Monica Bielanko
A chronicle since 2005 of my marriage & move to Brooklyn in my twenties; becoming a mother in my thirties; moving to Pennsylvania and learning to amicably coparent after divorce in my forties while living 3 doors down from my ex-husband in a small country town.
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Wednesday
Jun282017

Chasing the Fix

I am no longer on social media and the difference it has made in my life is nothing short of astounding. Okay, that's a lie. I have what I refer to as a 'shell' Facebook account under a different name I use for work purposes. "Hello, I'm a producer for AccuWeather and your video of a tornado is really great! May we use it on our website and network with credit to you?" I don't follow anyone or post anything from that account other than work-related requests. I also check Twitter most mornings from my AccuWeather computer to see what's trending, again for work stuffs. There are no apps on my phone. Except the one that monitors my phone usage. Moment. Highly recommend. The number of times you check your phone and how many hours of your day you spend staring at that little screen will alarm you. The minutes add up to a horrific waste of life. The app keeps me honest with myself.

What happened to us? We walk around staring at screens and justifying all the staring at screens and how we need our phones so we're available 24/7 because we're all so goddamn important we can't let a text or email go unanswered for ten minutes and if we do someone else is texting or emailing again demanding a response and it's all bullshit. Half the stuff we all get up to on our smartphones doesn't really matter or even exist in the real world. Hearts and thumbs ups and Facebook debates with strangers, opinion articles passed off as news or fact that say nothing and mean even less, endless memes and photos of other people allegedly living amazing lives but who are just the same smartphone addicted junkie as the rest of us. Put down your phone and it all ghosts away, like that satisfactory snapping off of an old school TV where the image shrinks to a white dot that eventually disappears. Gone.

I used to spend hours of time scrolling social media feeds and reading news articles, justification acrobatics Cirque du Soleiling around my brain: I write online for a living, I need to keep up with social media so I can build a following who is interested in what I write which will, in turn, land me better writing gigs. Or: I need to read the news! News is important! I must be informed, especially with Trump at the wheel. And it's true, I do need to be aware of certain goings on in the universe as part of my job but that kind of thing can be accomplished in minutes, once a day. Truth be told, most online news these days is drummed up, clickbait nonsense. My desire to stay abreast of current events and trends was an imaginary value. I thought it made me informed and, in turn, a better person. It didn't. It just added to the noise in an already cluttered brain and I don't miss the bullshit headlines suckering me in for a read at all. I paid for each of those reads with time and time is a valuable commodity. Since deleting my news app I have discovered that anything important going on in the world will leak into my consciousness in one way or another and I can, at that point, choose to further inform myself in a mindful, intentional way. Endlessly scrolling a news app on my phone was an unnecessary time suck that almost always ended in reading ridiculous articles that were, in two words, consummate bullshit.

Picking up my phone became my default position. The slightest pause in my activity would see me reaching for my phone. Red stoplight. Pick up phone. Standing in line. Phone. That bled into my life as a mom, which of course, I'd justify by telling myself I work full-time and have three kids and, by god, If I want to read this article about how Kim Kardashian's waist-cincher changed her life while my kids splash in a backyard pool I bought with my hard-earned cash, I deserve it. While it's true that I have earned the right to read an article, what I was missing was the fact that reading the article and the one after that and the one after that was a monumental waste. Same thing goes for emails and texts. I'm checking for "important" work emails, I'd tell myself, ramping up a false sense of urgency and creating anxiety where there need be none. And then, when I'd made sure there were no emails awaiting my attention, I'd mindlessly wander to the good old news feed or Instagram or Facebook to scroll others' posts or maybe create my own post, which compelled me for hours afterward to check back in and see the reaction. And then check my work email some more. Then Instagram. Haven't checked Facebook in a few hours, let's see what's happening there.

