared online had been lurking undetected in my still-programmed brain.
Now that I’ve realised how susceptible I am to the lure of social media, and my phone in general, I’ve had to put some protective measures in place to stop it firing up my most self-critical urges. Firstly (and I would recommend this to anyone) I changed Siri’s accent to a soothing Irish brogue. The old version had started to sound a bit snippy, but the new guy is affability itself, and he never gives me any tone when I ask him to put my Funk You playlist on full blast.
I’ve set a screen time limit on my phone for kid crunch times, so they don’t continue to think of their mum as someone who just stares at the rectangle in her hand all day. Finally, I decided that a permanent socials ban was unrealistic long term, so instead I log in to Instagram once a week, check in on my pals’ feeds (yes, I’m including Chrissy, obvs), maybe post something and then GTFO before I go on scrolling autopilot or happen upon an über woman post that could send me into another spiral of negative comparison.
And the result? Well, it’s the kindest thing I’ve done for myself in months.