Alice, referring to her experiences in Wonderland, in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.
Also: me, every time I fall down the internet rabbit hole.
Do ever feel as if you’re in a different world when you’re on your phone? Do you ever feel as if you’ve somehow fallen into it, like you’ve gotten sucked into the alternate reality of what’s happening on the screen?
Recently while watching Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, it occurred to me how fascinating — and accurate — it is when people use the term “internet rabbit hole.” How often have you gone on your phone to search for something and looked up from the screen a while later, surprised at how much time had passed since you’d unlocked the screen? How often have you said to yourself, “I’ll just look at [Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / etc.] for a sec,” and then found yourself in a lengthy cycle of app-checking? If you’ve ever experienced these, you’re certainly not alone. Most people with a smartphone have probably had these experiences.
Wondering where you stand in terms of phone addiction/use? Here’s a Smartphone Compulsion Test to check out. (I scored 14/15.)
One study found that 89% of Americans check their smartphones “at least a few times a day,” and 36% admit they’re “constantly checking and using” their phones. For those ages 18-24, that number is closer 50%. Even if you’re not in the “constantly checking” group, all you have to do is look around to see that a lot of people are. This is not news, of course; many Americans (and others) are attached to their phones, some of us quite literally addicted. And it’s no wonder! These devices provide us with some of the best aspects of life: connection to others, information and up-t0-the-minute news, entertainment and games, external validation, and so much more. It makes sense that we’re drawn to such incredible devices. But when they become the focus of our lives, when we spend so much time in them that it’s almost as if we’re living parallel lives in real life and online, we have to step back and consider what this means for who we are (and who we want to be).
Smartphones (and who knows what other amazing technology-to-come) are here to stay, and I can honestly say that I’ve written down “iPhone” in my gratitude journal on more than one occasion. I love my phone. I love technology. I always have, and I’m guessing I always will. But I don’t always love what it does to my life. I don’t always love the fact that I don’t always feel in control of it; sometimes I honestly do feel like Alice, lost in a wireless Wonderland that is both fascinating and frustrating because, like Alice, I can’t always easily find my way back to reality, even when I want to.
Okay, here’s where I’m going to go deep into the Alice rabbit hole. It’s useful context for the tips listed below, but if you’re in a hurry or are over my Alice analyses, just skip the italicized section to the tips below. If you need an Alice refresher on the scene I’m referring to, check out this playlist.
When Disney’s film begins, Alice is in a situation where she’s incredibly bored, trying to concentrate on the school lessons she finds uninteresting. The world around her feels incredibly dull, and she’s longing for a world of her own, a world filled with unusual things that would entertain her. (Funnily enough, Alice’s song “A World of My Own” contains the lyrics, “Cats and rabbits / Would reside in fancy / Little houses / And be dressed in / Shoes and hats and trousers,” which, let’s be honest, sounds very much like a lot of the silliness we see online these days.) Like Alice, many of us turn to our phones or computers when we’re bored and in search of some kind of interesting stimulation.
Alice is bored and daydreaming, feeling dissatisfied with her life, when she first sees the White Rabbit run by. In her current state, disenchanted with reality, it’s no surprise that something as intriguing as a fully-dressed, speaking rabbit grabs her attention. Of course, such a thing would grab the attention of anyone, but, we’re often led to the internet rabbit hole for a similar reason. We’re bored or seeking something other than what we’re experiencing in reality, and anything that sparks our curiosity will lead us to follow it, no matter where it might take us.
Because she’d rather be anywhere than her current reality (as so many of us feel when we’re bored and turn to our phones for entertainment), Alice doesn’t hesitate to follow the White Rabbit. Like most of us when we encounter something unusual or attention-grabbing online, Alice instantly wants to know more about the rabbit in a waistcoat. When Alice follows him and reaches the rabbit hole, she says to herself (and her cat), “You know, we really shouldn’t be doing this… Curiosity often leads to trouble.” We, like Alice, often know we shouldn’t look at our phones or click on certain things (graphic footage of a horrific incident, an ex’s social media profile, a 20-minute video compilation of German Shepherd puppies…), but we’re so damn curious.
