The Shocking Lessons I Learned After I Quit My Social Media Addiction in 3 Days in the Desert
“Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” -- renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl
If I didn’t Facebook, tweet or Instagram it, did it really happen?
If not, then I didn’t Airbnb it in style in California’s Coachella Valley with my big crazy family recently. I also didn’t get pruny in a hot tub in Palm Desert. I didn’t boulder monzogranite mammoths in Joshua Tree. And I didn’t yank a bloody fishhook cactus spike from my big toe while exploring Noah Purifoy’s junk art, then triumphantly hit my dab just to embarrass my teenage son. (It worked.)
I didn’t. I wasn’t. Nope. Not me.
I didn’t live the swish high desert life over Memorial Day weekend. There are zero pixels, pics or posts to prove it, at least none that I personally published. Not a one. I was busy digitally detoxing, unplugging from all things D.
The reason: Something had to change. My sons are intensely addicted to their iPhones and Xboxes, and I’m no better. Fact is, I’m worse.
That's it. I'm unplugging. The digital detox begins. Not scared of rock climbing in Joshua Tree, but scared of this. pic.twitter.com/dbFPqSecfn— Kim LachanceShandrow (@LaShandrow) May 27, 2016
I’m one of those incessantly annoying Instagram try-hards who snaps pics of perfectly arranged noms and seasons them with obnoxious hashtags before eating them. Mmmm, sticky gobs of yummy Instagram likes, hopefully for dessert.
I’m a mom who slums for shallow “likes” on Facebook to validate that, look, see, I am raising good kids while working full time. So what if they vow to never talk to me again if I post one more dumb pic of them without their permission? I’m also a distracted driver who hungrily checks Twitter @ mentions and article link RTs at stoplights and stop signs, and in restaurants and at school functions. How am I doing? Am I in the top 10 most-read articles on Entrepreneur.com? I need to know. Badly.
Snapchat, what’s that? I’m still figuring out my new account, but, trust me, I’ll eventually conquer it, and probably late at night when I should be resting my 40-year-old bones.
Time for a time out.
Or maybe I won’t, because I went cold turkey on social media, at least for all of three days. And not a day more. The time was right to venture offline and into nature. My two boys were grounded from gaming (I won’t mention why, lest they block me on Snapchat. Who am I kidding? It’s only a matter of time before they do.) and I needed to put myself in a time out, too. I’d recently taken to buying drive-thru dinners out and scarfing them down with the kids in front of our various handheld screens. As the mom, I’m the anchor of the family and I’d anchored my family around junk food and digital mind junk.
Something had to give, so I pulled the plug. I volunteered myself first as tribute guinea pig, or whatever they say.
For me, there’d be strictly no screens for the duration of our 280-mile round-trip road trip, from our rented '80s McMansion in Long Beach, Calif., to our Tennessee Avenue Airbnb crash pad in Palm Desert, to Joshua Tree National Park, and all the way back to Long Beach again. What a long, strange trip it’d be.
The rules (those things made to be broken).
I was scared. No beloved iPhone. No trusty MacBook Air. No fancy FitBit Surge. If it glowed, it was a no-go. Without a means to constantly check and overshare to social media, I’d be on a total blackout.
That was the crappy deal I’d reluctantly agreed to with my family, and with my editor Stephen Bronner. A stickler for details, as he well should be, he took the rules one step further: He barred me from using anyone else’s electronic doohickeys for any reason.
A failed trial run.
Fat chance. I was screwed and I knew it. The entire week leading up to the ugly unplug I was on edge. Just ask my husband. I take that back. Please don’t. To cool my aggro jets a bit -- and to see if I could resist the urge to back out of the digital detox challenge at the last-minute -- I dipped my toe in the water. I did a dry run for three hours.
For the test run, I took my kids and my niece and nephew out for pizza and bowling, then to an arcade, probably just to see and hear electricity-powered machines. I brought my phone, but I vowed not to use it.
During the first hour, I held my phone non-stop, as tightly as I’d hold my daughter’s hand crossing a busy street. During the second, I sneaked off to the bowling alley bathroom to check my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Classic toilet phone-trolling. Gross, I know, but it’s the truth (don’t act like you haven’t done it, too). The third hour brought my breaking point. I caved in and took and texted videos, tons of them, of the kids shooting hoops and skeeball.
