By Erin Lewis
One of the wonders of technology is that it can connect us better than ever. But how does it affect our relationships if we are in a constant state of divided attention? In Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, author Sherry Turkle suggests: “Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.” Our devices give us flexibility we could never have dreamed of even a decade ago, but at the same time they add new pressures to daily life.
Recently, 200 students at the University of Maryland, College Park, voluntarily abstained from using all media for 24 hours as part of a study. Their feedback about this experiment included words associated with drug and alcohol addiction: “in withdrawal, frantically craving, very anxious, extremely antsy, miserable, jittery, crazy, moody, anxious, irritable, isolated.”
In 2008, the average teenager sent and received 2,272 text messages per month. But this is not, as some might believe, just about “young people these days.” To differing degrees, all of us place some importance on our screens. It is worth evaluating what they add to our lives and what they take away, in order to find some balance. We don’t need to wait for a diagnosis of “e-mail apnea” or nomophobia (the fear of being out of mobile phone contact!) to consider our relationships with our devices and the world around us.
Here are a few questions to ponder as you evaluate your digital life:
- Do you have difficulty setting limits on your technology use? William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, suggests setting time limits and rewards. “Somehow, when the battery is running down on a laptop, it’s much easier not to be distracted from the task at hand. This behavioral fact can be translated into a ritual. Vow to finish all screen tasks by a given time, with a reward if you make it.”
- Are you constantly switching tasks? Powers suggests that “the hours we spend flitting constantly among tasks train us to treat our time and our attention as infinitely divisible commodities,” when, in fact concentration gets the best results. I’ll admit to checking other windows on my computer at least ten times while writing this article. Finally, I closed my inbox, switched off the internet, and started by writing what I know. Try to minimize the number of windows you keep open at once, and try not to let your computer distract when you’re on the phone.
- Is checking your e-mail one of the first things you do in the morning? John Freeman, author of The Tyranny of E-mail, suggests that e-mailing in the early morning and late at night can lead to a “workaholic cycle.” He recommends filling those hours with other rituals or hobbies.
- Do you feel tethered to your phone? Try leaving home without it, even on just a quick errand. A phone-less field trip can feel freeing. You may appreciate things you otherwise wouldn’t notice, interact with your family and surroundings more, or even (gasp!) ask for directions.
- Do family members disappear into separate rooms with their separate gadgets in your household? Make time for some unplugged fun. Instead of Angry Birds, pull out a board game, dance, or play a sport. Experiment with taking time away from screens, whether it’s a long vacation or even just a few hours.
- Where can you go to detach from your devices? Find some screen-free favorite places and frequent them. With the increase of TVs at the local gym and wireless connectivity at cafes, outdoor space works well for a break. An added bonus: numerous psychological studies show that spending time in nature can lead to increased energy and a heightened sense of well-being.
As for the increasingly frequent distraction in conversation, first make sure you give your full attention to others. Will Schwalbe, co-author of Send: Why People E-mail So Badly and How to Do It Better, says a good rule of thumb is to think of your phone or PDA as a crossword puzzle. “Anywhere it’s acceptable to work on a crossword puzzle, it’s OK to check your PDA.” That means not at the dinner table, during a meeting, or while driving.
And it’s okay to ask for respect from others. By finding a nice way to ask someone to spend time with you without a screen, you’re actually creating a quality, completely wireless human connection.
By Erin Lewis, Health Educator, Prevention Education, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.