As Alice is saying those words, she crawls into and falls down the rabbit hole. She waves goodbye to her cat, Dinah, and I feel like many of us could do the same to our pets or family members when we get in what I like to think of as the “phone zone,” those periods of time when let yourself dive into your phone and it almost feels as if you’re in a different world — a wonderland, perhaps. You might be lying right next to your pet (or partner), but you might as well say goodbye because once you’re in your phone zone, it’s as if you’re no longer in the room.
Falling down the rabbit hole, Alice encounters all kinds of interesting things (artwork, books, maps, mirrors, etc.), and experiences a variety of emotional reactions (relaxation, surprise, fear, amusement, etc.), just as we often do when we fall down the online rabbit hole.
Now, what’s actually going on in the rabbit hole isn’t the purpose of this article (I could probably write an entire book on how Wonderland is a metaphor for today’s internet), but I do one to share a few observations I made about what Alice experiences in Wonderland and how it relates to our personal rabbit hole experiences.
What Alice consumes in Wonderland makes her grow smaller or taller, just as what we consume online can make us experience negative or positive emotions. Online interactions can boost our self-esteem (sometimes too much) and/or make us feel worse about ourselves. We, too, are transformed by what we consume in our wireless wonderlands. Many of us are aware of the danger of this, just as Alice is when she drinks and eats in Wonderland, and yet we still continue to consume.
There are a lot of characters giving really bad advice in Wonderland, but doing it with the appearance of looking credible. The Dodo character, for example, stands atop a rock with a warm fire, dry and safe, while providing ridiculously unhelpful instructions for how other characters should get dry as they are continuously bombarded by tear-ocean waves. (Do what you will with this metaphor, but I think says a lot about those, especially those well out of harm’s way, who give advice to others online.)
Alice is supposed to be focused on one task — finding out where the White Rabbit is going and why he’s in a hurry — but she is constantly distracted. Some of this is her doing — she sees something interesting and wants to know more — but sometimes things just pop up seemingly out of nowhere, and she has to deal with them first before continuing with her purpose. (Similar to how we often deal with notifications and other intriguing pop-ups before continuing on to find whatever we were initially seeking.)
Mansplainers abound in Wonderland and, while this film was released in 1951 (and the book published in 1865), the similarities between some of the condescending, overly confident male characters and some of today’s online mansplainers is shocking. If you’re interested in seeing this in action, check out the scene with Tweedledum and Tweedledee, in which these two guys tell Alice what she ought to do, refuse to let her continue on her way, aggressively question her purpose, and emotionally manipulate her into listening to their story. More fun Wonderland mansplainers include: the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, and the March Hare.
Whenever Alice grows larger in Wonderland, her life is threatened and/or she’s viciously attacked. Not entirely unlike how, when people gain popularity and influence online, they gain more attention (and a lot more haters, too).
When Alice meets the first seemingly kind group in Wonderland — the talking flowers — it seems as if she’ll be welcomed by them. (Important to note: the flowers get in an argument about which song they will sing for Alice, because each kind of flower wants to be the star of the show, just as many people online want to have the most followers, the most attention, etc.) Though the flowers are welcoming at first, as soon as they discover that Alice is not one of them — that she doesn’t fit neatly into a floral category — she’s immediately and ruthlessly rejected. As it so frequently happens online, the flowers judge Alice completely on what they can see on the surface, without trying to learn more about who she is, before rejecting her completely.
In Wonderland, Alice is constantly being asked to define herself. (See: the infamous “who are you?” Caterpillar scene.) We, too, are constantly asked to define who we are online, often in short bios or 140-character limits. The whole of a person is pretty difficult to fit on a tiny screen, and yet that information in increasingly how we come to define and understand others.
