Noel Heikkinen is a busy man, even online.
He is one of the pastors of a large church, as well as involved in leadership roles in Great Commission Ministries and the Acts 29 Network. As such, e-mail and social media have been vital tools to coordinate activities and communicate with his church’s attendees. But it also means that he sometimes struggles with spending too much time online instead of engaging with his family.
So when his 13-year-old son recently asked, “Dad, you’re always on your phone—are you reading, playing games, or on Facebook?”, Heikkinen knew it was time to put down the phone.
He is not alone in this struggle. One study found that the average tablet user spends 13.9 hours per week with the device. Another found that 40% of people spend more time socializing online than they do face-to-face. And yet another found that 50% of Internet users sometimes or often feel ignored because another member of the household spent too much time online.
This New Year may be the perfect time to set a resolution about Internet use. Granted, only 12% of people who set resolutions manage to accomplish them, and setting a generic goal such as “Use Facebook less and talk to people more” will never succeed without concrete steps. Here are three tips for successfully cutting back on your Internet use, and simultaneously increasing the quality of the time you spend online.
1. Go for quality social media interactions, not quantity.
There is, of course, nothing inherently bad about social media. Tools like Facebook and Twitter are handy ways to keep in touch with a number of people at long distance, and 91% of online adults use social media regularly. Since Riverview Church has a regular weekly attendance of over 2,000, for example, Heikkinen has found that Facebook is vital to maintain contact with his church’s attendees.
However, constantly checking or updating these sites can distract from more pressing things, such as your work or family obligations.
One solution is to build your social media use into your schedule. In Heikkinen’s case, he has set aside two concrete times for active involvement on social networks. First thing in the morning, he looks at as many status updates as he can, clicking “like,” writing comments, and leaving “Happy Birthday” messages. Then, right before he goes home, he does a final check and replies to any messages he gets throughout the day in under two sentences if possible. In addition, he may periodically post a link or update through the day, but as a rule he saves the major interactions for the two set times. While the time is limited, he still manages to interact with a different cross-section of his friends and followers each day.
Most of us don’t have to manage 3,000-plus relationships, of course. In fact, only 50% of Facebook users have 100 or more friends. For users with much smaller friends lists, spending less time on Facebook makes even more sense, as status updates will stay on the news feed for longer periods of time.
Another key component is to turn off instant notifications. Often desktop software (including e-mail programs like MacMail or Twitter clients like Tweetdeck) enable desktop notifications by default. In rare cases these may be useful–for example, if you are awaiting an important e-mail, you may want the instant notice—but more often than not, these serve as distractions, breaking your concentration on the task at hand. Unless you have “Social Media” somewhere in your job title or description, you likely do not need instant notification when a celebrity has posted a new tweet or when your second cousin has forwarded another funny e-mail.
2. Set up Internet-free spaces.
When Heikkinen’s son commented on his Internet use, the pastor knew it was time to change things up. He began leaving his iPad and computer in his office at night, and set his phone on top of his family piano with the ringer off unless he needed it. This has allowed him to be more engaged in his kids’ lives.
For those unwilling to put the technology down so completely, there are smaller steps. For example, a “No phones at the dinner table” rule is an effective first step.
Those with desk jobs may also want to consider “Internet-free zones,” or at least selectively block websites, to reduce procrastination. For those using Windows computers, the Covenant Eyes Filter allows you to set time controls to block Internet use completely during certain periods. On his Mac, Heikkinen uses an app called Self Control to blacklist certain sites (such as his e-mail or Facebook), allowing him to work with fewer distracting temptations.
3. Consider an Internet sabbatical.
Every once in a while, the best answer may be to schedule a complete break from the Internet for a few weeks or a month. In fact, some vacation sites are specifically built as digital detox locations.
Heikkinen has been taking Internet sabbaticals for the past three years. He came to this decision because, he said, “I was very tired of posting to my blog, and I realized that whenever a major life event happened, I was composing the tweet in my head instead of enjoying the moment.” He chose to stay offline during the month of July, timing it to coincide with his family’s vacation and his church’s down season.
It was difficult at first, he said. And in fact, it wasn’t until this year that he truly delighted in it. “I just have the mental space, not checking social media or e-mail, to come up with more productive ideas,” Heikkinen said. “It gives me space to be completely involved with my family and remember that everything doesn’t have to be public.”
Pure Minds Online | Issue 27 | December 2012 | More in this issue: Why Do Men Binge on Porn? | Christian Hip Hop Artists Speak Out Against Sexual Sin | Best of the Covenant Eyes Blog: A 2012 Retrospective