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New Year Resolutions: The App of my Eye

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Susan Jane White ditches her smartphone

Susan Jane White ditches her smartphone

Susan Jane White ditches her smartphone

Facebook's latest acquisition of Oculus VR buckled my eyebrows, like spotting the local butcher selling hamsters for Christmas. Oculus is a company that invented a virtual time machine, or rather a gigantic pair of specs that can take you to the cosy couches of New York's finest shrinks.

Alright, my hands are up. That's not exactly how Facebook framed their press release. But I bet it's what the more progressive board members are thinking. After all, many new strains of anxiety disorders are mutating across the globe as we grapple to understand the effect social media is having on the younger generation.

Wouldn't it be synergistic (that's San Fran speak for opportunistic) to offer both services? To offer a social platform to connect with each other and facilitate popularity pageants? And follow up with an aftercare service for the emotionally perturbed? Facebook could be both monster and gallant knight.

Oculus headsets could transport users to almost anywhere in the world, in real time. Obvious ideas include the rush of an American baseball match, the palpable air in counting stations during elections, or simply a place in a classroom far away. Welcome to 2015. Fabulous, no? It must be, for its $2bn price tag. Except that my nostrils are dilating quicker than a headmistress at Glastonbury.

Facebook would naturally profit from the growing number of concerned parents seeking professional help with their teenagers, as incidences of cyber-bullying and anxiety disorders continue to swell. Wouldn't you want the best help or counselling service available for your teen, without having to leave the comfort of your own home? Oculus headsets will undoubtedly do just that. Maybe this is a simple tenet of Corporate Social Responsibility that Facebook hopes to employ. Maybe they won't charge for these services at all. And maybe I'm just an odd-toed ungulate sniffing around for a stench.

Either way, it got me thinking more carefully about my own app-centric habits. Habits I adore, by the way. I have a hair-raising collection of social apps, and struggle to remember life before them (probably inefficient and dull). With inflated confidence, I lined them up, pixel-to-pixel, and assessed each on their many virtues.

Let's start with convenience. Yup! I loves me a few minutes on Instagram, especially in a supermarket queue where I might otherwise have been checking out the claptrap of clawing ads either side of the lanes. Time well spent. Waiting lounges, too. And bus stops. Traffic jams. Anywhere my fingers have a few boring moments free.

Then there's undeniable fun. How I love a bit of entertainment and distraction when I don't want to listen to those voices in my head, telling me to apologise for my exquisite hissy earlier this morning. No thanks! I don't need advice from no voices. I'd rather drench my thoughts with what Twitter has to report. And besides, I get a cheeky high when I answer all my notifications.

What else can social apps do to improve my life? Loads! Sure, didn't I join Facebook to keep in touch with my friends? Some friends, I haven't seen since Wesley days. Isn't it grand to reconnect? (Or is it? Let's not get too deep). Others, I just scroll through their photos and instantly I know they're doing great. No need to phone and catch up. There they are, on my homepage, driving a car with their feet, gin and tonic in one hand, newborn in the other, waving at their audience. Sometimes I get confused when we last spoke (was it June? Or 2007? It's all a little fuzzy). Anyway, that's another tick. We've caught up. Virtually.

Fulfilment? See checklist above -convenience, fun, and social connect. Well then, of course I feel fulfilled having these social apps in my life, on the tips of my magic fingers. Except today I feel like a fraud. I wish I didn't.

I briefly visited the other side. I gave my smartphone a break for 24 hours. Let's be clear - I'm no internet junkie or Facebook addict. I consider myself to be an average user. But when my little ones told me to put down my phone in the park, and to play with them instead of my phone, I almost forgot to breathe.

How did I become so neglectful? How did I ever think it was OK to log on while pushing one of my sons on a swing, only paying partial attention to the things he did and said? Or sit on a bench and pore over Pinterest instead of showering adoration on my little boys? I wanted to vomit with guilt. During my 24-hour trial, when I wasn't busy bitching about my own stupidity, I managed to sit still for a few moments. The silence between my ears hummed with uncertainty.

Then it happened. I started daydreaming. You know, that old hobby familiar to those born before 1990? It was gloriously good fun. And Matthew McConaughey even had a cameo role. I often feel like I'm in a Wes Anderson movie, but today I really was. And when I close my eyes, I can do it again. No app on iTunes can compete with that.

I belong to the generation who can still remember the world before the internet. My teenage years were worldwide web-less. The daydreaming silences in our lives are now extinguished by so-called smartphones.

We are constantly switched on, in a humdrum partial way. That's the biggest appeal of social apps. Escape. But what happens when you embrace this wave of "continuous partial attention"? How is this changing our culture, our youth and our brain chemistry? Are we losing the ability to think deeply?

I know I was, until today, when I let those voices have their own stage. There were an alarming number of themes and stage directions. Yet I feel calmer now, and can think clearer. And that's just 24 hours.

Ditching social media is not my intention for 2015. I'm just chucking my not-so-smartphone instead, along with those pesky parasitic apps. This is a closer step to reclaiming what I've lost in a world of constant connection. For every minute I spend in virtual reality, I lose a minute in my own reality.

The little ones deserve my complete attention. As do those voices in my head.

Sunday Independent