‘Digital detoxes’ don’t work – but I think I’ve found something that does

·4-min read
‘My relationship with social media has very rarely been combative – but I still relished a break’  (Getty)
‘My relationship with social media has very rarely been combative – but I still relished a break’ (Getty)

Sit down. I’m going to give you a list of 18 Hollywood couples with a major age difference. Also, just while you’re there: here is why art in Afghanistan is under threat as the Taliban assume control. Meanwhile, why did your MP abstain in that vote yesterday? Have you written to her about it yet?

Take 10 minutes to read this article and it will change the way you look at your workspace. Here are half a dozen reasons you should be worried about Facebook’s rebrand, but here is a link to a half a dozen reasons that first article is wrong. You might have been going to the toilet wrongly all your life.

How many of these 1,000 great albums have you heard, and when are you going to catch up with the rest of them?

Exhausting to be spoken to like this, isn’t it? But spend enough time on social media and you are basically asking somebody to sit on your desk with a megaphone blasting this sort of thing into your ear.

This was brought home to me by a brief spell away from Twitter last week. Abroad – for the first time since the pandemic punctured the world’s tyres – I was forced to ration my internet use to a minimum, because every time I so much as checked the weather forecast, my phone provider sent a cheery message saying, “that’s taken you over your roaming threshold; click here to pay us another £29.”

I was only able to lurk on Twitter long enough to see what people were arguing about today, decide what my opinion would have been, and then realise it was futile to bother posting it. I have to say this was a very peaceful place to be.

It’s a cliché to observe that social media has us all permanently at each other’s throats, taking positions we never knew we had on Gywneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle empire and defending them desperately to someone called @MaxChelseaFC345782 who we’ll never physically meet – and would move slightly away from in the pub if we did.

But my relationship with social media has very rarely been as combative as that. Unlike some of my friends and peers, I spend hardly any time exchanging 240-character insults or putting my name into the search box to see if anyone has called me a waste of space in the past 10 minutes.

I think of myself as a fairly agreeable presence online and my Twitter timeline is rarely a battleground. Because of this, though, it’s easy to overlook that it is – still – a madhouse.

We simply weren’t designed to listen to a grab-bag of the thoughts of 2,000 strangers before lunch, especially unsolicited ones on what colour paint is the most inspirational to your children or why almond milk might be a disaster for the planet.

Even if we’re not caught up in disputes, the sheer amount of online noise is exhausting us more than we realise. Our brains are processing a stream of opinion (often angry), distraction, rumour and gossip almost non-stop.

It’s easy to blame the platforms ourselves, but it’s about our over-consumption. You can’t blame Nespresso for the fact that you’ve drunk 24 coffees consecutively since breakfast time and now feel somewhat on edge. That’s pretty much what a lot of us are doing with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Lots of people advocate a “digital detox” and announce proudly that they’re taking a two-week break from socials. This is all very well, but there’s little point in doing that and then plunging headlong into the water again.

The trick must be to consume the internet in more manageable portions – as you would any of life’s other addictive materials. Go in, look around, breathe, leave again.

In fact, you could try taking a leaf out my holiday book. Any time you check Twitter for no real reason, imagine your phone has just charged you another £29. You can probably get an app that sends you fake texts to that effect, actually. I’ll just look it up on… no, wait a second.

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