Then, mid-video sharing spree, I realized what an idiot and bad aunt I’d been. I’d gone to an arcade of all places while dry-run digitally fasting, and while my nephew was banned from electronics by his mom.
Pre-experiment over. I’d failed and it didn’t bode well for the coming real deal. Mindfulness expert and medical doctor Dr. Barbara Mariposa’s warnings that I’d probably break down and cheat didn’t bode well either.
Expect the worst.
I’d asked the London, England-based executive leadership coach and co-author of The Kindness Habit: Transforming Our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours how severe of a meltdown I might spiral into. What dramas should I prepare my family for when the social media withdrawals kick in? Would I fail again?
She couldn’t say, but she did advise me to prepare for the worst. “Like any addict, you will experience the urge to indulge,” she said. “The discomfort of not indulging and the potential for anxiety and tension will arise, making you more volatile, snappy and moody.”
Oh, joy. Sounds super fun, especially when sharing a cramped Airbnb in the middle of a 100-degree desert with 10 family members and three dogs for three nights and four days. Sign us up.
Too late. We're doomed.
But maybe not. Not if I took Dr. Mariposa’s survival advice. “If you set the intention to get through this thing with minimum disruption to all, to recognize the habitual patterns as they emerge and let them be, take a few deep breaths and bring yourself back to the present, the moment will pass,” she said. “And every time you beat the urge to post to social media or zone out on your phone, that neural pathway of your habit will be weakened.”
Gaze into faces, not phones.
Instead of staring blankly at my phone, like everyone and their brother does for hours on end nowadays, she said I should gaze into the faces of my loved ones around me and into nature, how people used to before we all became so obsessed over our mobile gizmos and gadgets.
“Devote your attention to the amazing surroundings you find yourself in,” said Dr. Mariposa. “Surrender to that. Take in the experience. Meditate on a rock. Determine to handle any emotions that arise responsibly. The opportunity is huge, to break the patterns, to master yourself, to be present and to fully appreciate the amazing world we live in and the people in your life. Now. As a felt experience. Fully. As you.
"Commit from your heart. Remold your brain. Trust yourself and your ability to be bigger than this.”
Her advice sounded great in theory, but in practice, I was afraid it was too much to take on. I was tempted to give up before I even started, but I decided to commit and give it a go. I'd lived most of my life without being attached to electronics. I could do it again.
Here are my reflections on my digital detox, just as I scribbled them with an old-school pen in a pad.
Day 1, Friday, May 27: Increased awareness, decreased belonging
I was well aware that it was forbidden to use my iPhone to navigate from Long Beach to Joshua Tree, but I so did anyway. I left my AAA maps behind on my kitchen table by “accident,” or so I convinced myself. I limited myself to Waze, the social directions app people often pay more mind to than the road. I felt like a weakling for leaning on my phone as a GPS crutch. Instant cheater. Credibility lost from the start. I was also tempted to take and text pics as the views outside my dog slobber-smeared truck window changed from urban to suburban to remote to wide open spaces.
Later in the night, after arriving at the Airbnb in Palm Desert (which looks like a cheap, hipster porn set, gold spray-painted fake deer antlers, neon cactus light, empty Dom Perignon bottles and all), I ventured out into town for groceries alone.
This time I didn’t use Waze to find my way. My digital deprivation had officially begun and I was all-in. There it was, my iPhone, safely snapped into a sparkling silver and white Kate Spade hardcover, staring back at me from my passenger seat. I’d gently placed it there, like a security blanket for the ride. I felt safer just knowing it was within reach.
I parked outside Ralph’s grocery store. It was 90 bone-dry degrees outside in the dark of night. Before I stepped out of the car, I banished my phone to the glove box. I’d found my way from the Airbnb to the store without it, despite having zero sense of direction, and, to my surprise, I found my way back without it.
I worried that if something happened to me in the store, I wouldn’t be able to dial for help. How did I ever roam the backroads of New Hampshire, my thickly forested home state, without a smartphone? Through snow and ice, through wind and sleet, zigzagging through the White Mountains to nowheresville, Vermont, to see the first boy I loved, without a map, without a phone and without a reliable car?
How feeble and mushy-brained I’ve allowed technology, like love, to render me. It’s embarrassing.
Lowering the bar.
