It was the second winter of the pandemic when Alexis Grams, 28, a project manager from Minnesota, decided to make a drastic change.
The atmosphere on TikTok “had become too toxic and negative. No amount of likes or popularity was worth the endless barrage of criticism left by internet trolls.”
Despite noticing how social media negatively impacted her mental health, Grams felt trapped in an endless cycle of FOMO and misery. As someone with ADHD, her smartphone was a huge distraction that took away from activities she enjoyed like reading, her mental energy too depleted to finish a book.
“The thought of my life quickly passing by while my face was constantly fixated on whatever mindless videos I was watching was a grim, uncomfortable thought,” she says. “After hours of scrolling, I’d look down at my dogs and feel terrible for choosing my phone over them.”
Then in December 2021, she switched from her iPhone to a “dumb” Nokia phone.
The instant relief brought on by the absence of notifications constantly bombarding her was powerful. “I did feel a bit empty and bored a week in. You start to realize how much time there actually is in the day when your face isn’t glued to your screen.”
Grams had inadvertently peeked behind the curtain of the social media machine and discovered its true cost: time.
It’s a modern-day proverb: “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.” Even if you didn’t see The Social Dilemma, you’ve likely heard this aphorism first spoken by Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. And when it comes to social media, we are all definitely the product.
The addictive and dangerous effect of platforms likeTikTok, Facebook, and Instagram is pretty evident these days. But it’s not just social media, it’s the pings and pop-ups of notifications on our phones, the auto-play on streaming platforms, and the ubiquitous screens screaming for our attention. We know this, yet we feel powerless to stop it.
Enter digital minimalism.
The concept, popularized in 2019 by Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, isn’t new. But in today’s world of virtual everything, blurred work/life boundaries, and alarming choices made by eccentric billionaires, digital minimalism has a growing following and has become even more relevant.
What is digital minimalism?
Essentially, digital minimalism is whittling down the technology you use to tools that only help or enrich your life in some way. Rather than the occasional digital detox or hacks like turning off notifications, Newport argues that an entire philosophy is needed to make lasting changes. And that philosophy stems from identifying which technologies serve you and which don’t.
The beauty of this philosophy is that it’s completely up to the individual to identify which technologies they value— it’s not a stringent set of rules. It’s an adaptable approach because it puts the “rulebook” in the hands of the individual.
Digital minimalism says technology isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s how we use it that gets us into trouble. “Digital minimalism definitively does not reject the innovations of the internet age, but instead rejects the way so many people currently engage with these tools,” Newport writes.
So it’s not just for aging hippies who never switched to smartphones?
Last year, Ella Jones, was in her final year at the University of Leeds when she ditched her smartphone. It started when she and her boyfriend were talking about the purpose that smartphones serve and whether they were actually useful or a waste of time.
Jones, who is now 21, had been interested in minimalism in general, so she and her boyfriend decided to take on the challenge of switching to dumbphones. It was such a success that she documented her experience on YouTube.
Jones ended up using the flip phone for nine months until she switched to an old iPhone 5S because she missed having a high-quality camera, but through the digital minimalism subreddit, she’s found ways to make her iPhone less distracting like deleting the app store or making the screen grayscale. “These little things that phones have that are designed to grab your attention, if you remove those, the phone itself isn’t really any more engaging than any other kind of device or thing you have in your house.”
Jerzy Rajkow, is a father of two daughters and chief of support staff at a law firm in Warsaw, Poland. An early tech adopter, when his first daughter was born seven years ago, he started thinking about how he would teach technology to his children.
“I was thinking that of course, she should be a digital native, she should use those devices from early on, and then I started to research this in order to verify whether I am wrong or right in this attitude,” said Rajkow. What he learned was profound. “Basically, I concluded that I will probably never give a smart device to my children before they’re 18.”
Rajkow wanted to be a role model for his daughters and for them to be “well-oriented in the world, be able to think for themselves, and to draw conclusions without being influenced.” He discovered a version of the problems Frances Haugen would eventually blow the whistle on Facebook and Instagram’s reported effects on mental health among teens.
Is Gen Z bringing flip phones back?
As an IT worker, he intimately understood the dangers of some of these new technologies. “I saw more and more how tech was invading people’s lives, people’s privacy. How it became more difficult to maintain work-life balance and focus on complex problem-solving.”
Rajkow also noticed how sessions on Facebook — whether promoting his coaching business or interacting with friends — made him feel bad about himself. He ended up deleting social media altogether.
How does it work?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to digital minimalism. The key is to evaluate which technologies add meaningful value to your life and limit or eliminate the rest. To get started, Newport recommends a clean slate approach by cutting off all “optional technologies” for 30 days. “During this thirty-day break, explore and rediscover activities and behaviors that you find satisfying and meaningful,” he writes.
“At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.”
Jones uses an old iPhone 5S with Facebook Messenger installed for keeping up with friends. She only uses Facebook and Instagram on her laptop. She doesn’t have GPS and generally tries not to rely on her phone for directions.
“I think social media apps are the main issue,” says Jones. “You click on it, and it’s loads of information all at once, whereas, if you go on the banking app, it’s just static and to the point.”
Grams used a Light Phone for a while: a minimalist phone that only has simple functions. Now she is back to an iPhone with only WhatsApp and Snapchat installed “for messaging friends and family and getting adorable pictures of my nieces.” She also has other social media accounts and set a rule for herself to check them on her computer for two minutes a few times a week.
Rajkow does not have any social media accounts except for YouTube where he vlogs about digital minimalism and Reddit where he occasionally posts about the topic. “I have no problem using YouTube, because making videos on YouTube is, is something I like to do. I feel better after publishing a video,” he said. “I’m not against social media at its core, but I am against social media that is not serving you.”
During the pandemic, he and his wife both switched to dumbphones. Rajkow sometimes travels for work, and now that things have started to open up more, the use of QR codes and digital COVID passes presented new challenges.
But Rajkow found a workaround by using his iPad instead, which still aligns with his goal to only use tech that serves him and his family. “It’s not convenient enough to put in my back pocket, but if I need the QR code, I just have to take it from my backpack.”
If this sounds extreme, r/DigitalMinimalism offers a detailed guide with varying levels of extremity for those who aren’t willing to go cold turkey or are simply “digital minimalism curious.” The subreddit also offers a wealth of resources and tips including blocking software, simplified versions of sites and browsers, a mega list of offline activities, and books/videos from digital minimalist experts.
What about work? FOMO? Staying in touch with people?
Remarkably, Jones, Grams, and Rajkow all work in professions that require regular tech use. After ditching her old smartphone ways, Jones graduated and got a job in social media. But she keeps up her digital minimalist habits by having a second phone with all of the social media apps that she keeps in a drawer when she’s not working. She uses her dumbed-down iPhone for everything else.
So far, it’s been working well. “I find that now I see my phone in a different way to how I use smartphones, pre-flip phone era,” she says. “My perception of how I use a phone has changed. So it’s less of like, the phone rules me and it’s more of like, I use the phone for X purposes.”
Grams, too, feels like her relationship with her smartphone has fundamentally changed, even though her job as a project manager at an advertising firm keeps her constantly surrounded by social media, websites, and TV. “I’m able to compartmentalize my work life and my personal life. Creating content for businesses is not the same as adding the latest adorable picture of my two Australian shepherds to my Instagram story.”
As for FOMO, Jones makes a good point: you can’t have FOMO if you don’t know what you’re missing out on. “If you’re on Instagram you can see that your friend is at the cafe, but if you don’t have access to that, you don’t know, and then you have no FOMO to feel. So it kind of eliminated FOMO in a lot of ways.
Like everyone else, Rajkow and his family used video calls on his desktop to keep in touch with loved ones during the pandemic. But he avoided getting overwhelmed by the constant screens and distractions. He was able to be more intentional about these conversations and would set up a microphone and a DSLR camera, “so it’s a better experience with the other party.”
Grams says her mental health has greatly improved, and that she has used her newfound time in fulfilling ways.”I joined a local book club and didn’t have to use SparkNotes since I actually had the mental stamina and attention span to read the books cover-to-cover.