When Alice decides that she’s had enough of Wonderland and decides it’s time to return to reality, she struggles to find her way home. We, too, can sometimes struggle to come back to reality when we’re in a phone zone, sucked in by news, entertaining content, or external validation in the form of likes and comments. Many of us, when we’re down the rabbit hole, tell ourselves that we should have listened to our own advice and not picked up the phone in the first place, but the benefit of resisting our curiosity is always so much easier to see in retrospect.
Okay, so now that I’ve gotten (part of, haha) my Alice analysis out of my system, let’s get to the tips for avoiding the rabbit hole in the first place. Once you’re in there, it’s tough to get out sometimes, so it’s important to be mindful about how and when we venture down it. Here are things I’ve tried (or am planning to try) to avoid getting sucked into the wireless wonderland so I can spend more time in the present, in reality.
Determine what’s really important.
The most vital first step to avoiding the many temptations of the wireless wonderland is knowing what is most important to you in life. We all have a limited amount of time here on this Earth, and it’s up to you to choose how you spend that time. If you determine spending your time scrolling endlessly through social media apps is your life goal, go for it! But if not, identifying what matters most to you and where you get the most enjoyment in life will make it (a little bit) easier to pull yourself away from your phone. Not sure what matters to you? Check out these e-books: Finding Yourself and Loving Yourself.
One of the reasons most of us have such a difficult time detaching from our phones is because the boundaries between us and them are growing less and less obvious as time goes on. In past decades, we never would have even considered interacting with a phone while in the presence of others at or during a work meeting, but that kind of behavior is more and more socially acceptable. When society as a whole deems it acceptable, it’s harder to set personal boundaries. But it’s your life, and you have the power to spend it how you want to. Establish clear boundaries for when and where you’ll use your phone, and encourage those in your life to do the same (or at least respect your boundaries). Remember: you have options. Just because everyone else is on his/her phone doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because everyone else responds instantly doesn’t mean you have to, too.
Learn the science behind it.
Your brain is significantly impacted by your phone use, and I’ve found that understanding what’s happening in a physical, chemical sense makes it easier for me to put my phone down. Check out Your Brain on Social Media for lots of great info and links to scientific studies, but basically, your brain has strong chemical reactions every time you get new information, get a new like, see something visually interesting, etc. That’s probably not news to you, but imagine what’s going on in your brain when so much of this is happening simultaneously and frequently throughout the day. Our brains haven’t yet evolved to the technology we’ve recently created, and knowing how much of an impact (sometimes good, but often bad) your phone has on your brain might make it easier for you to put it down.
Make it easier for yourself.
Putting the phone down is hard, and it helps a lot if you do what you can to make it easier for yourself. Here are some tricks I’ve tried or read about that really can be helpful:
- Put the apps you want to visit less frequently on another screen (not the home screen) or in a folder. I’ve done this recently with Twitter, and it’s totally changed my app-checking game. I used to delete it when I got frustrated with my overuse, but then I’d end up needing it for work and download it again, creating a vicious cycle. When I moved it to the second screen on my phone, the amount of time I spent there went way down, but I’m still able to access it easily when I need it.
- Get rid of the color. Some experts recommend turning on the black-and-white mode on your phone so the colorful app icons aren’t so alluring. I haven’t tried this one yet, but I know, as a major color-lover, this would probably help me big time. One thing I love about the phone is how colorful everything is!
- Get helpful apps. You can download apps, like Freedom, Offtime, and BreakFree that’ll block you from checking certain apps or websites during certain time periods. I’ve never used these before, but I bet they would help a lot. I have tried the Moment app, which tracks how much time you spend on your phone, and that was really helpful because it showed me what an insane amount of time on was spending in the wireless wonderland.
Uninstall the apps.
This one could probably fall under the previous category, but it’s important enough that I think it needs its own section. One way to cut down on your phone use? Delete apps on it! Yes, you might need to keep your work email or whatever apps you “need,” but there are probably a lot of apps you could delete on your phone and just check the websites when you’re on the computer. It’s still not great to “need” to check them all the time, but if they’re not in your pocket and at your fingertips constantly, you’ll grow less attached to them, and checking them will become less important. You might even realize that you’re better off without some of them!