All that sheepishly self-admitting how addicted I am to my phone had me hankering for a stiff drink. After all, it was Friday night and the first night of our desert vacation escape. Without Yelp, Google or Urbanspoon at my fingertips, and without the ability to Facebook-crowdsource my 1,595 “friends” as I usually would, I mustered the courage to ask the burly red-headed dude bagging my groceries where the nearest “decent bar” is. Again, embarrassing. But it gets worse.
“I’m sorry, ma'am,” the bag-boy mumbled, looking a little embarrassed himself. “I don’t know about bars just yet. I’m 20.” Ma'am. Underage. Double ouch. My bad. I could’ve sworn he was at least 25 or 27. He had a scruffy goatee and was well over six feet tall. If I’d had my damn phone, this never would’ve have happened. The damage was minimal, though, apart the side-eye shade the elderly cashier threw at me, my bruised ego and maybe seeming like a creepy lush. Not the best look for a middle-aged mom of three, you know.
Not lost in the supermarket and shopping happily.
My iPhone still locked away in my car, rolling back to the Airbnb from memory, I roamed the grocery store aisles faster and more freely than I would have had my phone been conveniently in my needy clutches. More alert to and engaged with my surroundings than I’d be otherwise, I quickly sussed out a few things about the town. You can tell a lot about a place and its people by eyeballing its grocery store shelves and cold cases -- and by putting down your phone.
This particular Ralph’s was chock full of premium eats, with not one but three specialty cheese sections piled high with pricey imported cheeses. There was even hand-rolled Amish-style butter, which I’d never seen before but was too stingy to part with $9 for. Normally I’d act a photo-snapping foodie fool and take bunches of Instagram pics of all that glorious, stinky cheese, my favorite food group. #NoCanDo #ZeroPhone #DidNotHappen
Related: 3 Ways to End Digital Distraction
The FOMO struggle is real.
Back at the Airbnb, my kids and their cousins taunted me, playing on their phones, swapping mindless YouTube videos, “dank memes” (if you’re not too old to know), selfies and snaps in all manner of trending lenses and filters. I was the odd, phoneless person out, and I tried and failed to look unfazed by it. Whichever snippets of this special time with family I’d typically pics-or-it-didn’t-happen post, I’d have to bottle in my mind amidst the forgetful mom-brain muck.
Frustrated, I retreated to the backyard to sulk by the propane fireplace. From where I slumped in my froofy padded garden chair, I saw my three kids and their four cousins jumping up and down, laughing. They were playing Ellen DeGeneres’s “Heads Up!” charades game. The IRL one, not the app, surprisingly. I instinctively reached for my phone to snap a pic, to freeze the modern Rockwellian moment and, per norm, tell all of my so-called Facebook “friends” about it. But damnit if I didn’t remember the detox.
So did my sister, Dena. The brat (and I say that with the utmost sisterly love), one year my senior, promptly snapped up my phone and hid it on me for the remainder of the weekend. If she hadn’t, I would’ve cheated more times than I should probably cop to. She knows me too well.
In case you're wondering, two weeks after our trip to the desert, Dena finally fessed up. She hid my phone behind an Andy Warhol knock-off painting on the Airbnb living room wall. Well-played, clever sister, well-played.
Let it go, the music will bother you anyway.
Had I had my phone, I also would’ve sneakily put a stop to the chart-topping bubblegum pop thumping out of the Sonos speakers throughout our rented desert crashpad, thanks to the tweens and teens with undeveloped tastes. I would’ve hand-picked some relaxing Bob Marley old people music to play at a low-key volume, so as not to tick off the neighbors (or trigger my lifelong loud-noise issues).
With each passing unplugged hour, it became clearer and clearer that my control-freak reach knows no bounds and is only exacerbated by phonelessness. That moment you understand you’re a jerk. Yeah, that. Over and over.
When would I experience the digital detox breakthroughs Dr. Mariposa foretold of, the feel-good ones? The smashing of patterns. The mastering myself. The being present and fully appreciating the amazing world we live in and the special people in my life. Fully. As me.
“C’mon already,” I told myself. Overnight miracle, activate.
Takeaway: If you’re ready for it, digitally detoxing can open your eyes and ears to the people and places around you, but unplugging makes it impossible to tell people far and wide about what you see and hear in a click. Oh, and it can help you see your ugliest flaws, too.
