My phone's usage timer is my harshest critic. When I open the "digital wellness" app where it resides, I see a pie chart breaking down how I have spent my time on the device so far today. More often than not, the slice representing Instagram is more than half of the whole; even on days when I am fairly content with the amount of work I have done, I see that and think "that's 90 minutes you could have spent with your dog, or reading a book for fun, or talking to a friend, or staring out the window". I'm making only very slow progress on my ability to do nothing (as discussed in last week's newsletter) and my screen time data feels like a rebuke every time I look at it.
I've written about phone addiction before. For that article I went through the 30-day process laid out in Catherine Price's How To Breakup With Your Phone. I deleted all the apps that I was using to waste time thoughtlessly, I thought about why I was twitching towards my phone every time I was bored or alone with my thoughts for a second, and I even turned it off and put it in a drawer for extended periods of time. But none of these practices — sensible as they seem — stuck with me because ultimately I was doing it all for work, not because I had really come to a crisis point with my phone usage. Once I had filed the article, I immediately went back to sleeping with my phone within touching distance.
But then, a few weeks ago, I had to read out my phone usage data to a sleep therapist who was (rightly!) concerned that my screen time was playing a part in my chronic insomnia. "That's quite high," she said gently, as I tried to justify the day where the overall total was north of three hours by explaining that "being online" is part of my job. "Do you get paid for doing this?" she asked, as I rambled vaguely about trying to sell a book during a pandemic.
This stopped me in my tracks. Whenever I experience guilt about the phone usage pie chart, I quell those feelings with the argument that I need to spend all that time scrolling and being served adverts for improbable cottagecore dresses because I have to be on social media for work. How will anyone know that my work exists, otherwise? The fraught question of how the onus and cost of publicity work has shifted onto individuals in creative fields in the last few years is a larger topic for another day, but suffice to say that I am moderately resentful that if I was, say, 15 years older, this would be far less of an issue for me.
Until recently, this notion of excessive social media use as "work" wasn't an aspect of the discussion around phone usage and addiction that I had seen addressed in public much. Good as Price's book on this topic is, it's mostly aimed at people who overuse their phones accessing work emails and their social media friends. Internet civilians, in other words, not those of us who toil professionally in the online content mines. There isn't much leeway in her system for not being able to log off Twitter because it's your job to be there.
Now, it is debatable how much I, or indeed anyone in my situation, actually needs to be on the apps that are dominating my pie chart. I'm not a social media manager, but I do still experience the pressure to post more often so that people can discover my podcast, for instance, and worry that in weeks where I don't do it I'm failing or missing opportunities. In previous jobs, it has been my responsibility to run a magazine's social media presence, and I think I'm still a little bit braced for the impact of the texts at 8am on a Saturday morning about what has or hasn't been tweeted.
That said, I have slowly been collecting resources about the push-pull of social media usage when you work in an adjacent field. This episode of the Nobody Panic podcast does a good job of offering no nonsense advice and emphasising that you get to choose how much or little time you dedicate to it. This episode of Reply All has fewer solutions to offer but does articulate the genuine dilemma of wanting to be offline but being forced back on by work — world's tiniest violin, I know, but I did feel for the host who had no choice but to reactivate his Twitter account so that he could get someone to appear as a guest on the show. The whole of Rachel Karten's newsletter Link in Bio is very smart on this topic, but this post where her readers share their worries about logging off and this interview with someone who works at Instagram are relevant to what I'm discussing here.
The other day, I saw a Dutch sewing YouTuber I follow post about this on her Instagram story. She, too, justifies her constant presence online because of her work, but had recently audited what she actually does with her screen time and found that 90 per cent of it was spent scrolling rather than posting. Of course, being aware of what your peers are doing on a platform is part of the process of making content for it, but I thought her underlying point was right: she's mostly there as a consumer, while telling herself she's a creator.
I don't have a neat solution to offer here; this is more of a "name the problem" exercise. However, if you find yourself in a similar situation, I can recommend a modified version of an exercise in Price's book — every time you feel your fingers twitch towards your phone, ask yourself why you are picking it up. If the answer to that question is "because I have to post about X for work" or "I want to look at those nice pictures of Y's new puppy", go right ahead and feel no guilt about it. If there is no answer, though, you might find that there's something better you can do with your time instead.
Until next time,
There are a few other places on the internet where you can find me: get my article and podcast recommendations in The Browser, listen to my murder mystery podcast Shedunnit, or follow me on Twitter and Instagram.