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Power down

Among teenagers, screen time is on the rise. But, as Erin Anderssen reports, many members of that tech-immersed generation practise good social-media hygiene. Here’s what they have to teach the rest of us about how, and when, to power down

It has now been 10 days since I looked at Facebook or scrolled through Twitter. Ten days since I viewed unnecessary sunsets or selfies. Ten days since I “liked,” out of politeness, a swim meet/soccer game/graduation post about the offspring of a high-school acquaintance I haven’t seen since high school. Ten days since I wasted three minutes watching a kitten/puppy/panda video.

Admittedly, scaring cats with cucumbers never gets old. But the morning I got sucked into watching a wolf stalk and then feast on a deer on the side of a highway, I knew things had gone too far. It was as if I was putting my free minutes out on the curb for anyone to grab. The space between the alarm going off and when you have to get up, those quiet moments on the bus, the slow scenes in a Netflix binge – they were all being scripted by somebody else’s narrative.

So, on the recommendation of a few teenagers, I deleted the apps from my phone. Like freezing the credit card in a block of ice – the harder it is to reach, the more likely temptation can be resisted.

Some high school students are taking purposeful breaks from the noise of social media. (iStockphoto)

The idea of a social-media vacation isn’t new, but this past spring, as I spent weeks interviewing members of Generation Z, I was struck by how high-school students spoke thoughtfully about the negative aspects of social media, the desire to control their time, and even the need to take self-imposed breaks from places such as Instagram and Snapchat – arguably the hub of their social lives.

They weren’t doing it in the I-am-done-forever way that celebrities ditch Twitter in a tantrum and then return a week later. This was a purposeful, mental-health kind of retreat from all that digital noise. It fits with the larger theme of intentional online living: These older teens described unfriending people who were negative, scrubbing pictures they didn’t like, logging off if the space became too tense.

How does your screen time compare?

Wondering if you’re due for a social-media break? Find out how your screen time compares with others.


Minutes per week that Canadian adults over 18 spent online, across devices, according to the 2015 Canadian media usage trend study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada


Percentage of Canadians who use their smartphone while watching TV, according to 2015 report by comScore


The average minutes per month that Canadians spent watching online video – 5.1 more hours than their American counterparts, according to 2015 report by comScore


Desktop hours spent online monthly in Canada – the highest in the world, according to 2015 report by comScore, compared with 35 hours in the United States and 33 hours in Britain


Percentage of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12 who say they spend five or more hours a day on social media.

Erin Anderssen

And if the most Internet-immersed generation of teenagers has learned when to take a break, what’s the lesson there for the rest of us?

For starters, let’s not wag fingers too freely at those crazy kids. It’s true that they are the biggest users, and the trend is continuing upward. A survey of Ontario students in Grades 7 to 12, released this week by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, found that in 2015, two-thirds of students spent three or more hours a day in front of a screen. The survey included television, but 16 per cent of students also said they spent five or more hours a day just on social media – up from 11 per cent in 2013. But Canadians, as an overall group, rank as the Internet addicts of the Western world. We spend more time online than Americans, the British or Russians, according to comScore, a company that tracks these metrics around the world.

And, yes, in a big country, all this social-media activity allows us to keep up with Aunt Lucy’s kids in Vancouver or your BFF’s vacation plans, but, taken too far, that doesn’t make us feel as good as we might think. Researchers call it the “Internet paradox” – the belief that while the Internet connects people, it also keeps people from really connecting. (As it happens, many members of Gen Z insist that they would almost always rather speak to someone in person than communicate by text.)

Last November, a 2015 study by researchers at the University of British Columbia reported what most of us probably already knew: Envy is the engine of Facebook. A friend posts a picture of her fancy holiday or her brilliant kids, you respond by contributing your own glowing PR and the cycle goes on. And this is assuming that, unlike teenagers, your friends aren’t tracking how quickly you liked their latest Instagram selfies, or, worse, leaving passive-aggressive comments for everyone to read – although let’s be honest, adults are plenty capable of their own high-school drama.

“I don’t think we are meant to be living life scrolling for hours online,” observes Abena Miller, 17, of Edmonton. “It feels unnatural. And it’s very superficial.”

Abena logged off her social-media sites in the early spring. She was finding many of the conversations too negative or ideological, even if she was only a bystander to them – and they were shaping her opinion of people she otherwise liked. When we first spoke, she was a few weeks into her break and not sure how long it would last. “I have tried to replace it with something else, like reading,” she told me. “I just have to remind myself that I didn’t enjoy my time there.”