Day 2, Saturday, May 28: Losing control
We woke up late, around 10 a.m., after a night awake until 3 a.m. telling jokes, drinking red wine and cracking each other up by the fire pit. My first inclination, even before inhaling the first of many cups of coffee, was to grab my phone and check the weather. My second: to Instagram a snapshot of my freshly de-calloused and ruby-red painted toes, sticking out from under the covers of the memory foam bed my husband and I slept in. But who the hell would want to see that? #narcissistic #unnecessary
Shrug. No gratuitous humblebrag pic parading my twinkle toes in our cozy Airbnb master bedroom for the record, but baby-step unplugging progress nonetheless. Just how much of a self-centered showoff I am on social media dawned on me again. I was grossed out. Shocked at how knee-jerk addicted I'd become.
One flew over the cuckoo’s Nest.
Without a phone to pacify antsy me with -- and to provide a now widely societally-accepted excuse to ignore the people around me -- I turned my attention to the Nest thermostat on the living room wall. There were strict instructions to keep it set to a certain temp, but I didn’t have two cares to spare. It was a screen. An irresistible round one. The only one I could touch and mess with the entire weekend … or so I thought. And mess with it I did, like a child, as often as I could. As a result, one minute it was hot in the Pineapple Palms (the cutesy name of our Airbnb), the next it was ice cold.
Some of my younger housemates kvetched about the mysterious temperature ups and downs, but I didn’t pay them mind and they didn’t know I was responsible. All that mattered was I was in control again. Of a touchscreen. Of the air we breathed. Even knowing we could be charged extra for disobeying the homeowner's Nest rules, I couldn’t stop toying with it. Eventually, goosebumps bubbled up on my cold arms and I realized something that made me feel ashamed: I was substituting the Nest for my phone. How lame is that?
When did I become so beholden to small, inanimate glowing thingamajigs? No wonder my boys are beyond addicted to them too. Monkey see, monkey do.
Powerless to properly plan.
Another way not having my phone (or my laptop, though I’d stashed my laptop in my luggage, just in case) made me feel out of control and powerless was that I was unable to steer -- fine, dominate -- our vacation itinerary, as I usually do. Instead of having a plan at my Google-frequenting and Facebook-crowdsourcing fingertips and plotting a well-researched best course, I was forced to rely upon others and ask for their help -- two things I absolutely loathe, well, apart from perpetually assigning my husband honey-dos.
Without a clear list of sightseeing destinations for the day ahead, and with everyone wanting to do something different, our group crumbled into the kitchen-table shouting match straight out of the beginning of Home Alone, only we gnawed on bagels and cream cheese, not pizza. “I wanna rock climb in Joshua Tree!” “No way! I wanna shop at the Desert Hills outlets!” “Forget that, I wanna find a pool and sit in it all day!” Oh, and who could forget the obligatory “I wanna go home!” as nasally whined by a knee-high child who shall remain unnamed.
Desperate to shut the kvetchers up, to take control and to get us on the road to somewhere freaking tranquil already, I skulked around, searching for my phone on the sly. I slid open kitchen drawers, pawed under beds and felt between couch cushions, and none were my own. Now that’s desperation.
I worried that my beloved phone was somewhere outside in the elements, left to fry like an egg under the unforgiving desert sun. Where the heck did my sister hide it? If I could’ve, I would’ve slipped away to my room with the darn thing to look up the Top 10 Things to Do With Kids Near Palm Desert or some such clickbait listicle. Stupid me. I’d purposely not researched vacation activities ahead of the trip specifically to jam myself into this rock and hard place, to see how I’d cope without access to the internet.
Scrambling for a sense of control, I did what I always do -- I cranked up my voice loud above everyone else’s and pushed my itinerary ideas over and over again until someone listened. “That’s it, everyone! We will boulder in Joshua Tree! We’ve done it before and we’re doing it again. Then, when we’re done with that, we’ll look at some rusty art in the sand and, to top it off, we’re eating dinner at Pappy and Harriet’s, a grungy biker bar that, trust me, everyone’s gonna love. Done deal, and, kids, don’t give me any lip!”
No one did, with the exception of my mouthy 15 year old. Poor kid, he didn’t fall far from the overly opinionated mama tree. Dude always has something to say … and he squawked it, right up until we piled into our vehicles and sped for 44 minutes in the direction of Joshua Tree.
Up the creek without an iPhone and no banking app.
I drove my truck and my husband drove his minivan. Without Waze and stressing about getting lost without proper provisions in the desert, I trailed my leadfoot other half closely. My sister finally fired up Waze on her phone, but it didn’t make a dent for long. Her phone’s battery was on its last leg and my charger apparently didn’t play well with her phone.
