How I’m Setting Better Digital Boundaries This Year

2020 was the year of the doomscroll. In 2021, I am walking back my compulsive internet use.

Photo by Al Hakiim on Unsplash

Like far too many people, I spent the majority of 2020 curled up in an awkward ball, fighting back tears, my phone craned in front of my face and giving me a nonstop tour of all the world’s horrors. I was adrift in a sea of uncertainty, and the graphs of COVID cases posted to Twitter promised me empowering knowledge but only left me more filled with dread. I was lonely and emotionally starved and Instagram and Facebook DMs offered me social snacks, with a side of secondary trauma and shame.

I was thankful to have the internet to keep me company. I needed something to keep my mind busy, some project to pour energy into. Plus I had a book coming out, so I justified my compulsive internet use as a way to reach new readers.

So for much of last year I frittered away the hours online, posting polls to my Instagram story and talking strangers through complex social science concepts in private messages. It gave me a sense of purpose, making sure I posted to my grid every day. A lot of care and work went into those posts; my captions were often mini-essays about ableism, anarchism, or the history of racism in psychology. And it did work; I slowly ascended from about 2,000 Instagram followers at the start of the pandemic to the coveted 10k (which unlocks several user features) early this year.

But spending so much time online had a darker side. I followed other writers, activists, and mental health influencers closely. I got annoyed (hypocritically) by their self-serving attitudes, the way they’d capitalize on political moments to earn themselves more follows or backers on Patreon. I watched as some beloved social media figure’s stars rose, and then fell. Drama and infighting consumed my attention.

Early into the pandemic, abolitionist TikToker UrDoingGreat experienced an explosion of follows, and then came under fire for a sexual assault and dropped off the map. Leftist meme page Queer in Appalachia was revealed to have been misappropriating donations, then the account was hacked by an anonymous activist who eventually lost control of the page. Anarchist writer Clementine Morrigan became wildly popular, and then responded very defensively to criticism about how she discussed (or failed to discuss) the Black Lives Matter movement on her account. She rapidly bled followers and subsequently began posting relentlessly about the evils of cancel culture. In her wake, dozens of accounts rose up all about critiquing dogmatism in the online left, and other accounts appeared critiquing those figures for their defensiveness and racism.

I became obsessed with these figures and movements, their valid points, logical inconsistencies, and the way they’d spin reality to serve their own needs. I watched, fascinated, as people used social media flash-points to generate more follows for themselves, either positioning themselves as supporters or critics. I made posts that tried to probe the nuances of these competing perspectives, and half my followers had no idea what the hell I was talking about, because the drama was so idiosyncratic and arcane. It was all so meaningless, yet it had me fascinated and fired up.

When I went on walks in the early months of the pandemic, I’d find my attention zeroing in on the smallest of details. Tiny features of my neighborhood that I’d never before noticed swelled up in importance. A mosaic in the sidewalk would transfix me and I’d spend several minutes carefully studying its patterns. A stuffed “This is Fine” dog perched in someone’s window just about moved me to tears. My brain was desperate for stimulation and it lunged hungrily at just about anything. Out in the real world, this was a good thing. I moved through my surroundings more mindfully, and started to enjoy talking to strangers about the weather. But online, it meant I could get trapped in an obsessive stress-spiral over the smallest of spats.

On social media, I got swept up in fights about women-only events policies, and language policing, and whether Autistic people have the right to call themselves “Aspies.” I posted long video rants and essays and walked dozens of commenters through my thought process. Sometimes I had a meaningful impact on the world. Other times, I just got so anxious and pissed I couldn’t sit still to read a book or watch a movie.

By the end of the year my attention was frayed, my spirit was fried, and I had a dismal, cynical view of most of the other social media “personalities” who enjoyed my own work. I noticed that many of my friends were suffering too, constantly refreshing apps out of a misguided sense of obligation (or simply because they craved stimulation and social contact), running every possible post they considered making through an imaginary focus group filled with the harshest critics. I kept having to remind loved ones that they weren’t obligated to issue a statement on every current event, that they probably lacked the time and energy necessary to educate every follower they had on every issue under the sun. It wasn’t just writers or people with ‘big’ accounts who seemed to feel these pressures. Just about everybody online seemed to be suffering under the expectation to produce flawless content and engage appropriately with everyone, constantly, for free.

I knew that I desperately needed to change both my habits, and my outlook. So I started reshaping my relationship to the internet, and cutting my social media app usage way back. Three months in, some of the changes I’ve made seem to be working pretty well, so I figured I’d share them. I recognize that not everyone is a D-list mental health influencer with a penchant for Autistic hyperfocus like I am; However, I think these tips are broadly applicable to anyone who struggled to unplug from the apps, particularly in the past year.

