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Auntie SparkNotes: I Waste My Days on the Internet

Dear Auntie,

I need advice on how to stop procrastinating.

I’m starting my GCSEs next year and I’m still wasting most of my days on the internet, video games, etc. I tell my mom I’m revising, when really, I’m not. It’s not like I haven’t tried, because I have! I’ve tried limiting my internet access, making lists, guilt-tripping myself, but I can’t really find much that works!

Not only that, I don’t seem to do all the fun stuff I used to have so much time for when I was younger! I didn’t get a phone until I was 11, so before then, I was oblivious to ‘the internet’ and most things that the modern world is obsessed with. I get very socially awkward sometimes even now, simply because I don’t know about [insert celebrity] hooking up/breaking up with [insert celebrity]!

I honestly find myself wishing that I was living in the 1990s/80s, where there was more time for productivity and creativity, and less time spent mindlessly browsing the internet.

Being a teenager is already hard enough without the media constantly throwing useless content at me, and I just want it all to stop! I know I can’t just delete the internet, so I need some experienced advice!

Oh, and you’ll get it, my friend! That is, right after Auntie SparkNotes finishes laughing her whole entire butt off at the idea that the 1990s was some kind of Golden Era of Teen Productivity. Because, uh, it wasn’t. You can trust me. I WAS THERE. And as someone who lived through that decade (and saw the birth of the early Internet firsthand), I can assure you that 90s kids wasted time pretty much exactly the same way you do: watching TV, playing video games, flipping through magazines, gabbing with friends about useless gossip. Obviously, some things have changed—in the absence of Pinterest, those of us who lived in the pre-Internet era had to literally pin stuff to an inspiration board which was also made of a literal board—but what you’re experiencing is just a contemporary riff on the classic teenaged time-waster’s experience.

And here’s the thing, Sparkler: that’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself. Unless you’re tooling around online at the expense of other things in your life, like your schoolwork, your relationships, or your physical health, you’re totally entitled to spend your time consuming “useless content” (which might not even be that useless, depending on what it is; the Internet is a great place to explore things that interest you, and there’s plenty of knowledge, not to mention certain social and technical skills, to be gained there). So even if you wish you were the kind of person who gravitates toward needlework or knot-tying or learning Russian instead of noodling around on the web, I have to point out that it’s okay if you’re not! There is no law that says you have to be maximally productive in your spare time, especially when you’re just a few weeks away from starting a challenging academic year.

That’s why, before you do anything else, I think you should ask yourself what you hope to accomplish by getting off the Internet—because it’s going to be key. Guilt-tripping, list-making, and wistful romanticism about the golden era before digital streaming aren’t going to motivate you to spend your time differently; you need to have someplace else to put your energy. You need a goal! And the goal has to be something you’ll find at least as fulfilling as what you’re putting aside to achieve it. Do you want to read more books? Get more exercise, or just get outside more? What are the things you used to do as a kid that you wish you still had time for?

And perhaps most importantly, do you truly miss doing those things? As a teenager, would you really enjoy living your life the same way, engaging in the same pursuits, as you did when you were ten years old? Or is your anxiety over your Internet habits actually a cover for something a little more ephemeral: that you’re feeling weird about growing up?

Ask yourself these questions. See what you come up with. And if there are things you’d really, genuinely rather do than surf the web, then put them on your calendar, delete the most time-sucking apps from your phone, and set an achievable short-term goal (to explore a certain neighborhood, shave 10 seconds off your mile time, read one short book, whatever) that you can enjoy chasing enough not to be distracted by the ever-present web. (For more on creating a reward cycle to keep yourself motivated, check out this post.)

But also: go easy on yourself, especially if you realize that what’s really bugging you is that your life is changing, your interests are evolving, and you’re not really sure who you are or where you’re going just yet. That’s normal, and it will pass. And in the meantime, you could do a whole lot worse than to muddle through it by consuming useless content—which might even inspire you to do something useful that you haven’t thought of yet.

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