Create a schedule.
If you’ve ever read up on this topic before, you’ve probably heard this bit of advice: create a specific time each day to spend on social media / check your email / waste time searching aimlessly online. This can be challenging, as more and more people are available 24/7 and it’s become part of our culture to look at our phones. (Plus, many jobs, like my own, make it challenging not to be on social media regularly.) If you can’t set specific times each day, consider setting a specific time each hour. Scheduling 10 minutes an hour is going to help you cut down more than if you have no schedule at all. If you do go the schedule route, I highly recommend setting an alarm because, as many of us know, it can be really hard to remember to pull yourself away once you’re already in there.
Find tech-free hobbies.
The rise of technology has brought about so many new and wonderful things, but if all of your hobby and interests involve being online or on your phone, it’s going to be much more difficult not to fall down that rabbit hole. So, find some hobbies that don’t involve using your phone or technology at all. Here are some ideas: draw (on real paper!), read (a printed book, like this one!), go outside (walks? hikes? a sport?), get a pet, join a club, go to local events that interest you to make some new IRL friends. You know, things people used to be into before we all were bent down, eyes glued to our screens. Whenever you’re engaged in your hobby, don’t bring your phone or put it away. That will give you at least some time each week (or more often) when you’re not looking at it.
Turn off all notifications.
I’ve always been the type to turn off notifications. The only time I’m ever notified of something happening on my phone is when someone calls or texts me, and even those notifications are simply on the screen (no ringing or vibrations unless I’m expecting a can’t-miss call!). Turning off notifications is something a lot of phone addiction experts recommend, but it’s important to remember that sometimes this can be a negative thing. Because I’m not notified when new things happen, I have to manually check each app, which can often result in a lovely cycle of Email → Instagram → YouTube → Twitter → Facebook → Pinterest → Email. I’ve never had notifications on, so I honestly don’t know if this checking is better or worse than being notified, but, whatever choice you make, be mindful of whether it has you checking your phone more or less than before. (The Moment app can help with tracking this.)
Hide the phone.
Out of sight, out of mind is a real thing, and it’s especially true when it comes to phone use. Even if the phone is off or you’ve followed all of the above recommendations, if you can see it, you’re going to want to use it. The times I’m least likely to use my phone is when it’s charging in another room (though, I’ll be honest, if my phone is charging, you’ll often find me sitting right next to the outlet, chained to that spot until the battery’s refueled). More and more, I try to put my phone in a place where I can’t see. Even now, as I’m writing this, I tuck it under a blanket next to me. That might sound silly (of course I know it’s under there!), but I’ve found that this trick really does work. If I can’t see, I do (kinda) forget about it, at least while I’m focused on something else.
These tips will hopefully help you if, like me, you struggle with avoiding that internet rabbit hole. If you try these and they don’t help or you feel like you might have an addiction to your phone, I highly recommend seeking out a cognitive behavioral therapist to work with you. Addiction — whether it’s to alcohol, drugs, or a smartphone — is real, and it can really impact your life and relationships in a negative way. We haven’t yet had enough time with this technology to understand what the long-term effects will be, and, from what I’ve seen, smartphone addiction is still looked at somewhat more of a choice than substance misuse disorders, but it’s real, and it’s hurting a lot of people (and those who love them). If you think you might have a problem, here are some resources that might help you determine if you should seek the assistance of a therapist:
- Smartphone Compulsion Test – Center for Internet & Technology Addiction
- You Addicted to Your Phone? – USA Today
- Signs & Symptoms of Cell Phone Addiction – Psych Guides
- The Phones We Love Too Much – The New York Times
- Smartphone Addiction : What To Do – WebMD
- 5 Science-Backed Ways to Break Phone Addiction – The Week
- Coping with Cell Phone Addiction – PsychCentral