It’s been almost a full year since we travelled to Croatia for our second wedding anniversary. During that holiday, Mike and I both decided to disconnect completely from the digital world. We traded our Instagram feeds and work emails for real-life sunrises and sunsets, iPhone cameras for DSLRs, and late night reading of adventure blogs on phone screens for cooking fresh fish over a blazing fire. It was to-date the best week of my life, and I remember every day of it so clearly. Not only because Croatia was so memorable, but also because we were present with each other and our surroundings.
A recent article in Science News suggests that I probably remember that trip so well because it was smartphone-free. Smartphones are hindering our ability to remember. When we disconnect completely or set boundaries with technology, we’re more likely to be in the present. So what other aspects of our lives are smartphones obstructing, and what can we do about it?
Enslavement to That Blue Light
Coincidentally, I’ve recently been reflecting all over again about cell phone use. While I was on a run over the weekend, I got all worked up thinking about the whole concept of us chained to our cell phones. This went beyond my own addiction to Instagram and reading the most recent updates of increasingly troubling news stories. Everywhere I go, people are “sharing” meals over expensive dinner plates with their faces illuminated by the blue light in their palms. Thousands of zombie-like strangers with their heads permanently angled down toward their outstretched hand, bumping into me as they cross a street (with apparently unshakeable faith in the caliber and focus of the drivers around them).
On this run I thought, we’ve had so many daily reminders in the news lately that life is short, do I really want to die on a double decker bus while scrolling through my Instagram feed?
I don’t mean to be so morbid, but that is an honest worry of mine. Not necessarily the specific dying on the double decker bus part, although that thought occasionally does cross my mind when British bus drivers are maneuvering their towering red vehicles through the alarmingly narrow streets of this city like they’re driving through Diagon Alley.
But I am worried about being so focused on what’s going on in the digital world that I forget to live in our present world. I want to live feeling connected to my husband, my family, my close friends. I want to feel grounded in knowing that I’m somehow contributing productively to society and helping others. Are smart phones helping by connecting us globally, or mostly just hurting?
Once I was sufficiently worked up about the topic, I went and did some digging into the research. What I found disturbed me.
- A 2015 Bank of America study found that approximately three quarters, or 71% of participants in their study sleep with or next to their phone. That’s frightening when you read about how important uninterrupted sleep is for us.
- In the same Bank of America study, 35% of participants admitted to thinking about their smart phone as soon as they woke up instead of rolling over to snuggle with their significant other. I don’t find my cell phone particularly cuddly.
- A study commissioned by Nokia found that people now check their smart phones 150 times per day on average, and 46% of smartphone users say they can’t live without their devices. (Which means there are probably a lot of self-deluded folks amongst that 54% that say otherwise.)
How can we feel grounded in our real world, when the numbers are trending this way towards the digital one?
My biggest hang up on this whole topic is how we’re disrespecting each other’s time. I’m guilty of it, and I’ll bet many of you are. A loved one has their back turned while they’re doing the dishes, and while they’re talking to us, we’re mindlessly scrolling through our apps looking for something to hold our attention.
Look up from wherever you’re reading this blog post (on your phone, whomp whomp), and I bet you’ll see couples in a grocery store line interacting with their friends’ digital personas instead of paying attention to each other.
Why should we even bother to make time for any of these people who are supposedly close to us, if we aren’t actually going to be considerate of their time. If you’re on the phone while you’re with them, you’re basically telling them that you don’t care what they’re saying. And you’d rather be somewhere else with someone else.
In a blog piece about phone addiction, The Art of Manliness points out that we’re losing our ability to connect with people. Even having a smart phone in our line of vision causes us to pay less attention to the people we’re interacting with (What’s the first thing people do when sitting down to dinner? Pull their phone out of their pocket and plop it on the table). Most troubling, especially considering all of the horrible things going on in the world that should bring us together and encourage personal interaction, is that smartphones are decreasing our ability to experience empathy.
