Detoxing from digital: a way back to sanity

A week or so ago a friend emailed me asking why I was posting “old stories” on Facebook. I emailed back asking her what she was talking about.

Was she referring to old stories from Walnut Creek Patch that I had posted on the Walnut Creek Patch Facebook page, or was she referring to stories I had posted on my own Facebook page? I told her I haven’t posted anything on Facebook for weeks, either on my personal page or on Walnut Creek Patch’s Facebook page. As it happens, I no longer have anything to do with Patch’s Facebook because I’m no longer editor.

As for my personal page? A confession: I have never been that enamored of Facebook. Yes, that puts me outside the mainstream of public life, swimming against the tide, going against the grain, etc. I rarely post anything on my personal page. Most of my Facebook experience has been work-related. As editor of Walnut Creek Patch, I was expected to constantly post on Facebook and to increase numbers of people who “like” it. I could see the point of Facebook for posting updates about Walnut Creek news and community events. I just never felt the need to share tidbits about myself, what movies I had seen, where I had eaten, what party I had been to or what trip I had been on. It was interesting to me, but I didn’t feel the need to burden other people with such news. Or rather, I was not really interested in sharing such news. I could or I couldn’t. I felt indifferent about it all; in the end, I didn’t want to expend the energy.

I won’t go so far as to say, like Betty White did after a Facebook campaign boosted her into the Saturday Night Live host’s spot, that Facebook is a “waste of time.” Nor do I think, as White said in her Saturday Night Live monologue, that people on Facebook are ‘a bunch of losers.” The people I know who frequently post on Facebook are chatty, social, active people. They are leaders professionally and in community organizations. They are not wallflowers at parties.

Still, I also wonder how people have time to be posting on Facebook even once or twice a day. I also laughed at White’s quip about how, back in in her young days, “seeing pictures of people on vacation was considered a punishment.”

Oh sure, I like checking Facebook sometimes to see what other people are up to, what they are posting about themselves–including if they have been on any recent vacations. I also appreciate people who post comments about topics that provoke thought or discussion, or links to stories or videos that are engaging, informative, enlightening, entertaining.

Maybe it all gets down to the fact that I’m not a chatty social person. Small talk is not something I willingly seek out, and much of what I see on Facebook strikes me as digital small talk. If I have something to say, I’ll more likely blog about it. And people can keep reading or click out.

Of course, I haven’t been doing much blogging either. And some former Crazy in Suburbia readers, who also followed Walnut Creek Patch, have wondered what I’ve been up to.

I’ve been in a digital media blackout. I’ve unplugged. I’ve been detoxing from the online world. I didn’t set out to go into blackout mode when I left Walnut Creek Patch. It just happened, and it’s been one of the more healthy things I’ve done for myself in a long time.

As editor of Walnut Creek Patch, I was constantly online, either on my laptop or checking my Blackberry. Checking email, sending emails, writing stories, editing stories, tweeting, Facebooking, checking Twitter messages and Facebook messages. Boom, boom, boom, post, post, post. From 6 in the morning until 10 at night sometimes. Seven days a week. Boom, boom, boom, post, post post. Every five minutes, 10 minutes, half hour, hour. Yes, there was lots of work to do, and it was a 24/7 news service. But I also had trouble unplugging. If I couldn’t get my online fix, I’d get nervous and twitchy, almost like an addict with restless leg syndrome, detoxing from opiates. Actually, I was getting hooked on being wired even before Patch, once I started this blog. I’d be at work for eight or nine hours, writing or researching online, checking email, sending email. Then I’d come home, and work on a post for Crazy in Suburbia, again researching, checking email, sending email.

I was recently reading an article about the science behind mood disorders and addiction, specifically the role that neurotransmitters play in both conditions. Someone I was talking to, who knows about all this brain science and neurotransmitter stuff, helped boil it down for me.

You can focus on two neurotransmitters, she said: serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin gives us a general sense of well-being, and we can naturally boost our serotonin levels by activities that nourish us physically, mentally, even spiritually: healthy relationships with family and friends, healthy foods, exercise, meditation or prayer, reading, doing something creative. Work, if its a job we like and that gives us financial security, can also boost those serotonin levels. People who have low levels of serotonin are prey to depression and other mood disorders, and people with these disorders are at higher risk than others of becoming addicted to alcohol and other chemicals. Over time, alcohol and other drugs can mess with our serotonin levels and destroy the body’s ability to produce the transmitter naturally. Many of the most prescribed anti-depressants help people maintain healthy levels of serotonin.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved in giving us a sense of pleasure. We all need dopamine in our brains, though we also seek it through activities that give us instant gratification. These activities can include, yes, sex. They can also include eating sugary foods (M&Ms!), gambling, shopping, alcohol and certain drugs, video games and digital media–being online, playing games online. The more we gorge on instant gratification, the more we also mess with our dopamine systems, creating an ever growing hunger in our brains and bodies.

Learning about dopamine made me realize that I had been living a dopamine-driven life the past year or more. Boom, boom, boom. Post, Post, Post. There was instant gratification in getting a tip about a story, and getting it up online fast, faster than anyone else. It was also immediately gratifying to see my name on the story. There was instant gratification in constantly checking email or other news sites to see if there was anything I was missing. Or in shooting off emails to get information from a source, or in tweeting this and tweeting that. And, yes, in rushing–fast!–to get a Facebook post up. And then checking back to see how many “likes” it received, checking, checking, checking every day, every hour, how many people read a certain story, how many people had liked the Facebook page, how many followers the site had on Twitter. Just going, going, going.

During my digital media blackout, I hardly ever checked my Facebook page. I didn’t tweet. I checked email, maybe, once a day. Friends asked, “are you hiding out?” Crazy in Suburbia followers emailed or called, asking if I was OK. It was nice to hear from people. I guess I had been so wired in, that a retreat from all that, even for a week or two, raised concerns. It was kind of people to ask. It means a lot.

I’m fine. I’m better than fine. I just needed to get off line for a while. Yeah, I haven’t written much. Actually, not at all. I’ve been focusing on the job search, and that actually hasn’t been as bad as I thought. It was time to make a change, reassess things in my life, and detoxing from being wired, going off line, has been helpful in this process. I haven’t gone entirely off line. I’ve gotten back to reading, notably news or magazine articles online about topics I’m interested in–or that I want to be informed about.

Funny, I was in the news business. I ran a news website, but I was so out of touch with anything going on outside Walnut Creek or the Bay Area. I didn’t have time to read the newspaper, in print or online. Were there revolutions in the Middle East? And, there was that earthquake and tsunami in Japan but I mainly know about that because the tsunami affected the Bay Area, and a tsunami story on the various Patch sites got something 10,000 unique visits. Good for the numbers, but isn’t that sad that this story and how it affected us, here, all the way across the world was my only frame of reference?

What happened to my brain, my curiosity about the world outside of my small corner of it?

So, I’ve spent the past few weeks, reading books and reading articles about–exciting! aggravating–a new nation in Africa, the debt limit debate in Washington, and the News Corp scandal. I’m ruminating about the possibility of class war in America and hoping that the phone hacking scandal will lead to the downfall Rupert Murdoch’s empire and the demise of Fox News.

Reading about Rupert Murdoch in the hot seat before the British parliament gives me a burst of dopamine, instant gratification. Then again, the demise of Fox News–which, realistically, is probably a remote possibility but fun to fantasize about–could boost the overall sense of well-being and mental health among people all around the world. The makers of anti-depressants could see a huge decline in profits.

14 thoughts on “Detoxing from digital: a way back to sanity

  1. Murdochs news of the world was much loved by the working class here and seeing him grilled and then assaulted in parliament brought much sympathy for him. Fox news uk would be amuch needed antidote to the loathsome BBC.


  2. Good for you, Crazy. I know exactly what you're talking about. I think I have newly created attention deficit disorder, thanks to all my Internet hours. I'm probably going off the grid pretty soon too, for my health and sanity. And real life gets gnarly at times, making it necessary to take walks and be still once in a while.

    But yeah, Fox News can drown in its own propaganda cesspool and that would make my day. And I would post a few to that.


  3. Shame, shame on you for wishing misfortune on a person and his employees – – – his 51,000 employees.

    Would you really like to see them all out on the street? Would that be sufficient gratification for you?


  4. So glad to read that all's well with you. I'm in agreement with Obiwan, Fox has been a goldmine for comedy.


  5. No, Beau Hunk, I wouldn't like to see 51,000 people out of work. You put it that way, and I was being mean. Thud, the working class in Britain might feel sympathy for Murdoch, but I think here there is a sense of delight that Murdoch is getting is comeuppance. Or that a media mogul is in the hot seat. The actions of some reporters and editors at the News of the World but also at the Times confirm for many there worst suspicions about the press.

    I actually don't have a problem with the tabloids. I agree with a recent op-ed piece in the NY Times that argued reasons that we need tabloids. They serve a function in a democratic society, believe it or not. I believe it. In that context, Fox News serves a purpose. I don't take Fox News all that seriously. Sorry, but I don't. I only see it when I go to the gym, and I see that tabloid-esque stories they are covering or their manner of coverage, the constant crawling “Alert” in the lower two-thirds of the screen, and I get a headache. I think, what a joke. I'm not saying CNN is much better, or the network news or the local news channels. They all have the potential to give me a headache.

    Thanks for reading this piece and agreeing or not agreeing about some points, as the case may be. I'm trying to get back on the bicycle or back in the saddle, or whatever metaphor. Slowly, baby steps.


  6. “obiwan” is my handle. The handle that appears on your comments isn't “Crazy”, or “Martha”, it's “The premier destination for performing and visual arts in the East Bay” – which doesn't even fit on the page.


  7. I'm an Independent, meaning I don't have a side. Scanning “news” channels it's easy to see the talking heads pushing the agenda for their side. Both are at fault, it does nothing.
    Detox yourself, shut all of the stations off.


  8. Martha
    Good to see you in digital detox. We just returned from a week long vacation with no internet and no TV. It felt good. But now sliding back into it all when the access is right in front of you…….


  9. Detoxing is an excellent idea. I do it often. Pick fruit. How many of us walk our own neighborhoods and don't even notice the abundance of trees, gardens, natural “nature” out there?

    Nice to see your postings, Martha. Best Regards, Anna


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