Screening off

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on May 16, 2021


Scrolling through Facebook, I notice a friend’s post about the toxicity of small, lighted screens. But I’m scrolling, not strolling, so I don’t register anything beyond the general message: It’s time to look up and look away.

A short while later, I try returning to that page. Can’t find it. As I wade through the infinite stream of smiling, twitching, brightly coloured and alluring images I feel like a tiny fly locked inside a gigantic kaleidoscope. The lighted screens are all around me, I can see fragments of myself, meaningless repetitions that become an abstract pattern, an addictive madness, a nightmare...

Fortunately, there’s a way out. I message the friend, Chetan Mahajan of the Himalayan Writing Retreat. He redirects me to the site I had glimpsed. It’s called UNSCREEN (unscreen.org). The link leads to a description of the programme designed by Mahajan’s wife, psychologist Vandita Dubey, to help addicts overcome their electronic dependence. It’s held at their beautiful resort, The Quiet Place in Satkhol, Uttarakhand. Visitors can sign up to attend a week-long programme which starts with — you guessed it — turning off and handing over all communication devices. For a WEEK! Yup. For some of us, it’s panic-inducing just to read those words.

Even before reading about the site, I’ve been wanting to cut loose from my self-inflicted electronic tentacles. I sleep with my phone within easy reach. It’s not allowed to ding or vibrate through the night but it’s my alarm clock. The moment it goes off, my carefully maintained isolation is breached. I reach to put it off and inevitably see the seductive notifications from email messages, news stories, Insta-chirps. I keep Facebook and Messenger silenced but even so, embarrassing as it is to admit this, I check my phone practically before I wake up. My eyes aren’t properly open but I’ve already got that bluish light playing on my face.

I’ve been wanting to stop for some time now but — hey! I don’t need to tell any of you who might be reading this on your own glowing screens, that it’s difficult. So a Himalayan retreat where addicts like me can pay to get help sounds like a great idea. Since I already know and love the resort, I don’t need any convincing but alas it’s on the other side of the world from where I am.

So I’ve been trying a couple of home-grown methods. One is to forbid myself from reading anything on a lighted screen until, say, one hour after waking up. The second idea was suggested to me by someone who wants to remain anonymous (but his name starts with “B”). Set an alarm for, say half an hour from Right Now and then... keep hitting “snooze”. That’s it. I’ve been practising this for a couple of days now and am amused by how well it works: Every 10 minutes, I’ve got to look up! I’ve got to remember to look away, get up, walk around and... whoops! There’s the alarm.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on May 16, 2021

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