Political News

A Call to Cut Back Online Addictions. Pitted Against Just One More Click.

Posted February 4, 2018 6:31 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — As part of a monthlong challenge to declutter her digital life, Kristi Kremers vowed she would cut off her online addictions: Instagram, Facebook and the news websites she checks hourly.

Her resolve dissolved within days. She checked the Drudge Report, “a one-stop shop,” she admitted, for all of her news updates. She caved with Facebook, using the network to coordinate birthday plans (“When it’s your birthday, it’s like the best Facebook day ever,” she said). And then she gave in to the allure of her social media feed to keep tabs on the Minnesota Vikings through the NFL playoffs.

“I was basically set up for failure from the beginning,” Kremers, an employee at the University of Minnesota, said with a laugh. “Going completely cold turkey in all of these different realms at once was too much.”

The challenge through January was issued by Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. Newport, who runs a blog about managing digital productivity, encouraged his thousands of readers to remove every piece of digital interaction that was not critical to their work and lives. At the month’s end, he instructed, slowly add everything back in.

“It’s like cleaning out your whole house and deciding, ‘OK, what do I want to put back into the house?'” Newport said. His own online weakness, he said, is baseball trading rumors.

He assured his followers that there was no reason to eliminate anything essential: email for work, checking finances, staying in touch with family. Don’t get rid of anything that would jeopardize work or family.

With Silicon Valley under pressure to address the addictive quality of its innovations, Newport described his informal experiment as a way for people to control their digital intake, particularly since the 2016 presidential election. It sought to address what he described as a widespread complaint: There’s too much news. I need a break.

That is a particularly dominant complaint in Washington, he said, where President Donald Trump’s proclivity for one certain online medium — Twitter — can dictate at least a day of news and reaction.

“There’s a lot of complexity and uncertainty in the role that these technologies should play in personal and professional life,” Newport said. “We’re past the stage where they’re novel, but not to the point where they’re stable.”

He estimated that nearly 2,000 people worldwide said they would participate in his challenge, tailoring their restrictions to match their work demands but hoping to at least limit their daily diet of news and social media.

At her university in Boras, Sweden, Elin Hedin, 23, stopped using Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Messenger and Instagram. She also tried to limit the amount of time she browsed websites.

In the first week, it felt like a vacation and she slept better. But then, she said, the loneliness kicked in.

“I’ve often felt isolated, and kind of lonely,” she wrote in an email. “I miss reading about people’s days, seeing what they’re up to on Instagram, reading about their opinions on the latest news, and so on.”

“I guess I’m just used to getting that extra bit of socializing,” she added. For Anya Mushakevich, a 20-year-old Belarusian studying at the University of Pennsylvania, the lack of online socializing made clear which of her friends abroad would make the effort to stay in touch outside the convenience of Facebook. Who among her circle in Belarus or in Singapore, where she attended high school, would take the time to find her email or phone number?

“I feel more invested in the time I spend with people. And because we interact less frequently, we have this idea that we want to make the most of the experience,” said Mushakevich, who says she is unlikely to reinstall the Facebook app on her phone. “That makes it seem more meaningful than if we had all of the time in the world, like we do on Facebook.”

Newport continues to send messages of daily encouragement to readers who participated in his challenge. It made most realize, he said, how dependent they had become on websites and mobile phone apps.

“Their role in your life has grown without your permission,” he said. “No one had that in mind when they signed up for Facebook to stay in touch with their college roommate."

A majority of the people who reported back to Newport with their results in unplugging noted that they had picked up new hobbies: painting, exercise, the opportunity to write a book. They said they also imposed strict guidelines to keep themselves from slipping: Keep the phone charger in another room. Ask the people texting to instead please call. Stop the reflex click to a favorite sports website instead of focusing on work. Kremers, who gave up early in the challenge, said she plans to try again later in the year, with a better understanding of how easy it is to slip into old habits.

“I think it’s a beautiful idea, really,” she said. “It demands a new form of resilience from us.”