April 15, 2020

Social Isolation: Unplugged 2020

Reconnecting with yourself in quarantine.

Your screen time was up 26% last week for an average of 5 hours, 45 minutes a day.

That was the week of March 15–22, 2020. On the 13th, remote finals took the place of in-person exams. On the 17th, dining halls became takeout only and a Booth student tested positive for coronavirus. Piles of discarded snacks, clothes, room accessories, a floor lamp, and someone’s human-sized stuffed teddy bear lined one wall of my house lounge. By the 18th, I was one of two people left on my floor.

In the shock of finding myself so suddenly alone, I did what has become second nature to many of us: I turned to my phone. For almost six hours a day. For a whole week. As someone who tries to limit their screen time, sharing that week’s report makes me very self-conscious—am I so addicted to my phone that I’ve become incapable of being by myself?

Over the past few weeks of quarantine, I’ve realized again something that college’s bustle makes it easy to forget: being comfortable with being alone is incredibly fulfilling. While using our phones and social media to reach out to physically distant friends and family is important, social isolation gives us time to focus on our inner lives in a way that we usually might not, and we should take advantage of this opportunity to get to know ourselves better—our post-quarantine selves will thank us.

We’ve all read articles about Gen Z’s dependence on technology, and, in our non-coronavirus lives, many of us limit the time we spend on devices to mitigate negative repercussions on our mental health—“unplugging” detoxes, deleting certain apps periodically, or trying to spend only a certain amount of time per day on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are all ways to keep from focusing too much on the way others present their lives on social media.

In this time of social distance and quarantine, though, “unplugging” means losing all contact with the day-to-day lives of those outside your home, and such isolation can be as mentally challenging as any of social media’s usual side effects. Phones, somewhat paradoxically, can become tools for positive mental health, and it would be easy to take this as permission to use our devices indiscriminately.

As my screen time report shows, the first days of quarantine saw me do exactly that. Perhaps you also spent hours on Zoom, Instagram, and Facebook trying to keep up with the rapid changes in your community and in the lives of your physically distant friends and family. And maybe you have found, as I have, that while talking to people on the phone and over Zoom brings you almost the same comfort as actual, physical conversations, too much time on social media—even when it’s used to uplift and inspire—leaves you feeling strangely unfulfilled.

I wrote the first draft of this article with pen and paper because I realized that as important as it is for me to check in on my friends and family with the help of my phone, it is equally important for me to continue limiting the amount of time I spend on devices. Like many of you, I am taking advantage of the unique opportunity this quarantine offers: consciously slowing down and living in the moment.

Instead of scrolling mindlessly through Facebook, we read. Embroidery, knitting, and crochet replace a TV show, drawing pushes Snapchat to the curb, and people who don’t usually consider themselves “crafty” or “artistic” have been trying their hand at collage or baking or interior decorating. (And is it just me, or did everyone suddenly learn how to make sourdough bread?)

As I’ve started setting limits on my social media use again, I’ve also started writing more. An embroidered garden has blossomed from the back pocket of my favorite pair of jean shorts, I do the crossword every day with friends (3 p.m. Zoom, rain or shine), and take more joy in everyday things of beauty—small children playing hide and seek in their yard as I run past, a cat sitting in the middle of a carpet of bluebells, the sudden burst of spring flowers in Hyde Park, and the fact that the construction workers outside my window have almost the exact same Spotify playlist I do. Taking the time to return to these very basic activities that I love has brought me a lovely feeling of peace, and I know the same is true of others who have been taking more time away from their devices.

In social isolation most of us are aching for connection, and I think we can all benefit from starting that process by reconnecting with ourselves. Phones and social media can be valuable tools for maintaining friendships and checking in on loved ones, but we will get the most out of these check-ins if we first take the time to center ourselves and to be comfortable being alone. We have a unique and valuable opportunity to focus inward, to be creative, to read, write, draw, to get to know our roommates or families better, and to do things we “don’t have time for” in our day-to-day lives. Let’s take advantage of it.

Elizabeth Winkler is a second-year in the College.