My social media and phone addiction has metastasized as the years have passed. I have owned two Nokias, two PalmPilots (’memba those?), four BlackBerries, three iPhones, and two iPads, all of which I treated like newborn children and none of which I could go without for more than thirty minutes at a time. (Or, more honestly, five or six minutes. Fractions of minutes.) I can’t help but laugh when I think back to what I used to consider “addicted” and “dependent” behavior when it came to simpler talk-and-text cell phones—or even my beeper in high school! I loved that beeper! It was see-through! And I could text my girlfriend 143143143 to let her know I was thinking of her, and there was no way for those numbers to lead to an all-out text battle. Those early devices were just my gateway. Then I got my first BlackBerry at the end of 2006 and learned the uses (and misuses) of instant e-mail, BBM, the Internet, and Gchat on a mobile device.
While I was gazing at my phone year after year, the social media stratosphere was changing and expanding. Friendster (RIP) gave way to Myspace (basically RIP), and Facebook modified its policies to include everyone—not just college students. And then Twitter and Instagram and Tinder and Tumblr were born. (Seriously, I have to stop writing about Tinder—I can already feel a livid text from my wife on its way.) Through social media, we could now hear “firsthand” the thoughts and feelings of celebrities. We knew what kinds of fur pillows Kanye liked and the fact that he loved Persian rugs and cherub imagery (thank God he stopped writing about that). Reality television swallowed scripted programming. You could follow real-life drama minute by minute. We were all connected, twitching with near-constant anticipation of what would happen next, who would say or text what, instigated and propelled by the never-ending stream of information.
My parents’ generation has watched these new forms of communication and entertainment infiltrate our society, but for a while they denounced this new media as a negative distraction or wrote it off as something they didn’t understand, like heavy metal music or obscure indie films or college kids’ obsession with David Lynch. At first our parents looked at our social media and smartphone use with the same expression they bore that awkward moment when you came home from college with a boyfriend or girlfriend with sleeves of the tattoo variety. Even now, as older generations have also begun to become obsessed with and addicted to social media and smartphones, it’s still significant that they have spent the vast majority of their lives off-line, where the greatest degree of their persona-building and important decision-making took place. Their friendships and (at least first) marriages did not begin, thrive, or end because of Facebook—though more recently, many in their generation are getting divorced and mentioning Facebook as a culprit. But still, the nuances of their lives weren’t chronicled on a twenty-four-hour news feed from the time they were born until they were in an assisted living home where Matty B decided to film his viral YouTube music video. (My grandmother is actually in a Matty B video.) There was a purity to their lives then.
When my mother started using Facebook, she often forgot her password and didn’t sign in for days at a time. My father is obsessed with his iPad and its magazine and newspaper applications (and of course with Hearts Online) but doesn’t frequent many of the communication apps (except for SnapChat. He loves SnapChat). There was also that three-month stint in 2010 when he became compulsively obsessed with Foursquare and full disclosure: He did upload his first Instagram a few months ago. It was of a German couple he’d never met getting married on a float. It remained his only post for months. It was very strange.
But something eventually broke and now he posts pictures of our family dog and his steak dinners just like everyone else. From the day I sat down to write this book to the present day, both my parents have let the social media addiction take over. But the difference is that they can put it down when they need to and their lives haven’t been molded and shaped and severely affected by it. They enjoy it. It’s a pastime, no more, no less.
So that’s how my parents react to social media. And conversely there’s our generation. A girlfriend once broke up with me via e-mail because she caught me having a Gchat conversation with an ex that had started because of a Facebook status. So it’s a little different for us.
We can’t sit in one place and have a conversation with someone without wondering if something is or isn’t happening somewhere else. We want more; there is always something else, something better out there. Many of us feel less secure in our relationships and friendships, even with friends we communicate with on a regular basis. We feel lonely, despite keeping in touch.
Our generation has spent roughly half our lives without these gadgets and apps, and the other half becoming addicted to and dependent on them. Many of us can dial back to the time none of it existed. We remember our clearer minds, activities, communication styles, and attention spans before the world changed, though sometimes it feels like a faint and distant memory. I, for one, remember the accountability that went along with the absence of cell phones—the absolute requirement that we could not be more than fifteen minutes late to meet someone or they’d think we were rudely standing them up. I remember awkward conversations that had to happen in person or over the phone and the way that living through those difficult moments and knowing I had the ability to speak my mind changed me, made me stronger, more confident, and independent. I remember dinners with friends during which we all paid attention to each other and then spent hours after the meal together, without one of us leaving because we had made plans on our smartphones in the interim. I remember privacy and loyalty in relationships and having so much to talk about at the end of the day because we had not spoken since the morning. I remember coping with my feelings by taking the time to contemplate and simply sitting with my own thoughts. I remember Sunday mornings with the paper, reading and discussing articles without distraction, and feeling proud that I knew what was going on in the world. I remember how much easier it was to be loyal without a stream of photos or updates from our exes tempting us to stray, or any means to impulsively text or e-mail. I remember reading a book without distraction and enjoying my life without having the urge to broadcast every detail to everyone else. I remember these things with nostalgia because for me and many others, they have ceased to exist.
Excerpted from Unfriending My Ex: And Other Things I'll Never Do by Kim Stoltz. Copyright 2014 © Kim Stolz. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.