Challenge Seven: Pull The Plug

What’s your biggest vice? Whether it’s driving too fast or eating too much junk food, many of us have at least one guilty pleasure that’s become a bad habit.

But would you consider your use of personal technologies – devices like TVs, computers, tablets and smart phones – a vice? For the vast majority, the use of these technologies certainly qualifies as a regular habit. Case in point, a 2008 study from the Council for Research Excellence found that people on average spent roughly 8.5 hours a day consuming video media via televisions, computers and mobile phones.

Of course, a vice is more than a habit – it’s a bad habit. Traditional vices, like drinking or smoking, negatively impact the individual and our broader society. Can the same be said for using personal technology?

For one thing, staring at a screen for 8.5 hours every day is not the best recipe for good physical health. Such a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of several health problems, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and heart attack. There’s also evidence that exercise won’t compensate for the damaging effects of all that screen time.

Heavy daily doses of technology aren’t good for your mental well-being either. For example, people who spend too much time on social media sites often exhibit symptoms of depression, including disengagement, poor social skills and a weakened ability to empathize (fittingly coined “Facebook depression”). Children seem especially prone to the effects of personal technology. In fact, the risk of psychological difficulties are much greater for children who spend more than two hours a day in front of a television or computer screen compared with kids who spend less time.

All this time spent consuming visual media also exposes us to a plethora of advertisements and other promotions. According to the Council for Research Excellence study, the average television user is exposed to 72 minutes of ads every day. These marketing-savvy advertisements can influence consumer behaviour in negative ways. For example, food advertising has been shown to increase the amount of snacking you do while watching television, as well as encourage less healthy food choices.

The broader impacts of society’s growing dependence on personal technologies are wide-ranging and complex. Physical and mental health issues, increased societal violence, cyber-bullying, and privacy issues have all raised public concern and warrant further discourse.

Reducing your dependence on technology may help to lesson these impacts, but kicking the tech habit is easier said than done. The physiological and physical withdrawal symptoms from abstaining from personal technologies are comparable to those experienced by drug addicts or smokers trying to quit. Experts call this “information deprivation disorder” – its symptoms include panic, feeling anxious and isolated, and being moody and emotional.

I wanted to explore the effects of reducing technology dependence first-hand, so I challenged myself to do a technology cleanse for one month. Rather than risk sudden withdrawal from going cold-turkey, I decided a wiser course of action would be to gradually build up week by week towards a complete technology hiatus. Here’s the four-week plan that I followed:

  • Week 1 – No television. This includes live TV, as well as DVD/VCR and DVR playback. Despite the rise in use of laptops, tablets and smart phones, traditional television still accounts for two-thirds of our total screen time on average (Council for Research Excellence). It makes sense to tackle the elephant in the room first.
  • Week 2 – No web surfing on computers, tablets or mobile phones. Say goodbye to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all other websites for the rest of the month.
  • Week 3 – No email, texting or instant messaging. All communication will be done in person or by phone. I plan to set up auto-reply messages to explain my whereabouts and ask people to contact me by phone if necessary.
  • Week 4 – Unplug completely for the rest of the month (complete abstinence from televisions, computers, tablets and mobile phones).

More Hemingway and Other Benefits of a Technology Cleanse

To start, the first week of the month I cut out television. According to the Council for Research Excellence study, people watch television for an average of 5.5 hours per day (this includes live TV, DVD/VCR, DVR playback and console video games). Given the pervasiveness of the TV, it makes sense to tackle this technology first.

Personally, television is not a serious vice of mine. I don’t follow any TV shows regularly, and while I like to watch the odd film on Netflix, I’d be hard pressed to watch television for 5.5 hours all week, let alone in one day. Given my predisposition towards television, I didn’t really notice any big effects from keeping the TV off all week. It just wasn’t that different from my regular routine.

To kick it up a notch, in the second week I cut out all web surfing. This meant no Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other web viewing (with the exception of posting to this blog). Staying off the web proved much more challenging than turning off the TV. For me, the Internet is my TV, at least as a means of mindless entertainment and procrastination. Sure, the fact that I actively read content online makes web viewing more mentally stimulating than vegging out in front of the tube, but my friends’ Facebook updates and the lightweight fodder served up by Yahoo! News are not exactly Dostoyevsky.

