While writing the introduction for this article, I abandoned the keyboard and impulsively grabbed my phone roughly five times. Per a November 2017 study, I'll repeat this behavior 75 more times before the day ends, but if I'm being honest, that seems like a low estimate. This serves as exhibit A for why I feel passionate about the National Day of Unplugging, a 24-hour pledge to disconnect from all digital devices, which starts tonight at sundown and goes through tomorrow, Saturday, March 10, at sundown.
Of course, I could argue that this compulsion isn't entirely my fault; social media sites like Facebook and Instagram were designed to monopolize our attention and, for lack of a better term, addict us. "The thought process was, 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'" admitted Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, at an event in Philadelphia this past November. "Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, we … give you a little dopamine hit." In other words, an Instagram like or Facebook comment triggers the same reaction in the brain as having sex and eating, and that was done so purposefully.
You can see the nuances of this cultural addiction at work everywhere you look. "For me, there [were] really two wake-up calls," Arianna Huffington, author of The New York Times best seller Thrive and creator of the new unplugging app of the same name, told MyDomaine. "The first was looking around me and seeing more and more people ignoring others and the world around them by being buried in their phones. The other was the data showing the costs to our mental health." For example, from 1999 to 2014, the suicide rate in the U.S. went up 24%. Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed, especially among young people. From 2005 to 2014, the number of teens who reported a major depressive episode went up 37%. "That's not to say our social media habits are directly causing these outcomes—but these numbers are a wake-up call highlighting a crisis in our culture where we're seeing an increased hunger for real, human connection."
The latter part of Huffington's statement encapsulates why I personally worry about our growing reliance on technology. To me, the greatest casualties of our tech addictions are the missed nano-second opportunities for human connection—moments that can never be replaced or replicated by a screen. We miss these opportunities on the train, in the elevator, while waiting in line at Sweetgreen, while ordering a drink at the bar, at the dinner table, and the effect can't be quantified in social media studies. Whether or not these possible moments of connection lead to any kind of relationship isn't the point; it's about being present, absorbing the intricacies of the world around us, and, most importantly, feeling comfortable enough to reach for those connections in the first place. All of these experiences lead to greater well-being.
"We're hardwired to want to connect, to seek out validation and social approval," adds Huffington, "and that need is exploited in ways that end up not being good for our mental health. While social media gives us so much, it simply can't replace the connections and meaning we get from engaging with other people and the wider world. All those hours spent on social media and staring at screens is time not spent actually connecting to others face-to-face, building social skills, having shared experiences, and deepening friendships."
Every time we choose our phones instead of the people around us, we incrementally alter how we communicate and experience the world. This is an especially important decision for teenagers and young kids—using technology as a social crutch can hinder the development of actual social skills. Even something as simple as making eye contact or shaking someone's hand requires practice and repeated exposure and cannot be learned through a screen.
"Digital connection can, in fact, lead to isolation," Jenny Yip, Psy.D., ABPP, tech-addiction expert and director and founder of the Renewed Freedom Center in West Los Angeles, told MyDomaine. "Although you might feel more connected by texting or commenting on social media, you might actually become more distant with people in real life. The result is less meaningful and efficient communication in person, which is especially crucial for children and teens to develop at a young age." She gives the example of constantly checking your phone during a family dinner. "Smartphones and social media take us out of the moment," she adds. "Notifications from our phone or likes from social media can start to replace actual human interactions, even to the point of avoiding real-life activities in order to stay connected online."
Small cleanses, like the National Day of Unplugging tonight and tomorrow, are a great way to get some space between you and your tech. But there are also steps you can take to set boundaries and cultivate a healthier relationship with technology on a daily basis. For Huffington, that means "limiting the time I spend on social media, always being intentional, and not spending precious time away from what's really important to me." Her Thrive app essentially streamlines that process, allowing you to reclaim your time from technology by blocking apps, notifications, calls, and texts for designated periods of time. Additionally, Yip recommends the following five strategies:
1. Avoid multitasking. "Checking your email inbox, text messages, and tablet all at once will make you feel overwhelmed. Instead, focus on one task at a time. You will finish each little task more efficiently and feel more productive in the long run."
2. Schedule. "But not with your digital calendar! Create a physical to-do list on paper. Break tasks into 15-minute increments and schedule a read-through of your inbox once in the morning, afternoon, and evening so you'll stay focused on one task at hand, instead of getting pulled in different directions all at once."
3. Identify mental traps. "When we're in front of a screen, it's all too easy to get absorbed in what looks like the perfect lives of others on social media. If you're thinking thoughts like, 'I wish I had her life,' that's a red flag."
4. Take a break. "If you're feeling unfocused, sometimes the answer is to take a step back. Go for a 15-minute walk, have a snack, or listen to music away from your screen."
5. Disconnect. "Put your phone on silent when you get home, and keep it in your purse or briefcase. Give yourself a mini retreat to score some quality time with yourself and connect with others face-to-face."
Next, read about what happens when you quit social media for 40 days.