Reading an article the other day - What is brain-hacking? - felt like someone throwing cold water on my face. My boyfriend, Anderson Cooper, talks to tech engineers in Silicon Valley who reveal some insidious shit about how they are basically programming people. Addicting them to their iPhones like sheisty drug dealers, creating computer codes that give your brain "rewards" that have no actual value. Thousands of ivy league educated engineers making the big bucks by devising ever-sneakier ways to keep your eyes on your smartphone, hooking you on that dopamine fix you get when someone hearts your photo or likes your status and the notification buzzes your physiology. Here's a bit with Anderson talking to a computer programmer whose job it was to write code that will get the brain to do certain things.
For example, on Instagram, he told us sometimes those likes come in a sudden rush.

Ramsay Brown: They’re holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here’s the 30 likes we didn’t mention from a little while ago. Why that moment--

Anderson Cooper: So all of a sudden you get a big burst of likes?

Ramsay Brown: Yeah, but why that moment? There’s some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst.

When Brown says “experiments,” he’s talking generally about the millions of computer calculations being used every moment by his company and others use to constantly tweak your online experience and make you come back for more.

Ramsay Brown: You’re part of a controlled set of experiments that are happening in real time across you and millions of other people.

Anderson Cooper: We’re guinea pigs?

Ramsay Brown: You’re guinea pigs. You are guinea pigs in the box pushing the button and sometimes getting the likes. And they’re doing this to keep you in there.
The entire article is fascinating and worthy of your attention. Teams of highly paid engineers working to keep us addicted to our phones, constantly checking them like pulling at the lever of a slot machine to see what we're gonna get next. Facebook likes! Instagram hearts! Direct messages! Keep your Snapchat streak alive! Here is someone you may know on Facebook! Ping! Ping! Ping! Must click little, red notification. What if someone really needs me right now? (how often does anyone really need you right now?)

All those strangers hearting your photos, Facebook "friends" weighing in on your latest update, people you may have never even met in person causing you unnecessary anxiety or agitation. And there you are, little mule, checking scrolling checking scrolling in your endless quest to reach the carrot that doesn't even exist. It's all a fuckin' waste, man. A black hole of nothing that doesn't amount to shit. Oh, I'm not against keeping in touch with people who add value to your life or using social media in an intentional, limited way. There is genuine community to be found all across the Internet and it can be empowering and beautiful, but be honest with yourself: What percentage of your online life is truly adding value to your real life? What is your real life? Is your real life your online life? Do you even know any more?

I didn't know for the longest time. I confused my self-worth with my online activities which made me ridiculously defensive both online and in person to the point that I couldn't view a person's intentions or various situations with any sort of clarity. I allowed the Internet and the people on it, most of whom I've never even met, to dictate my mood, my self-esteem. It's still a struggle, letting go of the things that don't matter (figuring out which things don't matter is surprisingly difficult!) and focusing on real life and those online activities that add value to that life. I still feel the twitch to pick up my phone several times a day and find myself making up reasons to check it so I can scratch the itch, get that dopamine fix. But goddamn! When you wake up, pull your eyes out of your iPhone, realize what's slowly happening to all of us and wean yourself off the smartphone/online addiction, your mind immediately begins clearing out all the extraneous clutter and you feel good. Really, really good. THAT'S the fix I'm chasin' now.

Reader Comments (11)

Yes to this! I recently quit using Facebook and Twitter cold turkey. (I STILL spend way too much time on Instagram, but I'm working on it.) What amazed me was that the gaping hole I thought I'd feel in my life when I stopped using Facebook... never happened. It just feels better.

June 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAllie

Right? I found it wild to spend hours of my day doing a thing and when I stopped doing it, I didn't miss it. It was a relief to have it gone. My body still physiologically misses the mindless scrolling but my brain is just relieved and blown away that I wasted so much time on that shit.

June 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

This is so eye opening. I've been trying to put down my phone especially around my kid. But it's definitely tough. Thanks for sharing this!

June 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCharity Suzuki

This caught my attention because I've been wondering (worrying) about the same thing-- my growing tendency to just grab my phone. I don't know that I'll quick cold turkey but I'll certainly be more aware. I'm also declaring phone-free hours during the evening when it's just our family. Thanks for sharing.