For Mahima Mishra, a recent high school graduate in St. John’s, it wasn’t the tone of social media that had become a problem, it was how much of her day she devoted to it. “It’s crazy how time-consuming it can be,” she says.

Last spring, as school work, sports and activities piled up, Mahima pulled the plug – deleting Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat from her phone for several weeks.

(The trick, as the students explained, is to delete the apps, so you aren’t tempted, but not your account, which would be permanent, and likely impossible anyway. Once online, always online.)

The daily demands were too high for Mahima. On Instagram, she says, the exchange rate is “like for like.” That means taking five minutes every time you log on to go through the new pictures posted. “Having to do that in another hour? It’s a real pain.”

Many members of Generation Z say they would almost always rather speak in person than by text. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

And she had started to question what she was getting out of it. “I felt it was all really fake – you are seeing everything that is happening, but there is no real one-on-one conversation. You’re either liking a post, or liking a picture. Those kinds of things do build connections, but I don’t really need that. I know who my friends are. Anyone who wants to talk to me can just text me.”

The same decision was made by Mackenzie Corrigan, 17, of Ottawa, who, stressed about which university to choose and then thinking about exams, decided that she needed a break from social media.

“I am the type of person who expresses my opinion,” she admits, explaining that this means she occasionally makes inadvisable comments, especially if she thinks one of her friends or her little sister is being maligned online. Then, she says, “you get very anxious waiting for the person to respond, or deciding what you are going to say back.”

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The whole environment “can get overwhelming,” she says, especially when you start adding up the time you spend there. “I am always checking. I don’t even realize it, but I am scrolling through Twitter, sometimes even while I am talking to my friends.”

To break away, it wasn’t enough for Mackenzie to delete her apps. She asked a close friend to change her passwords too, and not share them for two weeks, no matter how often she asked. (Her friend has asked the same favour of her.)

So, once you’re off, how do you stay away (aside from divesting yourself of all your passwords to a trusted source)?

A study out of Cornell University in December, 2015, that tracked people who were participating in a global campaign to go 99 days without Facebook suggests a few factors that divide those who crack from those who stick it out. In particular, this included people who were less happy offline, those who used Facebook to manage how others saw them (and, therefore, saw a higher cost in going silent), and those who thought they were addicted.

One such participant in the study described, on the 10th day, dreaming about accidentally logging onto Facebook. Another noted, presumably with crushing disappointment, “they didn’t even notice that I wasn’t there. No one called or e-mailed to ask what was up.”

It’s further evidence that Facebook is more about showcasing ourselves than it is about taking a deep interest in other people. A caveat: Several members of Generation Z claimed that a friend’s sudden disappearance on social media would be immediately noted, and followed up by text.

In any event, Abena, Mahima and Mackenzie are all back on now. (And, to be clear, they never stopped texting.)

Deleting apps and having a friend change passwords for your accounts can help you stay away from social media during a break. (iStockphoto)

Abena returned to Facebook, but none of the other sites, only after defriending a dozen people who were contributing to the negative discourse. She doesn’t go on it as much any more, preferring to text with her friends. “I simply put myself first,” she says, “so if anything is stressful, I unfollow or unfriend.”

Mahima observed that she didn’t miss much, and that her friends were understanding of her absence. “It’s not really questioned,” she said. “Our generation knows how consumed we are on our phone.”

The day Mackenzie logged back in, she spent her lunch hour scrolling through pictures, catching up. “I felt refreshed when I came back,” she says.

But already she feels herself getting consumed by what’s happening online. “Eventually I will have to take a break again.”

Mackenzie points out that adults shouldn’t be so quick to judge: She has seen the argumentative tone that can take over a Facebook conversation even among her mother’s friends – and suggests that they could also take a step back. “I don’t think it’s just applicable to my generation.”

Hayley Hamilton, a researcher at CAMH who specializes in youth mental health, agrees. She says a social-media vacation is a good idea for anyone noticing that scrolling on Facebook or tracking Twitter is affecting their mood. That means parents should keep an eye on their own social-media habits. “Social media is not just for the young any more,” Hamilton says. “We shouldn’t judge and make rules that don’t apply to us.”

On my end, it has been more than a week, the FOMO (fear of missing out) is fading, and I know the truth, without even taking a peek at my timeline: I have missed absolutely nothing of consequence.

However, I have gained at least an hour of my day. And most of that is spent enjoying the view, no longer doused with blue light, in blissful silence. After all, everyone else has their face in a screen.