Take control of digital technology before the digital world takes control of you.
That’s a key message of a July 16 Newsweek article by Tony Dokoupil, “iCrazy,” as well as an August 6 Forbes article by Kashmir Hill, “Beware, Tech Abandoners,” both of which warn that excessive use of digital is flat-out bad for you. Dokoupil cites recent research to claim that digital usage, when unchecked, can lead to disorders such as addiction, depression, and compulsive behavior. “The current incarnation of the Internet — portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive — may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic,” Dokoupil writes, noting that the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will recognize Internet Addiction Disorder for the first time. Adds Hill, “We’re all addicted to technology now . . . we the users are starting to question how technology is changing us: making us fat, making us unhealthy, making us depressed, making us lonely, making us narcissistic . . .”
Those articles are just the latest in a series of recently published insights (such as a Huffington Post piece about social media addiction and a Haydn Shaughnessy column on saying no to social media) that should give digital enthusiasts a reason to rethink how often we use digital and to what purpose. Dokoupil in particular issues a searing indictment of the self-absorbed habits of digital devotees — and he doesn’t even mention the blatant narcissism prevalent among Klout users.
But it’s not just the articles that have me worried — my personal use of digital does, too. I manage 30 social media sites personally and professionally, and a few email accounts. It’s not uncommon for me to be online from early morning until late at night posting content or responding to someone else — usually via short, staccato-like bursts of activity. To be sure, the proliferation of digital platforms such as Facebook and Pinterest generates more opportunities for sharing content (such as my own blog) and has created a professional livelihood. I am better off for having digital in my life. But constantly bouncing across the digital world — whether I’m posting a news article on my Facebook wall, uploading a photo on Instagram, or following news breaking on Twitter — is a fragmented experience that creates stress as I process the information swirling around me in real time. Responding to other people 24/7 creates its own kind of stress (as well as a self-perpetuating cycle of activity).
Overexposure to digital hurts my creativity, too. It’s all too easy to become sucked into a morass of digital information that distracts me from focusing on the development of longer-form content like personal journals, blogs, and white papers for work, which denies me the time that any writer needs to think and reflect. I can relate to author Michael A. Stusser, who wrote the following in the September issue of Shambhala Sun:
Sadly, our smartphones, laptops, and tablets have weakened our natural intelligence (and sense of direction) and, worse, left us with no stamina . . . I’ve consumed and then dismissed so many links, posts, videos, and songs in the last few years that I’ve become numb to the true experience of the artist, the artistic process, or how to absorb information and knowledge into my life. Watching a DVD of the Dalai Lama’s teachings, I actually paused during his opening remarks to skip to the bonus scenes in the menu! . . . I guess the ‘chapters’ on enlightenment, emptiness, and compassion didn’t hold anything for me, which is exactly the point!
But even worse than having my own creativity compromised, too much chasing and sharing content across the digital world denies me the emotional and spiritual reward I gain from my loved ones who share my physical space. Case in point: recently I was standing in line with my family to board a roller at Kings Island in Ohio. To pass the time, I checked out my Twitter and Facebook feeds on my iPhone and became so distracted that I tuned out my 10-year-old daughter as she shared a deeply personal insight into her love of archaeology and desire to study at the University of Michigan — one of those moments of self-expression that you can’t plan. Life can too easily pass me by while I’m staring at my iPhone.
Dokoupil gets it right when he characterizes the Internet as “a whole new mental environment, a digital state of nature where the human mind becomes a spinning instrument panel.” A psychiatrist quoted in the article compares the stress of digital to that of a big city. To understand “spinning instrument panel” effect, consider a scenario being played out among families everywhere in August — the time-honored tradition of taking vacation photos:
Let’s go back about 20 years and envision you and your family exploring Disney’s Magic Kingdom. At that glorious moment when you encountered Cinderella posing for photos at the foot of her castle, you might have captured the memory by pulling out your portable camera, snapping as many photos of your family with Cinderella as your film supply would allow, and then moving on. Usually you waited until your vacation was over to have your photos developed by a professional service days or weeks after the fact. The process was simple although fraught with risk: if your photos turned out poorly you’d never know until after your film was developed.
Now consider what happens during your visit to the Magic Kingdom circa 2012. You’ve been hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Captain Jack Sparrow during your Magic Kingdom visit, and instead you come across Cinderella posing for photos — a great photo/op for your two daughters. Does this scenario sound familiar?:
1. While you are waiting in line to take your photo, you whip out your smart phone and check into Cinderella’s Castle on Foursquare — perhaps your umpteenth check-in of the day, including your hotel, the monorail station you used, and your initial check-in to the Magic Kingdom. You might notice a text waiting for you from a coworker or friend asking how the vacation is going. You quickly respond to the text. (Meantime you fail to notice the look of excitement building on your daughters’ faces as their turn to meet Cinderella approaches, and you don’t hear your wife’s suggestion that everyone is starting to grow a bit tired and hungry, and perhaps it’s time to take a snack break after the photo taking is done.) When the moment arrives, you manage to reel off about a half dozen photos from two different vantage points because you are not constrained by an analog film supply. Your family waits patiently with Cinderella, and the Disney line wrangler politely but firmly thanks you for visiting and encourages the next guest in line to step forward.