Set Time Limits on Social Media App Use

Early this year, my friend Jess started talking about how they use the app Stay Focused to restrict their access to social media sites. Like me, Jess is an Autistic writer with a sizeable following on Instagram, and could lose hours to checking notifications and responding to messages and comments if they let themselves. After limiting their social media screen time each day, they said they became able to hear their own thoughts again.

After speaking with Jess about this, I discovered my iPhone already came with a Screen Time feature that I could use to limit access to any apps of my choosing. I could restrict use of social media to specific times of day, or I could set a time limit each day, after which I’d get locked out. I decided at first to put a one hour per day limit on Instagram, the site where I found myself obsessively spiraling the most.

At first, it was astonishing how quickly I hit my one-hour Instagram limit. Somehow I had been spending almost a third of my writing time each morning refreshing that app. I had to start planning my Instagram use carefully, saving up time to make posts or to answer close friends’ messages. The time limit also forced me to make quick decisions about which tasks were worthy of my time, and which notifications or comments I could entirely ignore.

After a few days with the app limit, the Instagram drama I’d been so fixated on began to seem meaningless. My anxiety plummeted. I was kind of bored and under-stimulated, but I recognized that Instagram hadn’t been entertaining me in a satisfying way. A week into this experiment, I realized I only needed a few minutes per day for ‘essential’ social media activities — posting about my book, sharing essays I’d written. So I dropped my app limit down to forty-five minutes, then thirty, then twenty.

I use the app less and less with each passing week, and I haven’t missed it at all. When I do see a self-serving post from somebody who annoys me, it doesn’t really get under my skin. It’s crystal clear now that most of what gets said on that app does not matter.

Notice New Compulsions Forming

Though cutting back on my Instagram use was a game-changer, I still found myself engaging in a bit of symptom swap and getting obsessed with petty infighting on another app shortly thereafter. My anxiety, loneliness, and penchant for passive-aggressiveness migrated over to Twitter, an app I’d never had much affection for before.

On Twitter, I started compulsively binge-reading the accounts of trans-exclusionary ‘feminists’ I hated, and making vague posts about their hateful rhetoric. I started to follow many activists with whom I shared political goals and views, but who posted about our shared interests in a very heightened, alarming way. I flooded my brain with their (understandable) anger and fear. I resented acquaintances who posted ill-conceived takes. When I saw users dog-pile people in a spirit of bad faith or in order to promote themselves, my nervousness spiked.

It turned out that Instagram was not the root of my problem. The real issue was the addictive nature of how all social media algorithms worked, and my desperation for something that could hold my attention. So I set a time limit on my Twitter use too. And preemptively restricted my access to Facebook and TikTok. I have to keep a look out for disproportionate rage simmering inside of me, and question my own impulse to post every spare though that pops into my head. Giving into those impulses is highly encouraged by the apps, but I don’t have to let myself be manipulated by those incentive structures.

Find Stimulation & Social Contact in Other Ways

I love the internet because it gives me an opportunity to find and interact with other esoteric freaks like me. Without social media I never would have figured out I was trans, or that I was Autistic; I never would have formed close bonds with people all throughout the world who share the same hyper-specific niche interests as me. I learned to become a writer by posting my thoughts to the internet. I learned how to think about myself and other people in a compassionate, reflective way because of conversations I’ve had online, and thought-provoking posts I’ve read. I would never want to throw all that away to become a complete Luddite.

But the modern social media-driven internet isn’t quite the enriching, stimulating place it once was. It’s ruled by corporations that are swift with the ban hammer if you bear any skin or discuss doing sex work. It’s a place where disagreements are rapidly amplified and heightened for the sake of driving up engagement. The algorithms are constantly forcing things I don’t want to see into my field of vision. In many ways being online now leaves me feeling more alone, not less.

In order to recreate the connected, intellectually challenged feeling the old internet used to give me, I’ve had to get creative. I’ve been spending a lot more time chatting with close friends on Discord servers or in private chats. There I can be authentic and weird, and really dive deeply into the specific topics my friends and I share an interest in. I also have gotten a lot out of following interesting people on “dead” platforms like Tumblr. Some of my very favorite writers and political thinkers posts their ideas on that site still, and because they aren’t doing it for any clout, the quality of their work is far more consistent and not at all craven the way Instagram infographics are.

