Twitter Won’t Miss You: A Digital Detox Reading List (and Roadmap)

Follow the crowds to a world with less screen time. (Photo by davity dave via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories. 

Have you ever needed a break, but just not known from what? Everything seems fine…ish. Your job is OK, your friendships are all right, your health is decent, nothing dramatic to report. And yet, you’re stressed. Dissatisfied. Bored. Sometimes you even feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Maybe you should distract yourself by looking at Instagram. Maybe you should find someone with whom to argue on Twitter. Maybe you should see what your ex is up to on Snapchat.

Or maybe you should get the hell off social media for awhile.

At least, that’s the prescription issued by an increasingly vocal crowd of psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, writers, philosophers, performers, and general opinion-havers. The common term is “digital detox,” whereby an individual commits to a cessation of specific actions on one’s Internet-enabled devices for a finite period of time. One can go on this adventure with friends, family, or a likeminded group of strangers from, you guessed it, the internet.

I’ve been an enthusiastic and sometimes addicted social media user since approximately 2003. But after beginning my research for this column, I went on a digital detox of my own. It is small and manageable, and nothing so impressive as author Cal Newport’s suggested 30-day detox from all nonessential online functions. But it has improved my life already in measurable ways. Here are some writers whose approaches to their own vacations from the Matrix helped me shape mine.

1. “Unplugged: What I Learned By Logging Off and Reading 12 Books in a Week.” (Lois Beckett, The Guardian, December 2018)

Beckett nabbed what must’ve been the plum journalistic gig of the year: head to a tiny cabin in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and read. Books. Made of paper. “This was a perfect assignment,” she writes. “For journalists on many beats — including mine, which includes the far right and gun policy — it had been a year of escalating violence during which conspiracy theories had moved into the mainstream.” And off she went, blissfully unencumbered by wifi. She brought a stack critically acclaimed books purchased at different independent bookshops and a plan was to read 30 books in a week, a number that sounds patently insane to me. She read 12. I’m still impressed — and envious.

The ensuing story is littered with gentle shade, which I always appreciate, and she’s a damn good writer: “I was not going to finish all 30 books at any cost, skimming to the right section of the right chapter in order to say one smart thing — in the U.S., we call this skill a ‘liberal arts education’ — but instead wanted the books’ authors and their protagonists to collide and argue with each other, to give me some different understanding of what had happened in 2018.”

2. “#Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left The Internet For 25 Days, And You Should, Too.” (Baratunde R. Thurston, Fast Company, June 2013)

I adore my longtime friend Baratunde, though perhaps not as much as my mother, who has met the man twice and still has a copy of his 2013 Fast Company cover story somewhere in her house. He’s a great human.

And now that we’ve established my utter lack of objectivity, let’s hear from his 2013 self: “I’m an author, consultant, speechifier, and cross-platform opiner on the digital life. My friends say I’m the most connected man in the world. And in 2012, I lived like a man running for president of the United States, planet Earth, and the Internet all at once.” That very accurate description is exactly why it was so interesting that Baratunde Rafiq Thurston, of all freaking people, did a digital detox.

At the time, I remember worrying that he might burn out or possibly just suddenly up and die due to lack of sleep, so it was clearly a good move. I can’t imagine replicating what he did (no email?!), but since he was self-employed with a personal assistant and has an incredible amount of willpower, he was able to pull it off. His nine-point digital detox preparation checklist is incredibly helpful, and I intend to use it the next time I do one. My favorite line? “She transmitted this data by writing down the names on a piece of paper.” And yes, he was happier and healthier by the end of the experience. To this day, he goes on regular social media vacations, and I believe he’d tell you his life is better for it.

3. “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend On It.” (Cal Newport, New York Times, November 2016)

“I’m a millennial computer scientist who also writes books and runs a blog,” Newport writes. “Demographically speaking I should be a heavy social media user, but that is not the case. I’ve never had a social media account.” Newport lays out in plain, accessible language the notion that social media distracts from good work because it is designed to be addictive. It’s a notion with which I agree, based in no small part on my own lived experience; I have no doubt my writing output has suffered as I’ve devoted more and more time to social media. As Newport writes, “It diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter.”

4. “Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.” (Clay Skipper, GQ, January 2019)

Fast forward two and a half years. Newport, by now an in-demand speaker and author of two books — the latest is Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World — expands on his November 2016 Op-Ed. Newport is a reluctant self-help guru who would undoubtedly reject that label. In this interview (as in the one I heard with him on fellow PoB (Pal of Baratunde) Lewis Howes’s podcast “The School of Greatness”), Newport stresses that he doesn’t typically offer a program or prescription. However, his recommendation for a 30-day digital detox seems simple in concept and necessarily jarring to execute: one dispenses with all digital products that are unnecessary to one’s career and personal health. Check your work email and log into your bank app to ensure a direct deposit has gone through, but let Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts lie fallow for 30 days. Skipper is an able interviewer and Newport is a clear, experienced, and intelligent interviewee.