2. As your family begins to move on to the next attraction, you linger for a moment. From your Instagram app, you sort through the half-dozen photos you snapped to find the absolute best choice. After all, you won’t be returning to Disney anytime soon, so you want to make sure you got it right. While your wife begins to look in the immediate area for a place to rest and eat, you toggle through Instagram’s fabulous editing choices until you perfect the best image from your file. Of course, you save the image on to Instagram, and you try to think of as many appropriate tags as you can.
3. Automatically, your photo is uploaded on to Facebook, Foursquare, and Twitter. Within seconds, your social network responds to your awesome photo from myriad accounts. A few of your friends might ask about your vacation. How are things going? How many Disney characters have you seen? Wanting to follow the social media etiquette of responding promptly, you take another moment to reply to your friends. Then you notice that a client has sent you a private message on Facebook: “I’m in Orlando, too! Where are you staying? How about a quick drink?”
By the time you’re done with Step 3, you realize your family has moved on although your wife has left you a text message (“We got hungry and moved on — meet us at Auntie Gravity’s Galactic Goodies in Tomorrowland”). But you’re not thinking about your family anymore. Now you’re worried about how you’re going to respond to your client. Do you blow of the message even though it’s obvious to everyone that you’ve been online posting photos in Orlando? Decline and worry about any potential fall-out to your relationship to our client? Agree and worry about any potential fall-fall-out with your family? Oh, and by the way, and while you were spending time in the digital rabbit hole, you blew a chance to grab an unexpected photo of Captain Jack Sparrow, who strolled right past you.
The digital photo-taking experience surpasses the analog one in terms of quality and efficiency. With Instagram, your crappy vacation photos look like little works of art, and you are no longer beholden to the clunky and costly film developing experience. I can’t imagine going back to the old way. But on the other hand, the digital experience can create an incredibly stressful and distracting drain on your time. It’s just too easy to get lost in all the inter-related functions that come with digital — the mechanical process of uploading content, the mental commitment of writing a meaningful comment, the social responsibility of responding to people who show an interest in your life, not to mention the time it takes to edit your own photos.
And, of course, all the time you spend in digital is less time spent with the people living in the world right next to you.
I believe the way to address the digital trap is to set rules and live by them — managing digital technology. My family is doing just that after reading the Newsweek article and assessing our own habits. For instance:
- Stay focused on what’s most important. My loved ones come first. Digital comes second. Although it’s fine for me to take vacation photos with my smart phone (because I do the lion’s share of photo taking in my family during vacations), all the Instagram flourishes and sharing on social platforms can wait until I have a private moment away from my family, such as when everyone is preoccupied getting ready in the morning. (And deliberately taking bathroom breaks in order to post photos does not count.)
- Scale back. It’s time to impose digital black-outs — shutting down our digital devices after a certain time in the evening, which ensures we are absolutely not distracted and our minds can wind down from the stress of information sharing and creation that inevitably occurs with digital technology. I’m also scaling back the number of digital properties I use. I use Foursquare less. In particular, I have stopped checking in on Foursquare when my family is present. I go to places with my family to share the experience, not to become the mayor of every place we visit. As much as I enjoy GetGlue, I am checking in less there, as well. Something has to give.
- Stop multitasking. I’ve stopped using instant messenger while I have email open or when I’m talking on the phone. It’s time to stop cheapening the value of communication through multitasking. And walking while texting is downright dangerous especially in a congested city like Chicago, where I work. So — no more of that.
In short, I am learning how to “harness the power of pausing,” in the words of Lori Deschene, author of Tiny Buddha and founder of tinybuddha.com. “You can dramatically increase your overall well-being by planning to stay disconnected when you’re able, and pausing to check in with your true intentions when you feel the need to go online,” she writes in the September Shambhala Sun. “If you take the time to set and honor healthy boundaries for technology, you’ll inevitably feel much more relaxed, focused, and balanced — and consequently, less stressed.”
And you can also become more productive and creative by unplugging. I recently spent a week completely offline while on vacation in Quebec. I wrote a vacation journal for the first time in 12 years, and I wrote a poem for the first time in a decade. My wife, daughter, and I spent many blessed moments creating together. And after returning to work, I finally started making serious headway on a white paper I’ve been writing for months (but have postponed because of constant digital distractions). I agree with Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, who recently wrote about the value of encouraging always-on employees to unplug. I think I’m going to be a more valuable employee by becoming less wired.
What do you think? Is Newsweek overreacting? Am I? What are you doing to manage digital technology? Also, for further reading, check out this link, in which Dokoupil discusses and debates aspects of his article. As he points out, “This story was an assignment, and at first I looked for reasons not to do it, but the story was there. That much was abundantly clear very early on. And I truly think we’re at an inflection point, the start of a rethinking of our web habits and our always on connectivity. Few will log off, but most will become more mindful.”
I’m not logging off — but count me among the more mindful.