A few weeks ago, I started to periodically feel a sharp pain in my right elbow. It was particularly painful — to the point that I could not help but inhale a sharp breath — when I was doing push ups. (Ok, not real push-ups, which I cannot do, yet, but any exercise that was push-up-adjacent.) I had been writing a lot, with pen and paper, a least a few times a day, and I thought that perhaps because my elbow wasn’t always supported properly that this is what was causing the inflammation.
More recently, however, I’ve decided that it is some sort of side effect of the way in which I hold my phone, elbow bent so that my phone is near my face, thumb working the scroll. Phone thumb scrolling repetitive stress elbow irritation? Is there such a thing? I don’t know. But I’ve latched on to it as yet another reason why I need to put my phone down. If the psychological toll that mindless scrolling takes isn’t enough to deter me, perhaps the physical discomfort (pain even) will be.
Why do I always reach for my phone in all sorts of different moments of down (and up) time? Particularly during this time of increased time at home, have my devices been an absolutely necessary way in which I can carve out a little mental (if not exactly physical) space for myself? Is this just the way I’m keeping engaged in the world beyond our home?
Truth be told: I can come up with 3,000 unique justifications for why my phone — and the social media checking and re-checking — is something that I need. But even 3,000 justifications do not add up to a reason.
I studied one year abroad in England. I remember at that time being impressed by how accessible live theater was there. I lived in London, which, of course, had loads of shows, many of which were reasonably priced especially when they offered student tickets. But even when visiting smaller towns, it usually seemed that live theater was accessible and a part of everyday life in the way that movie theaters are in the US. I can’t say that I took advantage of it as much as I wish I had, but I would occasionally take in a show as I might have gone to the movies in the States, usually on a whim and on my own.
This reminds me of how I use my phone these days. No, not that enjoying live theater is like mindlessly reaching for my phone and scrolling through social media. Rather, it is like the large boxes of Cadbury Chocolate Roses that were sometimes sold at the concession stands and which audience members were allowed to, unlike here in the US, TAKE INTO THE THEATER. In other words, I could sit in a darkened theater watching an actual live show with a massive box of individual chocolates in my lap, which I was free to consume as I wished. I do not recall whether I could ever finish an entire box, but I seem to remember coming awfully close. And when I saw awfully, I actually do mean awfully. It was so easy to just unwrap and pop them in my mouth one after the other, not noticing the uncomfortable sticky sweet coating in my mouth and growing ache in my belly until it was too late.
And that’s what it’s felt like with my phone and the way in which I engage with social media too much of the time. I pop image after image, video after video, tweet after tweet into my brain, ignoring the back and forth feelings of interest and disdain, connection and judgment until it’s all just one giant melty blob of non-feeling.
Ugh. When I think about all of the mental energy I’ve expended on social media… I suspect I could have single-mindedly powered our home — Nintendo Switch, air conditioner, and all — for a year.
I have started to try to make a conscious effort to be more thoughtful about how and why I’m consuming social media. Results have been mixed. What I have noticed is that when I am sitting without much to do and I make the effort to pick up a pen and notebook instead of my phone, a semi-amazing thing happens. As I write or sketch or otherwise engage in a creative process for myself and away from social media, I suddenly feel somewhat freer. I feel free from the judgment of others but more significantly, I am free from the burden of judging others, which, I have come to realize, has been the overriding way in which I experience social media.
This is not to say that I judge others harshly on social media but each decision to engage or not engage, to continue scrolling or not, is based, in part, on a judgment that I’m making about the person who has created the content. And in some cases, the person creating the content is myself. I don’t need that kind of judgment in my life and certainly not that kind of self-judgment.