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Aoife Martin: Breaking up with your phone is hard but the dopamine rush was dwindling

Our columnist returns and has some insights into our collective need for a digital detox.

Aoife Martin

Updated Nov 18th 2021, 10:10 AM

WE LIVE IN an information age. From the moment we get up to the moment we go to sleep we are bombarded with information.

Our phones ping us with news reports, weather alerts (it’s Ireland, of course, it’s going to rain), emails, texts, WhatsApp messages, social media posts, DMs, PMs, notifications for every app imaginable.

My smartwatch tells me when it’s time to take my medication, when to check in with my Covid tracker, how many steps I’ve taken, when to take a minute to myself to breathe mindfully. It records my pulse, my steps, my heartbeat.

Helpful or intrusive?

It reminds me to drink water and to stand up when I’ve been sitting for too long. It tells me when my upcoming appointments are and how long it will take me to get there depending on the current traffic situation.

When I’m washing my hands it even counts down to let me know when my allotted 20 seconds are up. My phone and watch are supposed to help me keep track of my life but more and more they seem to be keeping track of me.

If you’re anything like me the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is reach for your phone. It’s automatic and often unconscious. You don’t even realise you’re doing it. Gotta get up and have breakfast, sure, but first let me check my social media feeds. And it’s not just first thing.

How many times during the day do you find yourself reaching for your phone? Maybe you just checked to see what time it was but suddenly you’re checking Instagram or Twitter or browsing the internet or looking at cat videos on YouTube.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, of course, but of late I’ve begun to wonder is this where I want my attention to focus?

If I was watching a film or reading a book, I would often find myself mindlessly reaching for my phone – I couldn’t seem to go for 20 minutes without needing to check Instagram or Twitter. (I’m not on Facebook or Meta or whatever it’s called now.) I deliberately chose not to download TikTok because I know it would be the end of me and I would finally be subsumed into the Matrix.

Pure distraction

But here’s the thing, none of this was bringing me joy. Quite the opposite. It was causing me anxiety. If I tweeted something I would worry about it being misinterpreted or misunderstood or taken out of context.

It got to a point where I would feel anxious if a lot of people started replying to my tweets.

Invariably, I would end up deleting the tweets in question. I just didn’t want to interact with people – even people who agreed with me – which, of course, defeats the entire purpose of social media.

If a tweet got mostly positive responses, I would end up focusing on the small number of negative ones. This was probably a symptom of my more lugubrious tendencies, being, as I am, a confirmed member of team glass half empty.

One day, a few years ago, I met some friends for brunch. It was one of those endless mimosa affairs, back in the Before Times. I have a strict policy about not bringing my phone out when I’m having a meal – especially when I’m having a meal with friends. One of my friends had no such qualms.

She spent the entirety of the meal, in between joining in the banter, scrolling, texting, replying to whatever messages her phone was notifying her about. It was, I thought afterwards, quite rude.

Why couldn’t she just put her phone down for the duration of the meal or, better yet, leave it in her bag? Why did she feel to need to reply to whatever message or tweet or Facebook post straight away? How did she survive before smartphones? How did any of us? And then I realised that I was no different.

Dopamine rush

Sure, I might feel superior about not bringing my phone out during a meal but how often had I mindlessly scrolled my social media feeds – plural! Who’s feeding off who? – while sitting with family or friends on other occasions?

How often had I checked to see how many likes one of my tweets had gotten, that dopamine rush getting smaller and smaller each time?

Some time ago I stopped watching the news. I stopped reading it too. It wasn’t doing me any good because the news was mostly bad and there was nothing I could do to make it better. Climate change, Donald Trump, Covid 19, Brexit, racism, Boris Johnson, chaos.

It was hard not to despair and even more so because there was very little I could do as an individual to change anything. Even after I had stopped watching the news and listening to the news and reading the news I was still very much aware of what was happening in the news.

That little handheld device that tracked my every move and reminded me of everything I needed to do also pushed this relentless stream of negativity my way. People shared articles that made them angry, engaged with tweets or posts that infuriated them, all the while inadvertently pushing them to the top of my feed so that I couldn’t not see them.

And so I stopped. I turned off all notifications on my phone. I removed Twitter and Instagram. If I want to check my feeds (again, plural!) these days I have to log onto my laptop. That puts a little distance between me and social media. Breaking up is hard. It’s not you, it’s meme.

I’m not going to pretend it’s easy because it’s not. In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport, a professor in the Department of Computer Science at Georgetown University, recommends going cold turkey and “stepping away from optional online activity for 30 days”.

“During this period, you’ll wean yourself from the cycles of addiction that many digital tools can instil, and begin to rediscover the analogue activities that provide you deeper satisfaction.” After the 30 days are up you are free to start online activities again but only if you think they will be of benefit.

I haven’t done the 30-day thing… yet, but I think I will and, if I do, I will report back. However, I can already see the benefits of having removed social media from my phone.

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My attention is focused elsewhere – I’m reading more books, I’m writing more – hello! – and I’m living a more intentional life.

Aoife Martin is a trans woman and activist. In her spare time, she likes reading, going to the cinema and practising card tricks. 

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