June 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobin Camarote

Monica! So timely that I would run into you- face to face- at Target today after following along with your story over the past 3 years. You (and Charlie!) were so gracious, even as I interrupted your Target run. Thank you so much for allowing me to introduce myself and THANK YOU for all your writing. It is inspiring. If we hadn't moved to Colorado- or were in town for longer than just the night for the wedding- I would insist on buying you a beer. Xx Hayley

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHayley Easton

I deactivated my Facebook account in early February (just wrote about it last month for a local health + wellness magazine) for all the reasons you list here, and it was such a gift to myself. If you haven't yet experienced a Facebook-free birthday, just wait -- the simplicity of spending your day only hearing from people who genuinely know and love and remember you all on their own is good for the soul. It is as life should be, I think. Congrats and enjoy your screen-less summer, Monica.

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRobyn

@Hayley - I was so glad you introduced yourself! Like I said, I was clocking your adorable daughter on her search for "big kid-ish" stuff. I really appreciate all the kind words. And you can buy me a beer anytime, shoot me an email next time you're in town.

July 3, 2017 | Registered CommenterMonicaBielanko

You're brilliant, Monica.

I'd be really interested to know if rebellion against social media is prevalent amongst early bloggers. Bloggers like you from way back. Who actually wrote stuff of value. Bloggers who piqued your interest and drew you in with bloody great writing, fresh opinion or an alternative perspective.There wasn't the pithy BS, the inane back and forth...photoshop and image manipulation were something you seldom heard mentioned.I only knew about it because Ann Arkham offered a hack to get it for free. I didn't bother. Her tagline was Art. Humour. Larceny. She too had a superb 'voice'. I don't see voice in most social media; is it me? You didn't need emojis or lols because you could 'get' the bloggers intent through their content. And I think most bloggers had a life and it definitely wasn't their blog. There was drama - Violet Acres I'm looking at you - but it was rare. Now the drama seems perpetual online. And way too personal.

I'm being a bit nostalgic, but I miss the old days. I'm sad that a lot of blogs folded and Facebook et al succeeded them.I can't stand that people can only read for a couple of seconds before they're itching to respond. And don't even get me started on the pinging, beeping and vibrating; it makes me twitchy.

Sorry for rambling. I guess I could have just said: You are so right, Monica, and I'll read you forever.

July 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline in the UK

I fantasize about giving up the internets, or at least Facebook. It's gotten to the point that the freakin phone is in my hand when I go to the bathroom in the morning. I say it's for work, but it's not. I can still do my job without checking CNN or omg.yahoo every 30 mins. That being said, without my wasted time online I wouldn't have found you and your inspirational and real writing voice. I kinda copied you, tonight I put my hair in a ponytail and cut it off. And some people are freaking out. I've been wanting to do it for a while. Keep on keepin on.

July 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie

Summertime is the perfect time to slow down, (unplug!), get outside and let some 'nature healing' happen! I am reminded of how much you seemed to enjoy cycling the country roads of Penn.! Me? I am stepping away from the constant, online barrage... I can't even handling the flashing ads on the side of my screen: so distracting, and obviously 'they' (some company with the perfect algorithm) are following my wandering, internet searches. Big Brother--- Big Time.

I wanted to comment on your previous post... no one knowing you.... Dude, I come from an intact family, no divorce no estrangement YET I feel exactly as you do: no one 'gets' me. I just went on a vacation to the opposite coast to do some solo wandering and to spend time with my cousin whom I hadn't seen in so many years... I finally got to meet his family.... and voila: I finally felt a lightness and a connection. It was a fucking miracle. I'm going to try and build on that. Hoping for a connection to happen for you, soon--- I think a lot of it has to do with having an ~open heart~; that has helped me. And to let go of judgments and expectations. Glad to read your stuff again, Monica!! mwah!

July 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

This was a fantastic read. Like you, I'm a former news producer, so I seem to have this insatiable need for new info, like when our jobs required us to continuously monitor news wires. Now I do that with my smart phone but I'm not absorbing useful info, just mind-wasting filler. Thanks for the reality check.

July 13, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAllison

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