“Talk About Hypocritical…”
You may point out the irony of me writing (preaching) about digital addiction. I have a blog. I use Instagram. I mean, wow, I partially earn my living managing digital platforms and social media accounts for other companies.
But that’s why I’ve grown increasingly introspective about the whole topic. I spend so much time every day managing other people’s websites and accounts, figuring out the perfectly crafted ads and posts to hold peoples’ attention for more than two seconds, that I increasingly think about how much time I need away from screens. I crave quiet, face to face (not FaceTime!) candle-lit dinners with my husband every night. I appreciate time with friends who give me their whole, undivided attention. My business partner actually does not have any personal social media accounts because our work has driven him far away from the digital world outside of business hours.
So, What Can We Do?
I’m treating this blog post as a reset for myself, a full year after I had a ten-day-long digital detox. We’re about to embark on another wedding anniversary adventure, this time in the Slovenian Alps, and I plan to impose another phone-less week on myself. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some commitments I’m going to make to myself, in case you’d like to try any of them as well.
1. Put our phones away completely when sharing a meal with others.
Mike and I do this a lot anyway. He works in finance, but he jokingly refers to himself as a “professional emailer”. (Sometimes when I see the distinctive red glow of his work email app I want to scream with anxiety.) As a result, all he wants to do during dinner with me is focus on our time together, which is wonderful. Even on weeknights, when we don’t have work-related commitments, we light candles, turn off our kitchen lights, put our phones and computers away, and enjoy a meal together. If one of us is swamped with a deadline, we still make time for a twenty minute dinner, device-free.
I also try my best to keep my phone tucked away in my bag when I’m with friends, but of course I occasionally slip and check my texts and email like the rest of us. I’m going to be more vigilant about this from now on. My friends’ time is precious, and my full attention should be on them when I’m with them. I’m not an on-call doctor waiting for a page to save lives, so that notification can wait.
2. Learn to be bored. Observe our surroundings more.
Simply put, we’ve lost our ability to be bored. Gone are the days of waiting in line at the post office with nothing to do but sit with your own thoughts and observe the world around you. Now, you have a mini computer the size of an alarm clock to keep you endlessly entertained and informed! But is that really a good thing?
Manoush Zomorodi doesn’t think so. When interviewed by The Art of Manliness about her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, she argues that when we’re bored, we not only have the time to process our day and emotionally deconstruct how we feel about things going on in our life, but this is also when our most creative ideas come to us.
So next time you’re waiting for the bus or the train, or you’re in line at the grocery store, or most importantly, when you’re walking anywhere, accept your surroundings. Be satisfied with your own thoughts, distraction-free. And for the love of all that is good in this world, sheeple of London, please stop bumping into me and worse, walking in front of buses with your head glued to a screen!
3. Substitute a book for a digital feed.
One of my goals for the year was to read more books. I’ve followed through on this goal for sure, but I want to commit to this even more. It’s so tempting to just read that one news article before putting my phone down to read a book before bed (which inevitably turns into a rabbit hole of further links). Instead, I really want to commit to gaining more knowledge from a non-fiction book, or taking a trip vicariously through a character in a novel. On planes, trains, automobiles, and when relaxing before bed, I’m going to really work on only using that time for reading, not wandering the interwebs.
4. Sleep with our phones out of the bedroom.
Coming back to that sleeping article I mentioned earlier, sleep is basically the most important thing we do for ourselves every 24-hour period. Matthew Walker, a sleep expert at the University of California Berkeley, has made it his life’s mission to figure out why we sleep. He’s discovered powerful links between a solid 8 hours of sleep per night every single night and lowering the risk of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and many other life-threatening illnesses.
For example, he’s found that after just one night of only four or five hours’ sleep, our natural cancer-killing cells that our body produces drop by 70%. Cancer killing cells drop by 70% after just. One. Bad. Night. Of. Sleep! That’s a pretty powerful fact when you think of the statistic mentioned earlier that 71% people sleep next to or with their phone. Doing so certainly doesn’t make for a productive and calm sleep environment.
