Existing In An Instagram World: How To Walk Into A Tree Without Really Trying

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If you’re worried that your phone has become the centre of your universe, you’re not alone. Dr Suwen Tan is battling an identical demon.

When I was in middle school, my friend and I were moderators of a Twilight forum.

This is a fact that I have only been able to openly admit 14 years after it occurred. I was, frankly, obsessed with it. My friend and I would spend hours upon unhealthy hours of chatting on this message board. We’d come home from school and spend hours until late in the evening replying to post after post. At the time, I thought I was addicted to Twilight because rock hard vampires were every teenage girl’s dream in 2007. Now I wonder if it was really the message board itself that was the object of my desire.

The Twilight message board was barely social media compared to what we have today. There was no explore page, no Stories, no playground of hyperlinks and tempting advertisements. There was a grey backdrop, black size 10 Arial font and 48x64px avatars that we put our whole hearts and souls into. But apparently that was enough to get the addiction going.

Addiction is a strong word. I wasn’t spending all of my $6.50/hour wages on this Twilight forum nor have I ever done that. But I’ve done plenty of other questionable things in the name of Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.

I walked into a tree a few weeks ago. I was trying to be wholesome and mindful except that I spent most of the walk looking at my phone. Scrolling away with a focus and intensity that I don’t think I’ve applied to any other aspect of my life. It shouldn’t have been surprising when I walked into the tree but I was, perhaps because I’d been in such a mind-numbing reverie. A week later, the scratch on my forehead was starting to fade away. I wondered if the behaviour that led me to walk into a tree was problematic.

Since then, I’ve been trying to wean myself off of technology and social media. People have told me about how horrified they are with their two-or three-hour screen time reports. I try to pretend I am duly horrified while thinking that I have them beaten five-fold.

My technology weaning regimen started off on a really bad foot when I decided that joining an online community dedicated to spending less time on the internet was the answer to my problems. Concerningly, it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I spent the next week surfing through pages and pages of posts on this site. I’d congratulated myself days earlier for deleting Instagram but subsequently replaced it wholly, if not a bit extra, with this one site.

It took me a week to recognize I was self-medicating with a no healthier drug and even longer to break away from my newfound addiction.

Now that I reflect on my antics, I wonder what else I could have used that time for. Started training for a marathon? Learned how to play backgammon? Sat outside with a coffee or had a conversation with a friend? I didn’t do any of these things. Instead, I spent hours (more like days) falling down a rabbit hole and having nothing to show for it. I wanted to feel self-congratulatory about making “a start” so I could keep scrolling without feeling guilty.

Let’s talk for a moment about the documentary, The Social Dilemma. It might have even been what motivated me to change. I watched it then told everyone around me to also watch it and uninstall all of their apps except Windows Media Player. I was outraged (and perhaps a little emotionally manipulated by decent filmmaking). Our society was being corrupted by the insidious and unethical forces of Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and bearded Silicon Valley men. But my instinctive fiery reaction was short-lived.

What I’ve learned from trying to quit social media is that it’s much easier to preach than actually do it. My one true vice, YouTube, was the last to go. After uninstalling it from my phone, I found myself with literal hours of emptiness. I could have finally tried to learn Spanish so I could watch my favourite Mexican soap opera without subtitles, but instead I found myself reading the ABC news app. On repeat. Refreshing my screen constantly. Hungry for any news. Any Boris Johnson related reports. Any homicide cold cases from 1980s rural NSW. I never had any interest in news or politics before deleting YouTube and suddenly I found myself with an insatiable hunger to consume it all.

After uninstalling YouTube on my phone, I told myself I could only watch YouTube on my laptop. My new rule worked for about three days before I found myself opening my laptop more than ever before. I also realised that I could watch YouTube on my laptop while pretending I was studying or reading educational journal articles instead of indulging in mind-numbing frivolity. Now, of course, everybody knows the truth.

Months have passed since I started re-evaluating my use of social media and technology. I have managed to stifle most urges to sit for hours on my couch watching YouTube videos or flipping through Instagram. But I suspect that the uncontrollable urge to unlock my phone and click on anything is now programmed into all of my 36 chromosomes.

There are snippets of my early 2000s childhood that I remember really well. The dial-up tone. The big, boxy computer monitors. Emailing friends in high school in massive 10-person chains. Yes, that slow internet speed and those clunky Nokia 2300s were inefficient but at least we were so annoyed with them that we shut down the computer and went outside to pet our dogs and sit in a patch of sunshine for a while.

There is a healthy and mindful balance of social media use that perhaps some Tibetan monks have discovered. I am yet to find it. I have only been able to dream about that healthy equilibrium and force myself to read a book when all I want to do is get lost in my phone. However, neither do I want to find myself at 80 years old with failing eyesight and wheeled Zimmer frame, unable to recall what it felt like to take a long walk in the park because I was too focused on my phone. Too focused on a world that doesn’t really exist.

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Suwen Tan

Suwen is a Perth-based writer and doctor. Since 2016 she has been writing observational articles on everyday life issues. Currently, she balances writing with general practice training.

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