Reality Bytes


As the boundaries between our real and online lives blur like never before, it’s important to carve out a little patch of peace.

words Denise Cullen

We’re living in a strange kind of virtual reality right now, perched on the precipice between “before” and “after”. Covid-19 has shifted the ground beneath us. Plans have been scrapped; rules rewritten.

Forced to spend extended periods of time at home while socially isolated, many of us turned to our devices for information, connection and comfort. At the height of the health crisis, Facebook saw a 70% increase in Messenger group video calls, while use of WhatsApp jumped by 40%.

Then, using her smartphone, a teenager took us to a Minneapolis street, where the whole world watched the shocking killing of George Floyd. The subsequent Black Lives Matter protests played out in person and online, the global rallying cries overlapping and amplifying each other.

In 2016, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, foreshadowed this era as the fourth industrial revolution in which “new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds”. The possibilities, he enthused, were “unlimited”.

But the digital cracks are starting to show: in the teenager forgoing sleep to text friends all night; the employee browbeaten by after-hours work calls; the colleague enraged by offensive social media posts; the neighbour stoking Covid-19 conspiracy theories.

These disparate concerns and their mental health effects – anxiety, frustration, anger, depression – reflect a lack of digital boundaries. Physical boundaries, like a fence, a locked door, or a line in the sand, tell others where they can or cannot go. Digital boundaries are different. You can’t see or touch them. That’s why we must draw boundaries between “me” and “the rest of the world” in other ways.

As the pandemic compelled many of us to work from home, separating our personal and professional lives became all but impossible. Then schools closed. Families laboured together, as before the industrial revolution, except now, instead of spindles and flax, we had laptops and wifi.

Enmeshment made it hard to pinpoint the start and end of each working day, and contributed towards more than seven in ten people suffering burnout, the professional feedback platform Blind reveals.

In Making Space, Jayne Hardy highlights how notifications, vibrations and tones are cortisol-releasing “calls to action” which derail our thinking, tether us to someone else’s timeline and reduce productivity by up to 40%. Yet some people, it turns out, send late night emails simply because that is when they catch their breath, underestimating the pressure it places on recipients.

We cannot expect others to respect our boundaries if we haven’t drawn them in the first place. Reducing overwhelm might mean establishing set times during the day to “batch process” emails and other incoming messages, and creating autoresponders to manage senders’ expectations. It’s OK not to respond to emails at all hours. (Or, if you choose to, use a scheduler to delay delivery, so your messages don’t inadvertently communicate round-the-clock availability.)

At other times, we’re the architects of our own distraction. Time spent on Instagram is tipped to grow by 14% this year, which seems a gross underestimate. Open your phone to check the time, or tap an app to beat a moment’s boredom, and three hours later, you’re still down the rabbit hole. Apps designed to limit social media use can help when willpower wavers.

Part of the problem is that these platforms are designed to be addictive, says Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism. Don’t click like, he urges. Each like, share and save prompts a rush of feel-good dopamine which provides a quick lift, but may crowd out more valuable interactions. Pick up the phone or schedule a socially distanced face-to-face chat instead.

Curating a social media feed that nourishes you can be an affirming act. Early in the pandemic, I relished the shift towards more reflective, mindful posts depicting sleeping cats, roses blooming in a neighbour’s garden and the pattern of bark on a gum tree. But before long, exotic cocktails in far-flung destinations were back and, with them, pressure to lead a bigger, better life. Hitting mute hurts no-one, but to truly sidestep the comparison game, unfollow.

Recalling that movements like MeToo and ClimateStrikes found their voice on social media, it’s clear that implementing digital boundaries doesn’t mean opting out of difficult conversations. Yet anyone who’s participated in a Twitter flame war knows how quickly online discussions can turn volatile and destructive. According to a UN Report, 73% of women have suffered cyber-violence, including trolling, hacking, spamming and harassment.

Blocking and reporting trolls helps protect both you and others. It also frees up space for more positive and uplifting social media engagement. For amid the chaos and unpredictability of this unfathomable new world, a safe haven, somewhere, is something we’re all craving.

This story appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Peppermint magazine.

© 2022 Denise Cullen