Midway through the caravan, we stopped to buy Starbucks, a city-slicker must (but, hey, the stuff has water in it, right?), even in the desolate desert. I also needed gas. Before pumping, I wanted to check my bank account balance on my mobile banking app, but, wouldn’t you know it, no dice. Damned detox. It was getting old.
A considerable chunk of the sightseeing stretches of the trip -- and the gas to motor the “girls’ car” to each -- was funded via my personal checking account. Armed with only one debit card (I’d dropped and lost my other one while being frisked at a Bernie Sanders rally in L.A. the week before) and with no checkbook register and no cash, I felt a sense of urgency to eyeball my account often. With two more days of vacay to go and a small army to entertain and feed, I crossed my fingers I wasn’t blowing all my funds. Or, worse, taking money away from several hefty automatic payments set to drop. I found out when I returned home that, phew, nothing had bounced.
Why was digitally detoxing a smart idea again? I wouldn’t ride a horse through the desert instead of driving an air-conditioned car. I wouldn’t brush my teeth with pig bristles tied to a bone (I use a Philips Sonicare). I wouldn’t store perishables on a block of ice. So why would I sign up for this non-tech Luddite nonsense? Suddenly it seemed trite and pointless, risky even.
Maybe my heart wasn’t yet open enough to face down my digital addiction, like Dr. Mariposa lightly suggested it might not be. I’d admitted I had a problem, but wasn’t brave enough to really let go, to not leech off of others for their digital devices. No matter, I’d have plenty of introspection time to mull my mess over in stunning Joshua Tree National Park.
Escaping tech in nature is as hard as a rock.
Upon arrival, and after patting myself on the back for navigating to our favorite boulder formation in the park from memory, the petty irritation at my phone-starvation situation melted away. The kids, my husband and brother-in-law hurriedly scampered up huge boulders huddled together over millennia like giant hibernating bears. I stayed below, watching my sister gorge herself on selfies with my niece from inside long, deep fissures in the rocks.
For once, I didn’t hide behind my smartphone, permanently recording our private family adventures, then immediately pimping them out to the faceless masses on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in exchange for superficial measurements of likeability. I was in our family vacation photos for a change. I was present.
My niece caught me cheesily hugging a rock and snapped a pic. She also took one of me attempting to meditate atop a boulder, which I found out later while trolling her Facebook wall on my laptop, days after we’d returned home from vacation, pinky swear. She posted a not-so-flattering pic of me in which my back fat oozes out over my sports bra that, if I were in control, would never have seen the light of social media.
Yep, I prefer to remain behind the share-happy smartphone cam, thank you very much.
It would be a lie if I didn't tell you that I willingly handled other people’s smartphones to snap a handful of pics in Joshua Tree and once at the Noah Purifoy exhibit. There, amidst the rusty, dusty open-air installations, I captured my brother-in-law, Jesus, and my nephew, Logan, mugging in front of a stereotypical saguaro cactus. Hey, Jesus asked me to do it. He handed me his iPhone. I couldn’t say no. I also nabbed a pic of my sister and her eldest daughter, Kylee, crammed into another crack in the rocks. She too requested I do so. I was happy, more like desperate, to oblige. I later tried to pocket her phone, but she wasn't having it.
Dr. Mariposa suggested I meditate on a rock to truly unplug in J-Tree, as we call our go-to escape from L.A. like the out-of-towners we are. She also advised me to stop and breathe whenever the pang to use my phone or to post to social media struck. “Every time you feel the urge, take four deep breaths in to the count of four and exhale slowly,” she wrote in an email. “This will dissipate the anxiety neurochemicals creeping into your body, balance your nervous system and bring you back to the present.”
So that’s why they say, “just breathe.” Deep breathing and meditation are known to release feel-good hormones, like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, which generate calming feelings of well-being and connectedness, the same ones I and countless others go chasing in vain via social media without knowing it. Breathing deeply used to help my breastmilk come in (triggering what’s known as the let-down reflex) whenever I was nervous about nursing my babies in public, so I’m a believer, for sure. “It could work,” I thought. “It’s worth a shot.”
Unplug. Inhale. Exhale. Om. Whatever.
