Social Media is Shaping Your Body – Podcast Episode #80

“The truth is that I’d undoubtedly be distracted while walking, as well. I’d probably be reviewing e-mail as I walked, or checking my stats on the GPS app or pedometer, or tweeting about how I was checking my pedometer.”

– Wayne Curtis, from The Last Great Walk, on how long-distance, cross-country walking isn’t really feasible any more

I’m taking a social media break. A two-month-long one at that. I’m used to taking smaller breaks—like for tech-free Sundays and Screen-Free Week—but this longer break feels more significant, as social media is sort of my job. You’ve probably read (on your smartphone, via social media) that there’s this potential new category of addiction—to our smartphones and to social media. Anytime I’ve read about it (on my smartphone, via social media) I wonder, “Do I have that?” And then I quickly forget about it as I make my thumb-and-finger laps through email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For, um, work.

I write books (eight of them, so far) about movement and the aspects of modern living that act as casts—sometimes literally and sometimes figuratively—on how we move. Animals constantly respond to their environment (and vice versa). We’re shaped, literally, by the shape of our environment, and our shape influences the environment right back. I’ve written books on how the shape of our shoes affects the shape of our feet; and how the shape of our resting positions (chairs, chairs, couches, chairs) shapes our knees, hips, and spines; and how the distance from what we look at most (screens) shapes our eyeballs. It recently occurred to me that social media is itself a cast, in that it requires us to adopt particular physical movements and positions to use it, which means our bodies are currently being shaped by social media.

Acknowledging that our phones are influencing our physical health isn’t super groundbreaking. “Your iPhone is Ruining Your Posture — And Your Mood,” “Text Neck is Becoming an Epidemic and Could Wreck Your Spine,” and “Digital Disabilities — Text Neck, Cellphone Elbow — Are Painful and Growing” all live on the New York Times and Washington Post websites. These articles offer general advice on cutting down usage, taking breaks, and even postural correctives to reduce the impact of these devices, all of which is great, but what happens when you perceive that to step away from a social media is to lose out on something? What happens when you associate loss—of income, connection, and community—with whatever advice you’re getting from health experts? How do you transition yourself away from relying on this, or any, cast? To me, these articles give us excellent reasons to “do less on your phone” but are missing the “how to” portion that many of us are searching for in vain (on our phones, probably).

To me, what’s affecting our bodies so much is not the devices we’re using, but our adaptation to the relationships—to other people, our income, and information—they offer. I had a phone for years before I ever had a problem putting it down, so at least for me the issue isn’t the phone itself but what I can access on it. To talk in biological terms, we’re adapting to our phone-portal. Not only the permanent bend of our thumbs and the tensions in our chests and shoulders, but to the fact that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are our frequently used portals for communication and often stand in for the live community we lack. How do we disconnect from our phones when it means we have to disconnect from our world as we know it?

This question—is there a way to connect with the world, with my business, in a way that doesn’t pass through my phone-portal?—is exciting to me. My work consists primarily of creating steps to changing mindsets and lifestyles so that more movement occurs naturally, thus it’s my job to step away from social media if only to create the steps for how to do it.

 

And, if I see my job to be more than a teacher—if my job, as a person, is also the doing of the things I teach—then stepping away from social media and into a new (read: old) way of connection, one that doesn’t cast our bodies so severely, serves multiple functions.

It’s key to recognize that social media is the portal for communication (and the facilitator of stiff hands and arms) because we keep using it. By using social media as a portal for my information, I’ve been demanding social media movements of both me and my social media followers. Said another way: The fact that I use social media is what makes it something I, and my followers “have to use.” I’m facilitating tight thumbs and elbows and eyeballs. I’m requiring them, even.

One of my most popular books is Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear. This book, in a (long, potentially run-on) sentence is: Your feet have lots of joints that need lots of movement to stay healthy, you’ve been wearing shoes that are still and have casted the motion of your feet, but as we’ve added thicker and stiffer footwear the world over which we walk has, alongside, become hard and potentially hazardous for your feet, so because your feet are super-weak and not adapted to terrain and because the terrain you frequent is largely unsuitable for bare feet, we need to slowly adapt your feet and the habits of how and where you walk to solve this issue. (P.S. There are more details on how to do this within the book.) I’m bringing up Whole Body Barefoot because we can use a similar approach to Transitioning Well to Minimal Social Media.

We Need a Plan

Have I mentioned that I love social media? I really do. I like social media like I love a great pair of minimal shoes (which are shoes that offer protection while simultaneously allowing lots of movement). To take this long break, I’ve had to figure out all the elements of social media (the anatomy of social media, if you will), the way I have for shoes, and decide whether each element is helpful or unhelpful to my end goal of moving more of my body, more often.

I’ll be the first to say that there are all sorts of great elements to social media alongside the not-so-great ones, and that what places these elements in the “helpful” and “not as helpful” categories depends on the individual. This list isn’t exhaustive; it’s just mine.

