One month without notification: No WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram & Co.

Every month of 2020 it’s time for a new challenge from 12Challenges.
March was #DoNotDisturb: we did not use any social media, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Twitter. Old school phone calls and SMS have been the only ways to reach me. During the spread of COVID-19 and beginning of lockdown.

I enjoy posting on Instagram, making videos for YouTube, and chatting with my friends on WhatsApp. I probably send an average of thousands of messages every week, and I think there are many good ways of using social media. However, I realise how much time I spend — even without noticing — on my phone every day, and how addicted we are to our phone vibration, to our notifications. On average, Americans look at their phone every 12 minutes. If you ended up reading this article, you are probably relatively wealthy, relatively young, and you look at your phone even more often than every 12 minutes. Here’s how it felt not doing it for 31 days:

  • The moment when I deleted all my apps was a Saturday night and I was just going out. I rarely felt more disoriented and reaching my friends has been quite tricky.
  • The first couple of days have been crazy, I could not believe how many times I am used to checking my phone. Even knowing that I would not find a single notification, I could not help from checking my phone as a reflex.
  • From the very beginning of the month, I had a couple of extra hours every day that I could spend doing things I never had the time to do, like editing my YouTube videos.
  • I learned how to do nothing. When we are waiting for the train, taking a couple of minutes break from work, waiting for a file to download or whatever other couple of seconds window we have, we take our phone and we look at it. And maybe open Instagram and scroll a couple of stories. Now I would have a couple of seconds to look around me, informationless. How fu*king relaxing.

As most people, I have done some detox from some social media every now and then. Delete Instagram for a few weeks and get rid of the scrolling addiction for a while.

I always had the impression that people who are not on social media either have something to hide or some kind of social anxiaty. I don’t trust you if I can’t find you on Facebook kind of thing. It has become quite unusual for somebody not to have any presence on social media. It is almost a portfolio of our existance and our experiences. And there are plenty of great ways of using social media: you can spread a message, make your voice heard, sell products, find services, connect with people. There is really plenty to gain from each of these platforms.

Most likely, every person you know uses at least one among Facebook, Instangram, YouTube, Whatsapp or Twitter. These platforms are ways for you (and advertisers) to reach almost every person you know. They became part of us, somewhat an augmentation of our persona, and almost part of our identity. More trustable than our card ID or birth certificate, and surely more informative.

As a first thing, I had to face my parents going extremely dramatic about becoming unreachable. “Are you creazy you don’t care about us how can you do this to your family” and other dozens of formal threats. It followed a negotiation to set up a time for Skype calls not to be missed, on pain of death. Before I even realised it was 11pm of the 29th of February. I was on the tube, Saturday night, heading to a few friends of mine — also taking part to the 12Challenges — having a small party. I rushed to delete all the apps on my phone that could possibly push a notification on my screen, realising I had no way to find out the address I was supposed to get to. I could not call half of them, who have international numbers, and I only had the FB contact of some others. It took few minutes to get completely disoriented without my social media.

On average, Americans check their phone 96 times a day. No better than that, for the first week I kept checking my phone every 10 minutes in the desperate hope of a notification. How miserable I felt for not being able to refrain from checking my phone even perfectly knowing I would have not found any notification. How strong was the reflex of checking who just texted me to get some quick dopamine injection. Not able to stay away from my phone, I kept myself updated on every single news on the press, I would check my investments a few times a day, as if they could double or halve every 30 minutes. It took me about 10 days to accept I had nothing to see on my phone.

After about two weeks I was looking out of the window during a coffee break, staring at the wall when eating alone, doing literally nothing waiting for a file to download on my laptop. And how relaxing that was. Incredibly refreshing. Something I had not done in probably 10 years, when every 30 seconds spare were spent on my phone to make sure every scrap of time was put to some use. I became more present in conversations, I called more friends than I ever did, I spoke with some people I had not heard from in years, I skyped my parents more than I ever did through 5 years living abroad, I was more productive than the last couple of years, I was able to sleep so much better, and I exercised every day. I really did breake the circle of instant gratification.

In the meantime, coronavirus was happening. Although everyone I know commented on the fact this was the worst possible period for doing this challenge and disconnect from the world, I was extremely glad my quarantine was starting with increased productivity, zero time on social media, and more connected to the people I love. Adding to this, I brought my little sister for a car trip in Scotland. The struggle to meet up, the impracticality of contacting anyone, and the only-for-future-reference pictures were only a terrible plus to the trip.

My takeaways:

  • We live most of our lifes in the cycle of the instant gratification. For as much as it’s difficult to give up notifications, looking for other sources of dopamine does lead us to happier and healthier lives.
  • Social media are incredibily powerful, so we need to be incredibly careful on how we use them. The reach and targetization of these platforms is unmached by anything humans have ever seen before. Instagram algorithms know what you like and how feel every day much better than your mother does.
  • Our mobile devices should bring us closer. Being able to see on their stories what your friends are doing makes them feel closer to you. However, picking up the phone and giving them a call is far more powerfull that seeing what your friend wants everyone to see.
  • Disconection comes with focus. The goal of every social media platform is to have you spend as much time as possible on their platforms, and it clearly does make sense for them. Notifications are studied to get your attention and bring you back to their platform. Choosing to go notification-free is very powerful.

April will be the turn of #BillGates, we’ll be coming back to enjoy the pleasure and power of reading every day. Stay tuned to see the update.

A presto,
Fede

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Federico Sanna

Autonomous Driving Systems Engineer at Arrival— Imperial College Bioengineering Graduate — 12challenges patient zero