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This Thanksgiving, Struggling To Skip The Instagram Obsession

A family member's passing this month sent me on a wistful expedition through endless unnamed photo collections from my old hard drive. I searched for group shots and family holiday pictures in hopes of tracking down one or two nostalgic images of someone very photo-averse.

Instead, I found this — and many, many, many photos like it.

The author's family in Russia throws very festive dinner parties, especially for the holidays.
/ Courtesy of Alina Selyukh
Courtesy of Alina Selyukh
The author's family in Russia throws very festive dinner parties, especially for the holidays.

Admittedly, the spreads my family puts on for celebrations can get pretty picturesque. We're Russian, so there's always something purple, something smoked, something completely undecipherable and caviar. (And is that a whole stuffed fish peeking out in that New Year's photo? Yes, it is.)

But here's the first thought that crossed my mind when I saw this image: What a crazy photo, I should put it on Instagram. And the second: Why was I taking so many pictures of food if I had nowhere to post them?

The year was 2008, and a digital camera was my prized possession. Now, I have a smartphone and a camera folder full of photos of tasty things I cooked or ate or saw. And this idea, that photos are taken to be posted online, is getting harder and harder to shake.

Of course, it's something we've all heard before — social media is addictive, we're spending too much time online, we're tethered to our phones. (Chances are, you're reading this on Facebook from your smartphone.)

Two in three Americans own at least two digital devices and the same portion is on social media. By one estimate, an average user spends almost 2 hours a day on social platforms. As early as in 2012, Baylor University compared cellphone and instant messaging addictions to "consumption pathologies like compulsive buying." For some stark visualizations, one photographer imagined our society with the digital "phantom limbs" removed.

Get-togethers with extended family can bring out the worst of it. Debates are settled with Google searches, scores are checked online, small talk is avoided with scrolls through other people's digital lives, crowd-watching of screaming goat song remixes on YouTube ensues.

Look again at that crooked dinner photo I took seven years ago; do you notice something missing? Well, there's no turkey — it was a different kind of celebration. But also: not a single phone.

Now, at many family gatherings, the "telephone yawn" is unavoidable — one person takes out a phone, and others can't help but follow. And guess what? It's not just "the millennials." Flurry, a company that tracks app use, analyzed its data last year and found that middle-aged parents were up there with teenagers and college students.

All Tech explored the notion of phone overuse and its rudeness factor in a series of posts last year, collecting some insightful observations about the importance of context (maybe those goat song remixes are totally fine because they spur conversations) and suggestions for ways to restrict their presence (you could turn it into a game).

I struggle to detach from my phone. It's the first thing I pick up in the morning (to look at Instagram photos of food) and the last thing I put down before bed (after looking at Instagram photos of food). In fact, I had an idea of trading my smartphone in for a flip phone — but found that option actually much, much more costly.

So this Thanksgiving, I wanted to skip the phone and Instagram food photos. I would let my iPhone battery run out and leave it dead. I would bring some magazines and movies. And when the time comes to rejoin the daily grind, maybe I could download Moment to track and be more mindful of about phone use. (Android alternatives are QualityTime or AppT.)

Do you use apps to track your phone use? Do you think phone use deserves the worry? Tell us in the comments below or find me over on Twitter. Though if I'm doing it right, you won't see me there for a little while.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
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