What happened when I gave up social media for Lent

Sign off, pause, take a break. Lynn Friedman/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This Lent, I gave up my mobile social media apps for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram -- aka, the Holy Trinity of my time-wasting, soul-shriveling phone usage. And though I still signed onto Facebook and Twitter occasionally via my web browser to keep tabs on work projects (plus, let's be honest, it's hard to quit cold turkey), I held myself to only checking immediate notifications, then closing out.

In deleting the apps and limiting my screen time, I was committing to fasting from distraction with four concrete goals in mind:
  1. to refocus my attention on meaningful interactions and investments of time
  2. to break my addiction to mindless scrolling
  3. to read real, professionally reported news
  4. to learn what I would miss if I wasn't in the mix

The first couple weeks, I was horrified to discover how deep my muscle memory had become. Any time I paused -- be it on the metro platform or at intersections or before bed -- I'd reach for my phone and watch my thumb move of its own accord along familiar routes, only to find its usual destinations removed.

What's more, similar to the year I gave up chocolate (#neveragain), I honored the letter but not the spirit of my sacrifice. Just as I had upped my sugar cookie consumption in response to the absence of chocolately goodness, now I was seeking different feeds to scroll -- for example, A Practical Wedding, which is silly because I'm now married for almost three years. But the content was frothy, fun, and escapist, and it tickled the digital pleasure center of my 21st-century brain.

However, I also discovered what I didn't miss. Strangers' anger, for example. Ignorant commenters. Blurry photos from mere acquaintances. Blatantly biased headlines and memes. Losing 30 minutes of my life before bed every night. Detracting from the precious little time I already have with my child during weekdays. Reciting vacuous online comments out loud to my husband. Putting free and personal information into the ether that allows corporations to profit off me. The subtle but pervasive narrative of comparison and competition that undergirds the whole grasping system.

And I gained a lot, too. A reminder to be intentional, for instance. A step toward breaking the stranglehold my phone has on me. Renewed appreciation for texts, calls, emails, and visits with actual, in-real-life friends. Recommittment to news -- i.e. reading articles in full from legitimate news sources. Catching up on friends' blogs. Sailing through several books. I felt calmer and less wired before bed. And above all, I encountered the humbling but ultimately freeing reality that the world doesn't grind to a halt without my status updates or emoji-laden captions -- and in fact, without the burden of generating them, I am producing more valuable, fulfilling, creative work.

Forty-plus days after I deleted the Holy Trinity, my addiction is far from broken. I have not re-installed Facebook and Twitter (nor will I), but I did add back Instagram, with the goal of monitoring and limiting my usage, for already I feel again the alluring tug of the pretty/fast/fun scroll.

At least now, however, I feel more clear-eyed about my relationship to my device, these apps, and the overall commodity of attention. Each time I take out my phone, I am more likely to think, "What's the best use of my time right now?" And more often than not, this brief pause, this short reflection, is enough to redirect me toward something more restorative like a phone call, a book chapter, or -- heaven help us -- peaceful stillness.

Prayer #334: Attention Span

A bridge is only as useful as the feet that traverse it. Lead me from the bank of mindless ignorance to the far shore of rich contemplation, in ways that both simplify my soul and enrich it. And when I pause to peer into the tranquil water below, may the smooth surface reflect a person present to the moment she's experiencing, at peace with her journey.