My throat tightened as our last glimpse of the Irish coast slipped away and we headed for the depths of the Atlantic. It was my first day onboard the Queen Mary II, the huge cruise ship that takes passengers from Southampton to New York on a 7-night long voyage past the spot where the Titanic sank, and I had just discovered the hourly Wi-Fi connection was prohibitively expensive. I had been prepared for a week at sea, but not a week at sea without the Internet.
I tried to think of the last time I had been offline for that long, and failed. I remembered holidays and supposedly “off the grid” adventures, recent and not-so-recent. I recalled rifling through accommodation information packs to find the Wi-Fi password, an hour of work squeezed in on deck chairs here and there, Internet café breaks on interrail trips.
My tech addiction has become more and more noticeable in recent years, ever since I had my daughter. I don’t want her to feel like she has to compete with my phone for my attention, and so I try to put it away whenever I’m with her — but, that means that whenever I do find myself alone, I take it out all the more frequently.
I’ll check it first thing in the morning as soon as I turn my alarm off, reach for it at random moments throughout my working day while my daughter is at nursery, and blearily scroll through Instagram or listen to podcast after podcast after she’s in bed.
All of this constant noise and input from the outside world is becoming seriously overwhelming. And I’m not the only one to notice how problematic these tech habits are becoming, either.
Pre-orders for the Light Phone, a new antidote to tech addiction in the form of a super-basic phone designed to be used as a “second phone,” have sold out. The Light Phone enables people to leave their smartphones behind more frequently without worrying that they’ll be uncontactable in emergencies; it only makes and receives calls, and stores a maximum of 9 numbers.
The newly released self-help book, How to Break Up With Your Phone, by Science journalist Catherine Price has been making waves, and it seems like virtually every mental health and self-help book published in the last year or so mentions disconnecting from your tech as one of the top forms of self-care in the modern world.
Studies show that millennials are experiencing higher levels of stress related to technology than other demographic groups. It seems rather ironic, then, that one of the top ways we attempt to handle our stress (as reported by The American Psychological Association in 2015) is by turning to social media, given the growing body of evidence that suggests that this coping mechanism is likely making the problem worse.
Last year for instance, The Royal Society for Public Health reported that “social media may be fuelling a mental health crisis” in young people, and research published by the Association for Psychological Science last year linked the rise in depression and suicide among US teens since 2010 with increased new media screen time.
Our increasing inability to regulate our own tech use is polluting our time to the point that we’re becoming overwhelmed and struggling to focus on one thing at a time. It’s not that the Internet or modern technology is inherently bad; it’s just that if we become overly reliant on it, it can negatively impact our offline relationships, as well as our concentration and creativity.
For example, one study discovered that the mere presence of a smartphone can make a conversation between two strangers less satisfying — or, as the researchers starkly put it: “mobile phones can interfere with human relationships.” I think this is something many of us can sense, deep down, but now there’s data to back up our intuition.
In her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything, digital journalist Manoush Zomorodi outlines the Bored and Brilliant challenge that she ran via her tech show, Note to Self, in which she provided a research-backed framework for listeners and participants to reap the benefits of disconnecting. The project stemmed from her realization that “there wasn’t a single waking moment in [her] life [she] didn’t find a way to fill — and [her] main accomplice was [her] phone.” She writes: “My brain was always occupied, but my mind wasn’t doing anything with all the information coming in.”
According to her research, the boredom that ensues from disconnecting from all of this external stimulation is essential to help us process our thoughts and emotions. Regular doses of boredom or “mind wandering” increases our empathy, creativity, and sense of self.
“Why not enjoy or increase productivity in virtual and physical reality by not occupying both realms simultaneously?” Zomorodi asks. “When neither activity is given time to blossom into a true experience, it’s like one long mental snack. At the end of the day, you aren’t even full and you just feel bloated.”
Her work is a powerful reminder to be more intentional with our attention and time, both online and offline.
After my initial anxiety during my week at sea, I eventually relaxed into the experience of total disconnection, and began to see the huge benefits that come from time offline. Regularly alone with my thoughts for the first time in years, I finally started to process my grief for my father, who had passed away a few years before.
Free from distractions, I could hear my own thoughts clearly; I learned that beyond the fear of those big emotions, there is peace and joy. Now I just need to learn to tap into that more regularly in my day-to-day life, right here on solid land.