So yeah, lusting after my phone like a long-distance lover I could not embrace, I didn’t quite feel all kumbaya connected to the breathtaking Mojave Desert landscape whilst literally unconnected on that rock. I’d barely started to, but lost focus when a carload of giggling 20-something tourists noisily pulled up in the dirt. They leapt out of a Prius, whipped out their telescoping selfie sticks and took turns snatching groupies and posting them to Snapchat, etc.
Rock-climbing and long, pointy selfie sticks. What could possibly go wrong?
Takeaway: We’re at peak selfie. Even deep in nature, smartphone culture and social-selfie fever are unavoidable. No matter how far and wide I go, I can’t get away from electronics, nor my repeated urges to use them.
Day 3, Sunday, May 29: I’m down with O.P.P. -- other people’s phones
The two moms on the trip, me and my sister, awoke determined to find a cool pool, preferably with cool adult drinks. We’re stand-up role models like that, we classy Lachances. Once again, I felt paralyzed that I couldn’t research the top spot to go to. Still phoneless, I had zero control over my, my husband’s and our children’s destiny, at least for the day.
But my sister could use her phone. While she did, I busied myself flipping through an outdated “local accommodations” binder the Airbnb host provided, unsuccessfully searching for local affordable day-pass pool listings.
“If you’d just tell me where my phone is, we can end this silly little experiment and I can find us the best damn pool-bar combo this side of the Mississippi,” I barked at Dena. “Nope,” she clucked. “I’m not budging. You’re the one who wanted to do this shit. Now you have to deal with it.”
Well then. Fine. Aren’t family vacations awesome?
Is there a filter for jealousy?
My kids and their cousins thought everything was fine. Not lit. Wrong use-case, they told me. They couldn’t be bothered with me and my sister bickering over pools. They were too busy face-swapping with each other on Snapchat and making Drake- and 2 Chainz-backed Musical.ly videos they hoped would go viral.
Meanwhile, my sister called pool after pool attendant to ask the qualifying questions I asked her to ask. Maybe just one: “Do you serve mixed drinks?” Girl wanted that quintessential vacation piña colada by the pool, coconut, umbrella, straw and all, and I don’t blame her. She has 7-year-old twins.
Then I threw in and called more area pools using her phone. Call me a cheater, but she wasn’t moving fast enough, so I jumped in to assist. After much debate and iPhone calculator per-person-price-crunching, we eventually agreed to head to the Palm Desert Aquatic Center. Bummer, it had no bar, but it was affordable for our motley crew of 11.
We used Waze to find our way there. Not on my phone -- on my sister’s. I got used to living vicariously through her -- and her phone use between half-ass battery charges. Like an emergency floatation device, it was reassuring to know her phone was there in case I, uh, I mean we, needed it.
Once in the pool, bobbing around with my sister, our husbands and our kids, I stopped to think that I wasn’t thinking about my phone, which made me think about my phone. Cold and kicking in the deep end, I was almost there. I almost unlocked a breakthrough.
I might not have had one, but it looked like my one of my sons did. I won’t mention which one, as he’s a very shy, private soul, probably because of his loudmouth mom. I got a touch teary-eyed while I watched him jump off the high dive, slip down the water slide and dance like a goofball underwater. It was refreshing to see him so alive and offline. Ever since I caved and let him put his Xbox in his room, he’d taken to slouching in front of the boob tube, gaming with friends and strangers (scary, I know) for hours on end on the weekends, the only time he’s allowed. His addiction had gotten to a point where he’d skip meals and play for six- and eight-hour stretches, then launch into fits when I demanded he shut down. Sounds like someone I know.
But here he was, flopping around like a fish out of water in the water, way outside of his comfort zone, living freely in the moment. I wish I knew how to do that for more than a few minutes at a time every once in a decade. But I don’t, so I climbed out of the pool, away from all the soggy stimuli, and walked alone to the grass to dry off and journal.
I connect to disconnect.
That’s when it hit me. Phone or no phone, I will always need to remove myself from the crowd, whether it’s comprised of three people or 300, and be alone. In this case, my ballpoint pen and my journal were the objects sucking my attention away from those closest to me, similarly to how my phone would.
Like I always do, but usually with my pacifier phone and social media mix, I stopped what I was doing with them to document my feelings, to make sense of them, and to strain them through my warped filters. This time my process was internal. Not external. I couldn’t make copies of my journal pages and hand them out to 1,595 Facebook “friends” in an instant, and I certainly wasn’t going to let anyone read my journal. Its contents are personal, aside from the dirty laundry you’re reading right now.