I wasn’t terribly worried I’d miss out on anything important by giving up the web. Still, I didn’t anticipate how conditioned I had become in my clicking habits. Despite a Post-it note stuck next to my laptop with a reminder to stay off the net, I caught myself on more than a few occasions unconsciously directing my mouse towards the blue Internet Explorer “e” icon at the bottom of my screen. I was on auto-pilot, conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs to the “big flashy lighty thing” called the World Wide Web. I needed to deprogram myself, so I removed all web-related shortcuts from my desktop and mobile phone. Thankfully, my conditioning faded quickly and by the third day the impulse to click was gone.

Speaking of Dostoyevsky, one benefit of cutting back on screen time is I ended up reading a lot more in hard copy. The quality of literature I read in print tends to be more complex and thought-provoking than the mind candy I consume online. So while I might not have read more content in total, the quality of content was richer.

Reducing the amount of time spent online also means more time in the real world. Without the distraction of the web, I spent more time with friends, more time outdoors, and more time enjoying live music, art and culture. The benefits to mind and body are clear. Replacing screen time with more real-life activities can work wonders for your physical health and mental well-being.

Eliminating the web is not all roses, though. It means giving up convenience when doing many routine tasks, such as searching for a business, getting directions, or looking up the bus schedule. One day this month, I had to do a banking transaction that would have taken less than a minute online. Instead, I had to walk to the bank, wait in a lineup, and then complete the transaction in person. Giving up the convenience of the web can be a nuisance, though in this case it forced me to get some exercise and I ended up having an enjoyable conversation with the teller. Unplugging from the net may slow you down, but it can give you a boost in other ways.

In the third week of the month, I said goodbye to personal email and texting. For email, I set up an auto-reply message to explain my whereabouts and ask people to contact me by phone if necessary. And I asked my friends not to text me for the rest of the month. For the few errant texts I received in the days that followed, I simply ignored the message or got back to the sender by phone if it was important.

Now that all my communications were done by phone or in person, the cost of connecting had gone up. No longer could I send a quick 30 second text or email. I had to phone or visit the recipient to deliver my message. Immediately, this forced me to re-evaluate the importance of my interactions. Are all those messages I send by email or text really that important, or that funny, as they seem in the moment? Mostly, not.

Giving up text and email not only reduces the amount of white noise in your interactions, it also improves the quality and depth of communication that does take place. Telephone and in-person conversations foster more meaningful dialogue, better social etiquette, and deeper empathy than the terse and sometimes tactless exchanges over text or email.

As with the Internet, however, giving up text and email does sacrifice a degree of convenience. Using the phone to coordinate logistics or to deliver information to a friend can be difficult. Still, if it’s truly important, you will find a way to connect and the relationship-building benefits of a real conversation can more than make up for the loss of convenience.

Going On Vacation Without Leaving Home

In the final week, I unplugged completely – a complete abstinence from televisions, computers, tablets and mobile phones. For me, the biggest challenge was separating from my phone. Cell phones are so ubiquitous, they’ve practically become a physical extension of your body. So much so, the sudden absence of one can be a shock to your system. On my first day without my cell, I frequently felt that my phone was still in my pocket and unconsciously reached for it on several occasions.

This got me thinking of how people with an amputation have reported experiencing phantom sensations that their missing limb is still attached to their body. It turns out I’m not the first to draw a parallel between the experience of a “phantom limb” and the feeling of being separated from your cell phone. The term “phantom cell phone syndrome” has been coined to describe the sensation of feeling your phone vibrate or ring when it’s not on your person. This is caused by a long dependence on cell phone technology and can be cured by not using your cell for a week or two. For me, the sensation faded rapidly and was gone in a few days.

Apart from some short-lived separation anxiety, I was surprised at how positive my tech hiatus turned out. Heading into the week, I braced myself for bouts of loneliness from being disconnected from friends. However, I actually felt more connected without the crutch of technology. In a digitally-amped world of constant texts, emails and Facebook updates, communication can feel hurried and overwhelming – even with close friends. Free of technology, I had more time and was more receptive to longer, more meaningful conversations with people in my neighbourhood and even with complete strangers. It’s this human element in communication that helps to build connectedness and strengthen bonds between people. Though I had fewer interactions overall, the ones I had were more memorable and rewarding.

The best way to sum up my overall experience with a technology cleanse is it was like going on a vacation without leaving home. Time seems to slow down. You’re more open to chance encounters and small adventures. Your senses are more attuned to your surroundings. In a word, it is freeing. So next time you need to get away from it all, consider loosening the vice grip of personal technologies. It can work wonders for your health and well-being.