I’m sucked into a dark abyss every time I open a Facebook or Instagram feed. Since there’s absolutely no chance I’d give up my smartphone, I try to make my screen time worthwhile by turning to apps like Duolingo, Goodreads, and Strava.
When I first got a mobile phone, back in the early 2000s, there wasn’t much you could do with it. Still, I spent hours playing different polyphone melodies, playing the then-popular Snake game on a Nokia 3310, and even going for some bold chatting attempts by sending messages to random numbers.
And it seems like the novelty of having a multimedia device that fits easily in our pockets still hasn’t worn off. On the contrary — it has become our greatest confidante, safeguarding(?) our most useful and private data, from the latest pub crawl route to our personal medical records.
This kind of highly-portable and personalized experience is bound to be addictive for many. However, I still believe that — if you choose your apps wisely — picking up your smartphone can become a healthier habit.
Consequences of the addiction
People are rarely their true selves online. Yet it can be so easy to forget that. Especially if you, for example, open Facebook on Christmas and get bombarded with tons of seemingly happy families.
I’m off Facebook and Instagram during these holidays — everyone is working so hard to build this glamorous image of their lives, I can’t help but feel like an outsider. Even when I know that’s just window dressing, and I’m sure that their lives aren’t, in reality, that different from mine.
And don’t even get me started on Instagram filters. Every once in a while, I experiment with make-up. And because I don’t really use it often, I tend to take a selfie. Every time, I end up texting my friend, asking how come everyone is so beautiful but me, I’m just a gnome with make-up. Insta reality, my friend replies. She goes through the same from time to time. We do realize that people on Instagram are barely recognizable because of all the filters, and, honestly, look much better without any of them. But taking selfies now upsets me every time.
These few examples seem minor when you look at some of the studies about digital addictions and what people actually go through when they’re addicted to their smartphones. From the fear of missing out (FOMO), depression symptoms, inattentiveness while driving, to divorce, sleep deprivation and even suicidal tendencies. That’s how dangerous flirting with social media is.
That said, if you manage to weed out things like doom-scrolling — purposefully looking for bad news online — then certain social media apps (and I’m not talking about Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok since I have no faith in them), can make you better off in a way.
I, personally, turn to specialized apps that connect like-minded people and can actually help you achieve something and find inspiration without stealing your sleep.
Goodreads: a social network for readers and authors
Back when I first discovered Goodreads, there wasn't even an app available. But let me tell you, it's like a social media haven for all book enthusiasts out there. You can create lists of the books you've devoured, the ones you're eager to dive into, or even those you've abandoned midway. What's more, you have the freedom to personalize your virtual bookshelf just the way you want, and the platform lets you share your thoughts through reviews while keeping track of what your friends have been reading.
In this day and age, with a vast selection of books at our fingertips, it can be quite overwhelming to choose a new book. That's why one of my absolute favorite activities on Goodreads is simply scrolling through my friends' updates. Their latest literary adventures often provide me with inspiration and help me discover books that align perfectly with my taste.
But here's the cherry on top: Goodreads curates its own lists too! Whether you're seeking the top picks for June, looking for an upbeat summer read, or even in the mood for some mystery, Goodreads has got you covered. Their handpicked lists serve as an invaluable resource when you're in need of some guidance in choosing your next literary escapade.
One thing I've noticed about the Goodreads community is how engaged and passionate its members are. They eagerly rate books and take the time to share their detailed reviews. So, whenever you stumble upon a particular book, you'll find a treasure trove of comprehensive reader opinions. This abundance of insights truly helps in making informed decisions about which books to embrace and which ones to pass on.
However, I must admit, there's one feature that has made me part ways with Goodreads a few times in the past — the Reading Challenge. Essentially, you set a goal for the number of books you aim to read within a year. Each time you finish a book, you can see whether you're on track to meet your challenge or falling behind. As an avid lover of thick, substantial books, I often find myself lagging behind the reading schedule because Goodreads doesn't take into account the sheer magnitude of a 1,000-page tome.
I've caught myself pondering how to strike a balance, contemplating whether I should choose two shorter books after spending weeks engrossed in a weighty literary masterpiece. On one occasion, this internal debate prompted me to take a break from Goodreads for half a year. However, we've since reconciled, and our relationship is back on good terms.
