The Virtue of Digital Distancing, Especially in Times of Crisis

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With the COVID-19 pandemic dominating the news cycle, we’ve all been instructed to practice “social distancing” as a strategy for slowing the spread of the virus. The appropriate social distance is about six feet, which is about as far as sneezes and spit travel. That, along with washing your hands and staying home if you’re sick, is the best advice.

But while social distancing is necessary, it’s clear that we need to also increase the distance between ourselves and our digital devices. We’ll stay six feet away from people, no problem, but that 16 inches between your face and your phone or computer screen may be the most dangerous distance in all of this. The constant hum of bad news, false information, anecdotal evidence, wild speculation, poor behavior, and wringing of hands has made social media (and even the regular news) a vast dumpster fire that threatens to burn out of control. People are anxious beyond the capacity of reason. Every moment, it seems, there’s another story, rumor, statistic, or meme that vacillates between predicting a genuine apocalypse or dismissing this crisis as hysteria.

Certainly there are a number of problems that will manifest as this virus continues to interfere with normal patterns of life and work. The vulnerable will be exposed to adversity that others are not, and dynamics of unemployment may create genuine problems for individuals and families that were feeling relatively secure until just recently. All these problems are real and require additional wisdom for how to faithfully move forward. However, there is at least one additional measure that everyone can practice in order to restore more wholeness to society: Practice digital distancing. 

If six feet is a good enough social distance, six hours is probably the minimum amount of time you should allow between periods of checking your phone or looking at the news. I’d actually recommend twelve hours, or even eighteen as an even better option. The more distance, the better.

Cal Newport, in his wonderfully helpful book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, says that our addiction to information has become an unhealthy pattern that affects our lives in myriad ways. And that was before COVID-19. With our smart phones constantly at hand, we’ve rapidly lost the ability to be alone with our thoughts. Solitude is essential to our ability to process and make sense of emotions, to make sense of who we are, and to build strong relationships. Our mental health suffers when we eliminate time alone to do some of that thinking and processing. The constant pinging of phones and lighting up of the Twitter-verse keep us perpetually anxious, distracted, and in a state of mental and emotional sickness.

Think about it (no, seriously, turn away from the screen and think about it), would emotionally and mentally healthy people buy truckloads of toilet paper to prepare for a virus that has little to do with gastrointestinal distress? Would reasonable, thinking people believe everything they read on Facebook? Our brains need time to power down their critical social circuits, which were never meant to be used as constantly as we tax them.

To that end, let me offer seven suggestions for doing some digital distancing:

1) Delete social media apps from your phone. We’ve become accustomed to having no down time, so we look at our phones every time we’re remotely bored. To create more space for solitude and thinking, delete the social media apps that you are tempted to check constantly. You’ll be amazed at the time you free up and the stress reduction you’ll experience.

2) Set specific times to look at social media and news on your desktop computer. Limit your exposure by limiting your screen time. While the news comes out in a constant stream, that doesn’t mean you have to look at it in real time. Back in the day we used to wait until the evening news to find out what had gone on all day, or we waited for it to come out in the newspaper. Digest your news and information in one chunk at the end of the day and you’ll have not only a clearer picture of what’s actually going on, but you’ll be a lot more ready to hear it.

3) That also means not looking at the news first thing in the morning. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but there’s nothing more conducive to starting your day stressed out than going straight to the screen first thing. Consider instead starting the day with prayer and Scripture. There’s a reason the psalmist wrote, “Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5 NIV). Start the day with things that provide breakfast for your soul and that nourish you for the tasks ahead.

4) Allow yourself to be bored sometimes. While Facebook and Twitter would lead us to always believe that the world is going straight down to Sheol, looking out the window or staring into the fireplace can actually convince you that it isn’t. Boredom can be an opportunity for creative thinking, self-reflection, and recharging your brain. Again, we need time and space without constant input in order to reboot our mental and emotional state.

It’s also an opportunity reboot our spiritual state as well. When the prophet Elijah went up on the mountain to meet God, he didn’t hear God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. He heard the voice of God in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). Psalm 46:10 reminds us that God doesn’t say, “Be constantly wired,” but rather, “Be still and know that I am God.” The solitude and silence of boredom can be a gift if we’re willing to be still and listen!

5) Take a walk (and leave behind your phone and ear buds). While we’re practicing social distancing, remember that the outdoors are always open (even during a lockdown) and it’s really easy to keep social distance in wide open spaces. Make it a habit to take a long walk every day, and challenge yourself to do it without the stimulus of more input. Let yourself hear the wind. Practice being alone with your thoughts. If you absolutely have to have something to listen to, make it something that feeds your soul–a good podcast or some music you like. We tend to think better when our feet are moving. Get out, get some air, soak up some Vitamin D in the sunshine, and let the beauty of creation offer some healing for your soul!

6) Reclaim conversation. We’ve gotten so used to clicking the “Like” button on social media, or simply commenting on a post, that we’ve lost the art of conversation. Face-to-face conversation allows us to pick up facial cues, nuance, tone, and empathy that social media doesn’t allow. Newport cited a study at a summer camp where students had their phones taken away for five days and, afterward, nearly all of them described a much greater feeling of well-being and connection with their fellow campers. If you’re isolating at home in the coming weeks, reclaim the opportunity to have deep conversations with your spouse, your kids, or other family members. Talk to a friend on the phone instead of just “liking” their post online. Get to know others while you get to know yourself!

7) Reclaim leisure. Now would be a great time to dive into one of your hobbies or develop a new one; particularly “virtuous” hobbies that demand our engaged attention rather than passive consumption. Get your hands busy creating or fixing something rather than merely spending hours staring at a screen. Don’t get to the end of the next several weeks of quarantine and have nothing to show for it but a social media hangover.

Digital distancing is more important now than ever. Think of it as one of the best ways you can stay healthy not only during this temporary crisis, but for a lifetime!

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Dr. Bob Kaylor is Lead Pastor at Tri-Lakes United Methodist Church in Monument Colorado and the Senior Writer for the preaching journal Homiletics. He authored Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transitions for the Local Church and leads seminars helping church communities through pastoral transitions. Bob is a writer, preacher, drummer and father of two teenagers. He blogs at bobkaylor.com

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