A new campaign is urging people to ditch their smartphones for a month – but there could be better ways to learn healthy online behaviour, writes Gavin Esler
Could you give up social media for a month? Scroll Free September gives pause for thought
It’s possible you are reading this article after following a link on Twitter. Or perhaps a friend recommended it on some other part of the social media universe. Most days I read news stories, features, interesting anecdotes, surveys, opinion polls and other informative material by scrolling through social media.
But how about taking a month off? In Britain, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), with backing from the National Health Service, has recommended “Scroll Free September”, which involves putting down the ever-so-addictive smartphones or other communication devices that have transformed – and even dominated – our lives in little more than a decade.
I remember a time when the biggest daily nightmare was finding my house and car keys. Now the challenge is trying to locate my phone and I too am tempted to quit for a month. We all know that even when we sit down with reasonably serious purpose on social media, we find ourselves sucked into a vortex of irrelevance.
In my case, I end up looking at cute animal pictures or the idiotic things people get up to while being filmed by their friends, such as jumping off a roof onto a trampoline. The results are predictable – and I end up completely distracted.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the RSPH, says that the aim of the campaign is “that by the end of the month, we will be able to reflect back on what we missed and what we got to enjoy instead of scrolling through our newsfeeds”.
Many people polled by the RSPH said they would take part. But addictions of all kinds are difficult to beat. In Britain we have a Dry January where alcohol drinkers are urged to quit and a Stoptober in October for smokers to ditch their habit.
These are all very worthy ideas and when asked about Scroll Free September, a survey found 65 per cent would consider taking part and a third thought it would benefit their sleeping patterns, real world relationships and mental health and wellbeing.
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But while I applaud the idea, I cannot help seeing two major flaws.
Firstly, we lie. We lie to ourselves about improving our eating habits. We join gyms supposedly to get fit and then don’t turn up because it's boring or too laborious. I’m part of the 65 per cent who would consider taking part but truthfully, I’m not sure I could go cold turkey.
The second reason this well-intentioned idea will not work is because it doesn’t quite grasp how we relate to new technology.
For instance, when motor cars and trains first appeared in primitive form in 19th century Britain, the Red Flag Act of 1865 required “road locomotives” to travel at a maximum of 4mph (6.4 km/h) in the countryside and slower in towns. The law demanded that a man carrying a red flag must walk in front of all road vehicles used to haul loads for transport.
Humans have always been confused by how to adapt to new technology but we have always found a way, without making the experience as pointless as driving behind a walking person.
The key is to learn to control the social media beast rather than run away from it. The most sensible suggestions include not using social media in the evenings or the bedroom and not checking accounts at work, except during breaks.
Much more importantly, educational institutions, especially schools, should expand any existing classes about internet safety to include sensible internet usage and how to deal with the digital world. We should teach our children – and ourselves – a few basic tips.
These might include checking who you are connected with on social media, avoiding those with obviously phony names or anonymous identities and not giving away personal details.
Less obviously, perhaps, we need to consider whether the source of social media information can be trusted and if so, why. When you receive any unsolicited contact, is it really disguised advertising or even political propaganda? Is your contact a person or a bot? How do you know?
Above all, we need to remember that social media means exactly what the name suggests. Nothing that happens on social media is private. Social is precisely the opposite of private and your digital paper trail might return to haunt you in five years' time when, older and wiser, you seek a new job or meet a person whom you hope to impress.
So by all means give up social media in September. But more sensibly, think about what it is useful for in your life and which parts are destructive. Personally I do not want a someone with a red flag in front of my car but I do want to get to my destination without a car crash.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter