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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

I have a confession to make: I’m a recovering addict. I was addicted to YouTube. The dangerous influence of social media on our young and vulnerable population has been well documented – but I’m a grandma in my 60s. I really should have known better.

My addiction goes back several years. My first experience was on the recommendation of a friend to check out Susan Boyle’s amazing singing on Britain’s Got Talent. “Who is Susan Boyle and what is YouTube?” I remember asking. I discovered both, and I was amazed by Susan, too. I didn’t think much more about it, and I got on with my own life.

In the blighted spring of 2020, when the social highlight of the week was masking up for a trip to the grocery store my horizons definitely needed broadening. Like the rest of the world, I spent a lot of time staring at a screen and I discovered that onscreen offerings were truly endless. From one YouTuber I learned how to plant my own vegetable garden. Someone else gave advice from the Greek philosopher Epictetus on how to be stoic. I was feeling decidedly unstoic at the time, so I subscribed to his channel, drawn in by the stiff upper lip philosophy to stop whining and accept what is because sometimes life is hard. I discovered wise sayings from Confucius, poetry from Robert Frost and thanks to the algorithms, a smattering of other philosophical viewpoints, all of which helped me through some dark days. These were mixed liberally with general “rules for life,” along with ways to get out of debt and tips for staying mentally and physically healthy. On a lighter note, a chic European lady gave advice on the importance of dressing well, even in a lockdown. Down the rabbit hole I went, scrolling for hours and hours, watching other people living their lives and giving me advice on how to live mine.

As the months rolled by and my anxiety was replaced by frustration and boredom I found myself escaping to the peaceful pastoral images of the YouTube world. Watching wholesome-looking women in aprons blissfully kneading dough in their Old World kitchens soothed my soul. Tours of the English countryside (where I yearned to be) and following the challenges and joys of couples living off-grid in the country inspired me. I discovered that “Cottage Core” is a trend among millennials and smugly realized that I had been way ahead of it: wearing floral print dresses and granny boots while shopping for antiques is what I call 1982. “Slow living” and “living intentionally” are likewise modern catchphrases for just paying attention to the details of life. So I renewed my efforts to enjoy whatever task I was doing, instead of stewing about renting a steam-cleaner for our filthy carpets.

Decluttering advice from a variety of minimalists inspired me to improve what I could, namely my immediate surroundings. Apart from giving practical instruction on everything from guitar playing to how to turn a T-shirt into yarn, YouTube offered a welcome distraction from the grim reality of what was going on in the world. The possibilities for improving my home décor, my spiritual outlook and my physical appearance through social media seemed truly limitless. Checking in every day with real people, who were talking to me personally (or so it seemed) became an addiction. When I commented on a video and got a “loved your comment” from the YouTuber in return I was ridiculously pleased. I subscribed to several channels and waited anxiously for new weekly offerings on herbal gardening, the best English castles to visit, the benefits of intermittent fasting and the royal family’s latest outings. I watched self-described sensitive souls reading poetry or painting by streams or looking out windows into snowy landscapes. I found all this calming and therapeutic. Such lovely scenery, such beautiful background music, such pretty clothes they were wearing!

At some point though, I got irritated by these artistic and seemingly perfect lives. Who is filming them? I wondered. Do they rehearse or just act spontaneously? Isn’t it cold, stepping through snowbanks in vintage dresses? Do they drive to their scenic destinations or do they happen to live in a meadow? The questions started to nag at me while forcing comparisons to my own somewhat more mundane existence. I wanted to walk in a flowing dress through hilly green pastures filled with wildflowers! I wanted to breathe the salty ocean air of the Mediterranean and drink wine in a Paris café, pondering life’s big questions. Instead, I was marching through my neighbourhood’s city streets in Mom jeans, slogging through half-melted snowbanks and skirting soggy dog poop.

Regardless of my growing disquiet, I continued to click on the YouTube icon on my phone whenever I had a spare five minutes. I compared my life constantly with the images onscreen. A perfectly manicured woman who home-schooled her four children, wrote best-selling books in her spare time and had 100,000 followers filled me with a sense of my own shortcomings. I started to resent the endless rules presented for good health, financial stability, mental contentment and the perfect haircut for a woman my age. I sheepishly acknowledged that I had a full, enviable and happy life, which although it wouldn’t win awards for perfection onscreen, suited me perfectly.

In a moment of clarity, I realized that I had lived long enough to decide on my own haircut, lifestyle and spiritual philosophy: I was managing my life just fine on my own, thank you very much. I put my phone away and started paying attention to my own life, instead of watching other people live theirs.

I still like checking in once in a while. YouTube can be a treasure trove of entertainment and inspiration, but I’ve decided to limit my exposure and look around my own world without my phone in my hand! I am content in the knowledge that my addiction to life onscreen has been replaced by life itself.

Jenny Dunlop lives in Hamilton, Ont.