In the past I’ve made private Facebook groups and side blogs that allow me to find people with shared political goals, comedic sensibilities, kinks, or mental health struggles as well. I continue to find solace and belonging in spaces like these. I learn so much about complex topics (and about myself) by having lengthy conversations and discourses within them. The public stage that is mainstream social media is just too widely visible for intimate, contemplative connections these days. So I’ve had to sneak off into the wings with people who I know are craving that kind of connection, too.

Mute Notifications

A few days ago, I posted a Twitter thread criticizing trans-exclusionary rhetoric that I suspected would blow up within TERF circles. Sure enough, one of more prominent voices in their community found my post and shared it with her followers, and hundreds of transphobes flocked to my page, misgendering me, mocking me, claiming I was a brainless idiot, and calling me an “it.”

But I didn’t see any of their replies. Because I had preemptively muted the thread.

I’ve had posts go viral a few times in the past. I’m not a social media power user by any means, but I’ve posted a lot over the years, and a few times my work has resonated with a large audience. The first time I went viral (with a silly meme about cereal) I tried to respond to everybody who added a comment or joke I could riff on. The next time I got a lot of online attention, it was for an essay I’d written about sexual assault. I took pains to read and respond to every heartfelt story survivors left in my inbox.

The next time something like that happened (again, over an essay about sexual assault), a few men who had committed sexual assaults messaged me seeking absolution. Reading their detailed confessions was disturbing and triggering. It had never been more clear that I could not, and should not, show up to every conversation a reader tries to initiate with me.

Today, I ignore the vast majority of replies and comments my work receives online, both negative and positive. I don’t have the time to thank everyone who is kind to me and supportive of my work. I absolutely can’t waste energy responding to derailing comments, bad-faith questions, and harassment. I’ve also noticed that when I ignore provocation and mobbing, the fires of outrage die down much more quickly. The TERFs who swarmed me wanted to make me feel nervous and go on the defensive. But their opinions didn’t matter, and responding to them would have only given them more to post about. So I blocked all notifications that came from them, and didn’t let their tantrum cross my mind.

Realize You Don’t Have to Respond to Everything — or Anything

For much of last year, I operated with the misguided belief that I had a responsibility to use my social media platform in certain ‘respectable’ ways. I felt I had an obligation to educate others, correct misinformation, and respond to current events in a manner that was both timely and precise. I spent hours every day trying to live up to this standard.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that all my furious posting did much good. It’s impossible to know for certain what kind of impact I had, but when I look back on how much energy and attention I devoted to creating Instagram slides and litigating the most inside-baseball of social justice issues, I feel only weariness and regret. I could have spent that time reading books. Hell, I could have spent that time writing books.

In order to escape my compulsive relationship to social media, I needed to rethink my obligation to users on those platforms. Did I owe anyone mountains of free content? Did any and every misinterpretation of my writing merit a response? When I shut down comments on a post that got a ton of transphobic hate, was I “avoiding accountability” (as one user claimed) and silencing my critics? Who the hell was I even accountable to, online? I didn’t know any of these people!

I enjoy posting my thoughts online, and hearing that my work has changed people’s minds or brought them comfort is incredibly galvanizing. But the fact that I have the ability to sometimes make a positive difference doesn’t mean I am obliged to constantly do so. I can’t correct every ignorant or shallow take I see posted online. In fact, I don’t owe anyone a response, and I don’t need to apologize for having limits. Not replying to a message is, itself, a form of communication. Discernment, priority-setting, and noncompliance are all powerful social skills.

I have many friends who are less online than me, who seem to experience greater stress about the messages and comments they receive than I do. They seem to think they are obligated to react to every ignorant comment a relative or former classmate makes, or that every criticism they receive merits a response. Many of us have developed a quasi-codependent relationship to the internet; we behave as though we are in control of how others feel and think, that we can force the ignorant to understand.

Social media sites capitalize on us getting overly invested in matters that aren’t our business. The more we comment, fight, and refresh, the more ad views these platforms get. Influencers and social media power-users also benefit when we are inflamed and active; the more their work provokes a response, the more attention and follows they stand to gain. Digital rhetoric is an arms-race of alarmism and attention-grabbing. Even people with relatively pure motivations feel a pressure to write in intense, anxiety-provoking ways, so their messages can be heard above the din.

Though I will always love socializing online and sharing my writing with other people, I’ve learned this year that I can’t rely on social media for approval or stimulation. I can’t define my own goodness by how active I am online, or how quickly and perfectly I respond to others’ comments and posts. I have to set my own priorities, and keep my own counsel about what is right and what I owe to other people.

In 2020, I was online almost constantly because it felt like I had nowhere else to go. This year, the world is slowly coming back into focus, and no matter how the COVID curve looks, I’m going to remain physically (rather than digitally) present.

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