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You’ve seen ‘The Social Dilemma,’ now here’s how to jumpstart that digital detox

Since August, I have taken a total of six online classes on top of my daily routine of exercising, reading books and doing my share of household chores. I’ve maintained this regimen by limiting my screen time, albeit with more success in the first three weeks as I’ve recently spiraled down the internet rabbit hole again. And so after a minor relapse, I’m checking in for rehab.

It’s perfect timing that Netflix released “The Social Dilemma” as I’m reclaiming my offline hours. In the documentary, former tech executives explained how their digital platforms not only exploited users but also nurtured addiction, impacting well-being, politics and even the surge of conspiracy theories in the mainstream; while dramatizations characterized the mental health issues and dangers of the echo chamber within a fictional family. Watching the film was the reinforcement I needed for my digital detox.

Here are the steps I’ve taken to curb my online dependence, some of which I started back in August and others since watching the documentary.

  • Limiting your news sources to 2-3 media organizations.

Given the daily torrent of government blunders that make people angry, it’s easy to get swept up by the online fury. But I’ve begun to ask myself if my tweeting and posting make it better. There are people out there whose voices deserve to be amplified instead. To avoid the onslaught of information and the partisan bubble, I’ve limited my news to two media organizations. I check their website instead of their social media accounts so I get the full context, not only the enticing headlines. In case of breaking news, I head on over to TwitterMoment’s Philippines news list for a real-time update. I check these in the morning and at the end of the day because I still am a news junkie after all.

Disadvantage: None so far. You can still be updated about what’s happening in the country and around the world, just not in real time.

  • Routine and chores are all penciled in.

Schedule your routine in your calendar, no matter how seemingly banal the tasks are. This includes online classes, exercise, reading books, writing on a journal and chores, such as cleaning your electric fans, watering your plants or bathing your dog. Seeing a list of your pending tasks hinders you from rewarding yourself with the hedonism that is internet time.

Disadvantage: None as long as you allow yourself reasonable leeway and short breaks. Your routine doesn’t have to be rigorous.

  • Turning off most app notifications, including messaging platforms.

I’ve muted all my chat threads except those exclusive to my family. It gives me a headache to think of the various messaging platforms that are on my phone, multiplied by threads of conversations that are in them, on top of direct messages from my social media. Instead I set aside time to check and reply to messages. It follows that I cannot expect an immediate response from them. For school- and work-related communications, set ground rules by limiting them to designated hours. Resist the sense of urgency and learn to respect everyone’s work-life balance. For other apps, bank notifications are always on as well as those for e-commerce but only when I’m expecting a delivery. It’s important to strike a balance, especially for apps that need to alert you in case of a fraud or attempted hacking; otherwise, switching to an email alert may be a good compromise.

Disadvantage: Doing this might cost relationships, another social dilemma. Explain to friends why you’re “away” without being sanctimonious. If we were not in a pandemic, this could be offset by going out for meals, coffee and drinks. Schedule phone calls and Zoom hangouts in the meantime, too.

  • Deleting your Facebook app.

I check my feed, though rarely, via desktop. My account is still active because a lot of businesses provide customer support through their Facebook accounts and most friends share important news through their feed (I understand; it’s efficient that way). As a compromise, regularly review your basic privacy settings and this goes for other apps as well.

Disadvantage: You could potentially be late for or completely miss out on important announcements, including deaths of friends and acquaintances, which unfortunately have happened to me.

  • Installing an ad blocker and cookie manager on your browser.

Digital privacy is extensively discussed in “The Social Dilemma,” but unless you have basic knowledge on how digital marketing works, e.g., cost per click, it might be hard to get a sense of how exposed our personal data are to advertisers. A visual backgrounder on how HTTP cookies work might have done a better job of laying the basics—and elegantly at that—instead of the film’s digital avatar dramatization, which was hyperfictionalized, even cheesy. So go ahead and read up on what cookies are and how to take back control by blocking, deleting and allowing select cookies.

Disadvantage: Installing such extensions will possibly affect some websites’ performance.

  • Limiting game apps to two only.

I have more in my phone (in case I’m offline or my lives run out), but for many months now, I only play Candy Crush. I find other games ad-intrusive and stressful, like those that pit you randomly against other players. But games are good for when you’re waiting in lines or on public transport. (An entertaining yet educational alternative would be podcasts.)

Disadvantage: None.

The Center for Humane Technology, whose cofounder, Tristan Harris, is featured prominently in the Netflix documentary, lists other helpful tips and resources on its website (www.humanetech.com/take-control)

Systems settings in iOS and Android, and ironically, additional apps, monitor how much time you spend on your phone and laptop, including a breakdown for each app, and allows you to set limits, including for your kids. However, they’re easy to bypass so these are some additional steps to help build a balanced online habit.