5. I Quit Social Media for 65 Weeks. This Is What I Learned. (Kareem Yasin, Healthline, February 2018)

Yasin interviews David Mohammadi, who left social media for over a year and loved the experience. A newly minted New Yorker, he abandoned the online pseudo-friendship industrial complex because he was worried he’d obsess over what was happening back in San Francisco. And he had good reason to suspect he’d be homesick — he’d tried the East Coast thing once, been endlessly captivated by his Bay Area friends’ Facebook updates, and ended up moving back to San Francisco. Years later, a more mature Mohammadi quit his job and decided to start a new career in New York with a clear mind unclouded by social media-induced FOMO. You likely won’t be surprised to hear his take: “The first week was hard. The second week was nice. And as I got closer to the end date, I just was like: ‘Wow. It feels great to be so present, and not just on my phone.’” But the benefits didn’t just extend to mental health — he made more money, too! Yasin writes, “Working as a boutique manager, [Mohammadi] noticed how his coworkers would constantly check their phones. Those two-minute breaks from the real world robbed them of opportunities to get more commissions — opportunities that would be theirs if they would just look up and notice the customers.”

* * *

Like you, probably, I have a personal Instagram account. Except it isn’t personal, really — with 14,200 followers, it is ostensibly a way to cultivate and grow an online brand based on me, myself, and I. I write essays and books; I do comedy shows; I lecture on mental health awareness at colleges; I pop up as a talking head in various capacities in various venues. Like you, probably, I want to be seen as an attractive person, so sometimes I use filters or put on more makeup than is absolutely necessary for a selfie. Like you, probably, I want to be seen as a capable person worthy of being hired, so I do my best to seem witty and fun but chill, man. Given that I want to write more for television and that a lot of my work falls under the category of “entertainment,” I have followed the conventional thinking in my industry, which boils down to “Always be selling (yourself).”

This thinking extends to my “personal” Twitter account (77,400 followers), despite my many qualms about the ethics of its overseers with regard to threats and harassment. It extended to my Facebook fan page, until I quit Facebook altogether because I don’t care what my least-favorite racist relative ate for breakfast — if I want to know what’s up with a boring person from high school, I’ll make private inquiries. When the current Russian government really loves something, I have to ask myself if I need that something in my life. (Note: I am aware that Facebook owns Instagram, and that I’m a hypocrite sometimes.)

Then there’s the Instagram account for my podcast (679 followers) and the Twitter account for my podcast (457 followers) and the Instagram account for my progressive lady-coat art project (26,200 followers). I don’t use Snapchat, because once I joined for 24 hours and my drunk friend sent me a dick pic framed by monogrammed his-and-hers towels in the master bathroom he shares with his girlfriend; I’m a Scorpio, and pseudoscience and common sense immediately told me the power of the Snap was too great for my personal constitution to handle. I also recently joined a few dating apps. And that led to more swiping, more clicking, more texting, more aggravation of writing-induced carpal tunnel issues. When an ex-NFL star asked me on what I’m sure would have been a super safe and not-gross date to his house at 3 a.m., I decided that Tinder was also too much for me.

At this point, and considering my sore wrists, the signals seemed to say, “SARA. TAKE SOME TIME OFF THE SOCIAL MEDIA.” I had 104,000 followers across social media, some of whom were double or triple followers and some of whom were robots, and while I loved each of them like my very own imaginary baby, Mommy needed a vacay.

First, I enabled the Screen Time function on my phone and discovered that I use it, on average, over seven hours a day. This horrifying fact led me to design the parameters of my moderate digital detox: I’d continue to use my email for work and social reasons. I would continue to use Twitter, but only to share my work or the work of a friend or charity. I would post a note announcing that I was taking an Instagram break until April 9, the day the second season of my podcast debuts, to give both a heads up to any former professional athletes that I wouldn’t be interacting with them there and to announce the premiere date. I would text when I felt like it, but leave my phone facing down when I wasn’t using it. I would remove Instagram from my phone, just as I’d done with Twitter months prior. At night and during my daily meditation practice, I would put the phone on airplane mode.

Following those simple rules, and only occasionally breaking them, I managed to reduce my phone time by 10 percent in the first week. I resumed the regular at-home yoga practice I’d attempted a month prior. I finished the outline of an hour-long TV drama pilot. I went on actual face-to-face dates with humans during daylight and appropriate evening hours. I visited with two friends. I got the “annual” physical I’d put off for two years. And I wrote this column.

While I intend to resume using Instagram on April 9, I will do as Cal Newport recommends: use social media like a professional, for specific purposes, and do not stray from said purposes. Twitter and Instagram will remain places for me to share my work and the work of friends and charities I admire. Sometimes, I will use these places to discover great writing, music, and more. Moving forward, I want to reduce my screen time by 10 percent each week until I average under four hours per day on my phone — and then I’ll try to reduce it even more.

I’m pleased with my progress. It may seem meager, but it’s a start. And I feel better already. So if you’ve considered quitting social media but have some qualms, do what I did: start small. Pop your head above the churning surface of our wild, untrammeled internet, and take a look around. Stay awhile. Your eyes will grow accustomed to real sunlight soon enough, and it’ll be easier to breathe. It’s pretty nice up here.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber