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Digital Distancing
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the writers college 2 300x200With the coronavirus pandemic dominating the news cycle, we’re hearing a lot about “social distancing” as a strategy for slowing the spread of the virus. The appropriate “social distance” is about six feet, which is about as far as sneezes and spit travel (add 2-3 feet if talking to a preacher who annunciates his or her “P’s” with precision). That, along with washing your hands and staying home if you’re sick, is the best advice.


But while social distancing is necessary, it’s clear that we need to also increase the distance between ourselves and social media. We’ll stay six feet away from people, no problem, but that 16 inches between your face and your phone or computer screen may be the most dangerous distance in all of this. The constant hum of bad news, false information, wild speculation, poor behavior, and hand-wringing has made social media and even the regular news a vast dumpster fire that threatens to burn out of control. I’d be willing to guess that the coronavirus itself will never spread as far as the infectious news about it has already. The result is that people are anxious beyond the capacity of reason. Every moment, it seems, there’s another story, rumor, statistic, or meme that makes it seem like we’re all going to die, that the end of the world is near, and that we’ll not have enough toilet paper in the meantime.


Want to feel better? Want to actually do something to increase your immune system capacity and contribute to the greater good?


Practice digital distancing. 


If six feet is a good enough social distance, six hours is the minimum time you should allow between periods of checking your phone or looking at the news. I’d actually recommend twelve hours, or even eighteen as an even better option. The more distance, the better.


Cal Newport, in his wonderfully helpful book Digital Minimalism, says that our addiction to information has become an unhealthy pattern that affects our lives in myriad ways. And that was before corona-mania. With our smart phones constantly at hand, we’ve rapidly lost the ability to be alone with our thoughts, and that solitude is essential to our ability to process and make sense of emotions, to make sense of who we are, and to build strong relationships. Our mental health suffers when we eliminate time alone to do some of that thinking and processing. The constant pinging of phones and lighting up of the Twitter-verse keep us perpetually anxious, distracted, and in a state of mental and emotional sickness.


Think about it (no, seriously, turn away from the screen and think about it)–would emotionally and mentally healthy people buy truckloads of toilet paper to prepare for a virus that has little to do with gastro-intestinal distress? Would reasonable, thinking people believe everything they read on Facebook? Our brains need time to power down their critical social circuits, which were never meant to be used as constantly as we tax them.


To that end, let me offer a few suggestions for doing some digital distancing. I tried these during Lent last year and during my sabbatical in 2018, and I’m implementing them now in my own life:

  • Delete social media apps from your phone. We’ve become accustomed to having no down time, so we look at our phones every time we’re remotely bored. To create more space for solitude and thinking, delete the social media apps that you are tempted to constantly check. You’ll be amazed at the time you free up and the stress reduction you’ll experience.
  • Set specific times to look at social media and news on your desktop computer. Limit your exposure by limiting your screen time. While the news comes out in a constant stream, that doesn’t mean you have to look at it in realtime. Back in the day we used to wait until the 6:30pm CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite to find out what had gone on all day, or we waited for it to come out in the newspaper. Digest your news and information in one chunk at the end of the day and you’ll have not only a clearer picture of what’s actually going on but you’ll be a lot more ready to hear it. Oh, and…
  • That means not looking at the news first thing in the morning. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but there’s nothing more conducive to starting your day stressed out than going straight to the screen first thing. Consider instead starting the day with prayer and Scripture. Start with things that provide breakfast for your soul and that nourish you for the day ahead.
  • Allow yourself to be bored sometimes. That’s a way to engage the mind and observe the world around you. While Facebook and Twitter would lead to always believe that the world is going straight to hell in a handbasket, looking out the window or staring into the fireplace can actually convince you that it isn’t. Boredom can be an opportunity for creative thinking, self-reflection, and recharging your brain. Again, we need time and space without constant input in order to reboot our mental and emotional state.
  • Take a walk (and leave behind your phone and earbuds).  While we’re practicing social distancing, the outdoors are always open and it’s really easy to keep social distance. Make it a habit to take a long walk every so often, particularly without the stimulus of more input. Let yourself hear the wind. Practice being alone with your thoughts. If you absolutely have to have something to listen to, make it something that feeds your soul–a good podcast or music you like. I listen to history podcasts when I’m out and about, which has the bonus of reminding me that as bad as things might seem, it’s nothing like living in the 18th or 19th century!
  • Reclaim conversation. We’ve gotten so used to clicking the “Like” button on social media, or simply commenting on a post, that we’ve lost the art of conversation. Face-to-face conversation allows us to pick up facial cues, nuance, tone, and empathy that social media doesn’t allow. Newport cited a study at a summer camp where students had their phones taken away for five days and, afterward, nearly all of them described a much greater feeling of well-being and connection with their fellow campers. If you’re isolating at home in the coming weeks, reclaim the opportunity to have deep conversations with your spouse, your kids, or other family members. Talk to a friend on the phone instead of just “liking” their post online. Get to know others while you get to know yourself!
  • Reclaim leisure. Now would be a great time to dive into one of your hobbies or develop a new one; particularly “virtuous” hobbies that demand our engaged attention rather than passive consumption. Get your hands busy creating or fixing something rather than merely spending hours staring at a screen. Don’t get to the end of the next several weeks of quarantine and have nothing to show for it but a social media hangover!

Digital distancing is more important now than ever. Think of it as one of the key ways you can stay healthy not only during this temporary crisis, but for a lifetime!


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