How Smartphones Destroy Our Solitude, and Why I Ditched Facebook

Technology creep had disrupted my alone time so it no longer provided true solitude.

Being an introvert, I’ve always spent a lot of time alone, and I’ve known since I was a kid that it was necessary. Time alone lets me reflect on myself and on others, processing all those inputs and impressions I get from interacting with the world. I also need time alone to notice how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking, and to think thoughts and feel feelings from beginning to end. 

And of course, I need time alone to rest and recover from social interactions! If I don’t get enough of it, I feel stressed and drained.

Over the past few years, I gradually started feeling more and more stressed and drained even though I was spending plenty of time alone. It took a 30-day digital declutter for me to figure out what had happened: Technology creep had disrupted my alone time so it no longer provided true solitude. I was still spending time without other people around, but I wasn’t getting a break from their constant input and interruptions.

This was leaving me constantly exhausted and uneasy without realizing why.

How Smartphones Destroy Our Solitude

Just a few generations ago, being away from other people automatically meant solitude. But over the past 100 years, technology has disrupted the connection between truly being alone and solitude. First there was radio, television, and the old-style Walkman.

And then it exploded with smartphones. Suddenly, we were all carrying around devices that allow the entire world to reach us immediately. We listen to podcasts and music anywhere and everywhere; people text and message us incessantly; breaking news and millions of updates from social media reach us in real time.

The older technologies weren’t a problem for me. Radio and television were confined to certain rooms in my house. I never liked headphones, so I didn’t even use a Walkman. But like most of us, I have a smartphone, and it really messed me up.

The change was so gradual that I didn’t notice. Step by step, my quiet time was filled with interruptions — noise and incessant chatter. I’d be pulled from one thing to another, jumping from link to link, answering messages, clicking “like,” and scrolling through my friends’ updates and photos and tweets. I was spending the same amount of time alone as always, but my time without input from other minds had shrunk to almost nothing. There were always words coming at me and things to respond to. I was feeling more and more stressed and tired.

My 30-Day Digital Declutter

Clarity came when I did Cal Newport’s 30-day digital declutter and eliminated all nonessential online activity for a month:

  1. Articulate which digital technologies are optional for you and which aren’t.
  2. Remove all non-optional technologies for 30 days.
  3. During those 30 days, think about your values and goals, figuring out what matters to you.
  4. After the 30 days, reintroduce digital technology. Be selective and cautious; allow only what is effective in helping you live your values and move toward your goals.

For me, essential digital technology uses included checking work email, texting close friends and family to make plans, reading the daily newspaper, looking up specific information (like the weather or the location of a store), and watching the final episodes of Game of Thrones.

Nonessential: Everything else. Netflix. Social media. All my news apps. Mindless surfing and looking for answers to random and unimportant questions.

All of a sudden, it was just — quiet. After a few days of feeling lost and jittery, I started feeling calmer and more rested, even though I was doing all this in the middle of the last-minute scramble at the end of the school year. And I came to understand why.


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What I Was Surprised to Learn

I realized I had to revise my understanding of being alone for the smartphone era. Being alone isn’t enough; I also need time away from smartphones and other devices, time where my thinking and daydreaming aren’t interrupted by incessant voices, noise, and messages. I need to spend time without people and phones, alone with my thoughts on a walk, at home, on the beach.  I need quiet, uninterrupted time.

As I was reflecting on my values and goals during the digital declutter, I thought about solitude but also about relationships. After all, I had just cut myself off from all social media! How was that going to affect my relationships? How would I keep in touch with my friends if I couldn’t do it on social media and via text?

I started feeling lonely. And then I realized I’d been feeling lonely for a while. Actually, I’d been feeling lonely for as long as I had been feeling stressed and drained. 

Hmm. I looked at my smartphone with some suspicion, and then thought some more.

Social Media Is Junk Food for the Soul

Being a typical introvert, I thought texting and social media were wonderful inventions because they let me do all that exhausting “keeping in touch” stuff without actually having to talk to anybody. It was deliciously easy, and I seduced myself into thinking that much of my social interaction could happen online. I drifted away from calling close friends, especially those who live far away. Instead, we kept in touch via text and social media updates. It is so much easier to click “like” and write a brief cheery note on Facebook!

My first inkling that something was wrong with this approach came a few years ago when I didn’t get a single birthday card in the mail but a ton of birthday wishes online. Despite getting birthday wishes from many more people than ever before (including people from high school who I only vaguely remember), I felt… sad. But I didn’t think more about it. 

Reflecting on this incident during my digital declutter helped me understand what was going on. Like most introverts, I easily fall into self-isolation even though I need a few close friendships and some social interaction. Social media was letting me isolate while thinking that I was socializing.

It’s like junk food. When I consume it, I get stuffed and bloated, but I don’t get any actual nutrients. I need real food. Clicking “like” and reading updates on social media is junk food for the soul because it doesn’t provide the deep social interactions that we need. It doesn’t let us have conversations that connect our souls and nourish us; it doesn’t give us the shared experiences that solidify our friendships.

‘Don’t Click Like’

Once I figured this out, I decided to follow another piece of advice from Cal Newport — “don’t click like.” I no longer go on social media to “connect” with people. I don’t click “like” and I don’t comment on posts. This keeps me honest, forcing me to use older ways to connect with others instead of pretending to do so online. I make plans to get together when that is possible, and otherwise I call or write cards.

Yes, I call people.

Ugh. 

I know!

Being a typical introvert, I don’t like talking on the phone, and I dislike Facetime and Skype even more. I much prefer seeing people in person. But since many of my close friends live far away and the local ones are busy people, seeing each other in person is often not possible, and I want us to be in one another’s lives.

Calling is much harder than texting, but it is also more rewarding. I feel better once I hear my friend’s voice. Speaking connects us on a deeper level than does texting or social media, and that matters to me.

I Reach Out, Then Recover

Not going on social media sometimes makes me feel lonely, but I’ve come to see that as a good thing. The discomfort nudges me to seek out social interaction — and I need a nudge if I’m going to pick up that dreaded phone to make an actual call!

So I reach out. We talk, and then I get tired and withdraw into solitude to recover — until I start feeling lonely again. Solitude and companionship form another one of those cycles that shape human life: summer and winter, day and night, hunger and satiety. Each pole satisfies different needs, and the contrast makes each pole more enjoyable. We need both.

But if we don’t pay attention, smartphones disrupt solitude and companionship, leaving us lonely, too drained, and too tired to notice.

P.S. Cal Newport outlines the 30-day digital declutter and explains his advice, “don’t click like” in Digital Minimalism — one of my favorite books this year.

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Anna Lännström is professor of philosophy at Stonehill College where she teaches Greek philosophy, ethics, and philosophy of religion as well as a learning community course which integrates yoga, mindfulness, and Indian philosophy. Her writing focuses on mindfulness. Why are we all increasingly stressed, distracted, lonely, and angry? How can techniques like yoga and meditation from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions help us live better lives, and how do we address the ethical challenges involved in borrowing such techniques? She blogs on Medium and Thrive Global.