I’m going to commit to sleeping with my phone out of my room completely, all the time. I’ve dipped in and out of this habit, and when I fully commit to it, I always sleep better. Buy yourself a good ole’ fashioned alarm clock and try it yourself!
5. Turn off notifications completely.
We don’t need to constantly be pestered by notifications from Whatsapp, iMessage, SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter, Feedly, Gmail, Slack…I could go on and on. There are so many apps ready to !PING! us with an action, threatening us with immediacy. Do any of them really require immediate action? Probably not. Relatively recently, I turned off all of my notifications on my phone except for iMessage, which only shows up on my lock screen (not the drop down notifications), and I’ve kept my phone permanently on silent for several years. I highly recommend doing so.
6. Perform tasks with no smartphone interruption.
Lately, I’ve noticed that my attention span has deteriorated. I’ll be in the middle of one important task, and the next thing I know, I’m on the other side of the room doing something entirely different that popped into my head. I attribute this lack of focus mostly to my use of smartphones. I’m simply unable to fully devote my attention to something that needs to get done.
To remedy this bad habit, I’m going to try focusing on completing every single task I set out to do. Ambitious? Yes. But hopefully I’m going to be aware of the fact that I’m committing to something that I’ve started, and hopefully I’ll be able to follow through on this commitment with a large majority of my daily tasks.
7. Delete certain apps from your phone altogether.
I recently deleted the Facebook app from my phone, and it’s pathetic to admit this, but it was life changing. I am no longer tempted to scroll down a white newsfeed littered with political arguments, Facebook advertisements, and upsetting (fake) news. I do still look at Facebook on my laptop, mostly because I use it for work, but that requires an intentional action.
8. Forgo the need to take a photo of every exciting thing that happens to us.
This may be my biggest flaw when it comes to using smartphones. I love taking pictures, and I love looking back at old photos and reminiscing even more. Photography is a wonderful hobby, and all of the photos that Mike and I have taken especially since we moved abroad will be special keepsakes for us later in life.
But do I need to pull my phone out at every sunset we watch in Wales? Does all of the food I make really need to go on my Instagram story? Definitely not. In fact, taking all of those photos probably loops back to the beginning of this post – my recent memories are now very much associated with photos I’ve taken. We should all be exercising our photographic memories a bit more, and live in the moment.
Simply setting some boundaries with smartphone photography will hopefully do the trick. Mike and I want to take photos of some meals so we can write about them on this blog. The rest of them? Those can just be meals that we’re enjoying together, and smartphones won’t be invited anymore.
And we have a blast taking photos of those sunsets and sharing them on Instagram. But some of them? We need to remember that they’re only meant to only be seen by the two of us, as a special moment on a grassy hill at the top of a Brecon Beacon.
This likely won’t be the last time that I talk about this issue on here. It’s something I’m always thinking about, and I’m constantly monitoring my own relationship with smartphones and the digital world because I’m wary of it consuming me. Does this mean I’m going to ditch my cell phone and laptop, turn off my social media accounts, and disappear to some Zombie Apocalypse Preparation cabin in the remote hills of New Hampshire / Wales? (Mike: yes, yes, YES!)
Realistically I’m just advocating that we all be more aware of 1) our presence in this real world, because we only live in it once 2) how we’re respecting other peoples’ time by paying attention to other humans when we’re with them.
Playwright Lin Manuel Miranda said, “The good idea comes in the moment of rest. It comes in the shower. It comes when you’re doodling or playing trains with your son. ‘Hamilton’ forced me to double down on being awake to the inspirations of just living my life.”
We may not all write the next Hamilton, but I think our world could certainly use a little more creativity, a little more human connection and compassion. So how about giving these digital detox steps a go with me?