There, wrapped in my sun-bleached beach towel, it dawned on me that socially posting so much personal, intimate stuff about myself, my kids and my husband is pretty messed up. I felt naked online and wanted to cover up my shame, like I should delete all of my social media accounts, as if I could ever erase the countless slices of our lives I’d posted, many that I shouldn’t have.
"At least it isn’t just me," I told myself in a moment of self-pity and excuse-making. At this point, it’s the whole world. We’re all pawns in Mark Zuckerberg’s masterplan to connect the planet, and it ain’t pretty. We're powerless against the social tide, but only if we allow ourselves to be.
“By inserting a digital device in between ourselves and the world around us, we remove joy and connectedness from our existence,” Dr. Mariposa warned. “It creates a shallow edifice to hang on to that has no value whatsoever in the long run. Sharing our intimate and heartfelt moments with whomsoever is out there is a social disease that fills a gap in our sense of self and at that same time enlarges it. By trying to connect, we are hiding the gap and increasing our sense of dislocation.”
We're doing it to ourselves.
Selfies, or it didn’t happen.
Behind me on the damp grass, under the swaying palm trees, I noticed my 18-year-old niece. She was primping her choppy chestnut hair for a Snapchat selfie. “I’m kind of on a break from social media, too,” she said. “I’m not on Insta or Facebook or Twitter, ya know. Just on Snapchat because of a posting streak I promised I'd do with my bestie. I’m 16 days in and I don’t want to break it. But I haven’t done any check-ins online, so I guess you could say I’m doing the detox halfsies.”
The perfect selfie was snapped at last, purposely pouty lips included, and my niece skipped off and away. Back to the pool she went to capture slow-motion phone videos of her siblings and cousins sticking flips off of the high-dive. Vids or it didn’t happen, right?
Palm desert is lit pic.twitter.com/AOkwHG7Q2f— Luna V (@kyleebpr) May 28, 2016
With our fill of the municipal pool, up next was Palm Springs. My sister, her husband, their twins and I ended up at Billy Reed’s, a musty, outdated restaurant and bar built in 1975, the year I was born. Oh, wait, I know how we ended up there. Despite the many bribes I'd offered, no one would tell me where my phone was. If they had, I would have found and mapped us to a newer, cooler, more Instagrammable restaurant.
Mostly only silver-hairs sat at the long bar behind our table at the joint. None of them stared like zombies at smartphones. Not at flip phones either. They didn’t stare down. They looked up, looked at each other, laughing and talking and exchanging stories, like the good old days, darnit. Not like all those young whippersnappers, their noses glued to their digital doohickeys all day and night.
These old-timers had it right, doing what people should do at bars -- making conversation and sipping liquid courage. So what if the decor was as old and tired as me? Seeing humans actually engaging each other and relating, sans digital crutches, was refreshing. Maybe it was the strong bloody Marys, but the nostalgia for the pre-social media days was strong. I was feeling it. Hard.
A photo posted by Luna Valentine ? (@kyleebp) on May 29, 2016 at 12:04pm PDT
More than a spot of digital distraction.
Later, back at the Airbnb at night, the tweens and teens lined up on the couch to unwind from a sadly rare second day in a row of vigorous outdoor physical activity and sightseeing. I sat kitty-corner to them with jealous green eyes, hurriedly jotting my memories of the day down in my notebook while they were still fresh. They ignored me and each other, zombified on their phones. Nary a word was uttered amongst them. They were gone, lost, deep in their attention-sucking devices. We were together physically, yet worlds apart.
Not to be left out, my sister joined the family phone-fest. She polled the tweens and teens to see what they thought of a weird bright spot that unexpectedly showed up in a pic she snapped of the horizon in Joshua Tree. The group’s collective gaze turned to her iPhone. Was the unexplainable chartreuse orb an aura? A fairy? A ghost? Everyone took turns sharing their crack theories. Again, a handy illuminated brick had seduced humans, like moth to flame. Meanwhile, a marvelous desert sky twinkled bright with shining stars outside, unnoticed, unappreciated.
Takeaway: Interacting in person is more satisfying and real, but it’s also messier. In person, you can’t control how others see you, flaws and all. Online, you can show the world the best parts of yourself and minimize the worst. You curate your own story, weaving the truth or a lie or a little of both.