Helpful

  • Connection
  • Information
  • Education
  • Inspiration
  • Entertainment/Distraction
  • Business
  • Portability
  • Artistic

 

Not As Helpful

  • Screen time
  • Certain repetitive body movements (head, neck, spine, wrists, thumbs, eye muscles)
  • Physical isolation
  • Distraction
  • Frequency
  • Portability

My approach to my break is not “go barefoot” (i.e., get rid of all these inputs) but “change shoes” (i.e., get the helpful elements without the not-as-helpful ones). Here are the steps I’m taking to transition to a different way of connecting, alongside which of my elements of social media they address:

  • Inform your following (business or personal) about your break ahead of time, multiple times (as I did on my social media as well as my podcast), over a few months, and include why you’re doing this. In general, people wish you well. They might mourn the loss of constant access to your perspective and daily life, but that’s okay. (Connection, Information, Business.) These are some of the graphics I’ll use:
socia-media-break-2-weeks
socia-media-break-3 days
socia-media-break-1-week
socia-media-break-2 days
  • Offer other ways to stay connected. My social media break is not a work break; it’s a break from the habit of doing things in a way that’s proven to be detrimental to us physically. So I’ve dusted off my old newsletter software, but not to send out the old newsletter style of yester-year—I’m offering shorter, often image-based pieces that match the style of social media. What’s the difference? I’m sending out one a week, max, so I’m not constantly on my phone, and my followers don’t have to worry that they’ll miss something if they don’t log on and do their social media laps. I also informed my followers of how I’ll be using my email outreach going forward so they know what to expect. I also ramped up and reminded my followers of my non-social-media portals of info, like my podcasts and books, and took the time to introduce my followers to each other via a social media ROLL CALL.

If we’re removing a bit of community, then taking the time to replace it—to achieve community in another way—is helpful. (Connection, Information, Education, Inspiration, Entertainment/Distraction, Business, Artistic, reducing Frequency and Isolation.)

  • Have a plan for your hands. Many smokers will say that they’re not adapted to nicotine as much as they are to the habit of smoking—they physical practice of the ceremony of smoking. This could be one of the reasons those quitting smoking find themselves needing to put something else in their mouth. They’re used to the motions. So if you want to cut down on your phone or social media use, it might help to keep your hands busy.

 

There are great lists of things you can do instead of picking up your smartphone, but I’ve decided to come up with five exercises that can actually break up some of our physical adaptations to all that social media time. And P.S. Anyone can do these, social media break notwithstanding, and one of them you can actually do while you’re using your phone. (Reducing physical adaptations to repetitive positioning; adding movement.)

Head ramping (or just back your face away from your phone). Keeping your eyes on the horizon, and without lifting the chin or chest, slide your head back to the wall behind you. This is an easy adjustment that immediately increases the height of your head, decompresses the vertebrae in your neck, and stretches the small muscles in the head, neck, and upper back. SIMPLE and effective.

Thumb stretch. Make a loose fist with your right hand with the thumb pointing up. Grasp the thumb as low as you can with your left hand and move it like it’s an old-fashioned joystick, slowly moving it toward you and side-to-side at varying angles.

Wrist stretch. Keeping your shoulders down and relaxed, touch the backs of your hands together including the thumbs, then bring them down to waist level. Hold there or move them slowly up and down in front of your torso, or right to left. Keep those thumbs touching!

Thoracic stretch. Place your hands on a wall, step back to bring your hips behind you, then lower your chest toward the ground stretching your shoulders.

 

Nerve Stretch. Reach your hands away from you making a T with your arms and a “STOPmotion with your hands. Spreading your fingers away from each other, slowly work your fingertips toward your head. Keep your middle fingers pointing up, thumbs forward, and elbows slightly bent toward the ground. Think of reaching the upper arm bones away from you as you work your fingers back.

In the end, it’s not my intention to force people off social media (as if I could!) but to inform you, remind you, and demonstrate to you (and to myself, always) how malleable our body, habitat, and habits are. I want to keep alive the idea, and the practice, of choice; to show that we are able to transition out of our culture’s physical casts—chairs, shoes, and Instagram—if we can break down the mental casts that accompany them.

I cannot say enough how important it is to use a stepwise approach to transitioning whenever you’re un-casting anything, and how the steps are endlessly definable by you. My big social media break at this point was facilitated by smaller transitions—for example, I moved away from forums in general, and then forums on Facebook—over a couple of years. With each transition, I find myself moving more and taking more action—literally moving more—for the topics I previously just spent time reading about and passionately discussing via social media.

Remember that time you dropped your phone (probably in the toilet) and were forced offline and found that life was different, and not all bad, once you unplugged? This break is a high-pressure environment I’m creating to facilitate (force, really) some adaptations on both a work and personal level. I suspect that, after my break, I will have adapted to some new habits and put new (read: old) systems in place that are more nourishing to me and to my followers in the end. If past transitions—like when I tossed my couch—are any indication, I’ll likely continue to do this type of “transition to minimal” for the rest of my life, delving into change when I tune in to symptoms influenced by an aspect of my environment.

I’m an 80s kid, and I feel like movies from that decade are my elders—I find quotes from them popping into my head when I need wisdom. And lately, when I think about shrugging off the cast of social media from my body, all I can think of is this scene from WarGames, where the talking computer (Siri’s grandfather) is trying to figure out the strategy necessary to win a geothermal nuclear war. The computer quickly plays itself only to deduce that no matter what the scenario, nuclear war will ultimately destroy everything. (Not to get too dramatic about this–it’s social media–but it just goes to show you that what you watch ends up part of your anatomy). The computer’s takeaway, and mine, on various matters, more and more often: “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

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