Nonetheless, I believe there's room for improvement. It would be marvelous to see the platform introduce more functionality, such as short-term reading goals or the option to focus on pages read rather than simply the number of books completed.
Ditching TikTok challenges for Duolingo
This educational app is a fantastic way for me to make the most of my time, especially when I'm waiting for a friend or simply looking to pass some leisure hours. While I can't claim that it revolutionizes language learning, it offers an engaging and gamified experience that aligns with popular "French in 30 days" textbooks. Although a few minutes a day won't make me a language expert, it's a delightful way to learn on the go.
Initially, I experimented with Duolingo's free version, but to be honest, it proved to be quite frustrating. The app restricts the number of mistakes you can make, and once you reach five, you have to purchase extra lives using gems. I decided to upgrade to the premium version, intending to cancel after the trial period. Unfortunately, the app didn't notify me before the trial ended, resulting in a $60 charge. Nevertheless, I now have access to Duolingo for a year.
The paid version, fortunately, offers a more forgiving experience, as it allows you to make mistakes without fear. The lessons are short, typically taking only two to five minutes to complete. It's an excellent way to make use of those brief moments of waiting for a bus or taking a short break.
Duolingo encourages you to maintain consistent learning habits by urging you to complete at least one lesson per day. While this works well for my regular routine, it can be challenging to keep up during vacations. However, the app lets you utilize the gems you earn during practice to freeze your progress streak. Interestingly, the progress streak is something my friends on Duolingo compete for, and that competitive element keeps me motivated.
There's also the possibility of being demoted to a lower league, which serves as an additional motivation for me to complete more lessons and improve my skills.
Since I've been studying multiple languages, including French, German, and Yiddish, among others, I don't rely solely on the app to reach proficiency. However, it serves as an invaluable tool for me, particularly when I can't carry my language textbooks around. So, instead of mindlessly scrolling through random videos or participating in viral challenges, I find playing with Duolingo far more enjoyable and productive, especially during those moments spent waiting in line. Although I must admit, those random filter challenge videos can be quite amusing.
Strava: not my favorite app
I dabbled with Strava briefly in the past, using it to keep track of my running stats. Back then, without a smartwatch, it felt futile to log in and rely solely on my phone for capturing distance and speed data.
Recently, I gave Strava another shot when my company introduced a triathlon challenge. Confident in my fitness level, I thought securing a spot in the top ten would be a breeze. However, as I witnessed my colleagues' impressive cycling, running, and other activities, my motivation dwindled. You see, I'm fiercely competitive and prefer not to engage in a challenge unless I stand a chance at achieving something significant.
Yet, here I am, flirting with Strava once again. To be honest, it's not because I particularly enjoy the app itself. At the start of the year, I recommitted to running, but for months, it felt like I was constantly falling short. I couldn't run for more than a kilometer without needing to stop, and walked for at least a third of my workout. I had convinced myself that I would join Strava once I had something to boast about. But I soon realized that to accomplish my goals, I needed support.
After completing two consecutive 5-kilometer runs, I decided to reach out to the Strava community. Many of my friends, both past and present colleagues, are dedicated to working out, so I turned to them for guidance. The support was overwhelming. I received advice on everything from heart rate management to selecting the best running routes and socks for a more comfortable experience.
While apps like Duolingo provide a gamified approach to learning, Strava enables me to set real and personal challenges. The app's functionality itself isn't my primary concern, as my smartwatch already fulfills those needs. However, the invaluable support I can tap into within the Strava community surpasses any random articles on restarting a running routine.
The creepy side of personalized experiences
My experience online is never my experience alone, is it? I seemingly can’t have a proper break since I have a Goodreads challenge to keep up with, Duolingo’s daily streak and the fear of demotion, and some very challenging friends on Strava.
On one hand, this keeps me motivated and consistent. On the other hand, there's also a hint of addiction in the mix. Maybe because the functionality of those apps are somewhat limited, I’m always on the brink of feeling like a failure. It's a sentiment that never plagued me when I solely relied on textbooks or went for runs accompanied by my trusty old MP3 player.
But that’s not really a problem. The problem is that apps on my phone know a great deal about me, and I feel exposed. There’s simply another me, thankfully, not a sentient one, living on my device. Or maybe I’ve just rewatched too much Black Mirror recently. Speaking of which, a pilot of Cybernews’ Black Mirror-themed podcast just aired. We’ll come back with more insights after the new season drops on Netflix.
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