Final thoughts: Emotionally re-connected, slightly
I’m fairly sure unplugging from social media -- and from my stockpile of digital devices altogether -- generally made me a better person, wife, mother and writer all around. Or at least started to. I paid more attention to the people and places around me and experienced deeper connections with them. Most important, I realized and threw my arms around just how out of control with serial social posting I’d become. I also realized how badly others’ addictions to smartphones around me, in my own family, and everywhere I looked, even far out in nature, had spiraled.
Dr. Mariposa predicted that revelations like these would strike me during the detox, one after the other. A few did, but most of them arrived a week or so after I left the desert and took deeper stock. I realized that while unplugged, and more present with my loved ones and with the world around us, I indeed did feel a stronger sense of connectedness and wellbeing. I also at times felt powerless, envious, left out, outraged and estranged. The experience was bittersweet, but mostly bitter, like me.
From unplugging to uninstalling.
Untethering from my smartphone and laptop -- and from my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts -- freed me up to live more fully than I have in years and I craved more non-digital connectedness. Once back home in Long Beach, (again, thanks to the automagical algorithms and user reports of Waze), I took a huge step. I uninstalled Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter from my phone. Instagram was purposely left in place as a methadone of sorts, to get me over the hump. Eventually I hope I gather the gumption to delete it, too. Maybe I will after I visit the set of Shark Tank next week. To report from there in the most shareable, clicky way possible, I’ll have to reinstall Facebook and Twitter. Not my fault. The job calls for it.
The biggest benefit of detoxing was sharing special moments with my loved ones and really feeling them, not trudging emptily, guardedly through them from behind the lens of my smartphone camera. When I would have normally cradled my phone to check texts, post pics or tally likes, I cradled my youngest niece, Lily, in my arms, comforting her when she got a splinter. I lullabied and rocked her to sleep. We forged a special bond. I could see it in her big brown eyes when she called out my name and chased me down for one last squeeze when we packed to head home. A cheap Instagram version of that moment couldn’t touch how touched I was.
At the mercy of others.
The biggest drawback was losing control logistically. Without my phone in reach, I couldn’t completely control my day. I was at the mercy of others and their phones. I also couldn’t quickly prove that I was right when my credibility was in question a couple of times, like when I bickered with my sister about who wrote Johnny Cash’s version of the song “Hurt.” I bet her $10 it was a Trent Reznor/Nine Inch Nails original that Cash covered. I knew it, but she wasn’t convinced. If I could’ve Googled it and shown her I was right, I would’ve been instantly vindicated. How trifling is that?
Another downside, and this one really bothered me, was the loneliness that came with digitally detoxing, even when so physically near my family. I didn’t have my phone, but they sure had theirs, to a point where much of our shared moments over the weekend centered around their phones. No one volunteered to fully join me in my detox in solidarity and I didn't ask them to. I was on my own and felt it often.
How did my family feel about my unplugging experiment? My husband and sons didn’t have much to say about it. They were too busy zoning on their phones when I asked. My example hadn’t been strong enough. Sorry boys, looks like more screen-time rules are in order.
Paying attention and striving for balance.
My daughter, however, said she felt “happy and more happy” at having me back for a weekend. “You paid more attention to me, instead of checking to see how many people liked your posts and read your articles,” she said. “I felt more important than your work, than a lot of people I don’t know on the internet that seem important to you. You looked up at me when I asked you questions and didn’t tell me ‘One sec,’ and ‘What did you ask me again?’ like four times in a row.”
Cue the parent-fail shame spiral. Let me tell you, nothing will make you feel so rotten as a mother as your child bluntly pointing out that you care about strangers more than her. That she isn’t your everything. Not in her view of it.
That was enough for me. I’m never going back to the way I was before the detox.
My daughter feels that's a bad idea, though. She says I need to simply be "more balanced" in my social media and phone habits, a wise and somewhat sad observation for an 11-year-old. “I want you to share some pics of our special times with just our real-life friends online. If you don’t, they don’t get to see all the amazing things we do together, like Grammy and Grampy, all the way in New Hampshire. But, Mom, don’t do it all the time, please. Don’t ignore us like before, OK?”She has a point, one I intend to follow, even if I’ve since found myself checking my Facebook like-count on my iPhone web browser, one time even in my truck at a stoplight -- again. Old habits die hard. My addiction to social media is no different. That’s why I’m taking it one day at a time, as they say. One non-digitally documented day at a time, no hashtag necessary.