Over the past couple weeks, I’ve identified two deficits in our modern lives — the lack of sprinting  and the lack of walking  – and proposed a series of corresponding challenges to address (and hopefully fill) those deficits. Judging from the responses, I think these articles were successful. Today, I’m trying my hand at highlighting another problem, this time one that has nothing to do with physical fitness . In fact, it deals with perhaps the most physically inactive activity you’ll ever do: staring at a smartphone as the world gets on around you. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-technology (duh), or even anti-smartphone (got one myself). I have the accumulated knowledge of the world in my pocket, and that’s pretty darn useful. I can find out where to get the best Greek food  within five miles. I can bank, I can order flights to far off lands, I can check traffic, I can check shopping lists, read email, text, tweet, friend, defriend, like, oh, and make phone calls – all from the comfort of my 3.5 inch touch screen. That’s incredible. It also makes it really, really easy to get too comfortable and avoid actually experiencing the real, physical world.
I mean, when you stop and step outside of yourself for a second, and you think about the level of technology we can access, it starts feeling like we’re in the future. Of course, the future will never actually feel like “The Future” because we’ll have caught up to it and gotten used to it, but if a Connecticut Yankee appeared in our midst from the 19th (or even late 20th) century, he’d be blown away. It’s awesome and empowering and all those great things, but is there a dark side to it, too?
Our relationship with technology is not quite as dire as a Philip K. Dick novel, with programmable moods and emotions replacing real ones and electric pets replacing organic ones. It’s also not quite like the Jetsons, where flying cars, robot maids, moving sidewalks, auto-cooking kitchens, and other advanced tech enhanced human engagement with the world and its inhabitants. Ours lies somewhere in between. We’re getting along, it’s not a dystopia, but I think there are some very real problems that need to be acknowledged. Namely, smartphones, social media, and the Internet in general has changed the way we experience the world. For many, it has replaced engagement with the real physical world almost entirely. And that’s bad. We’re really missing out.
Okay, how about some stats? Let’s see what we’re dealing with.
In Britain , 81% of smartphone users have it on all day, every day. Almost half of smartphone users, upon being woken up by a phone call or text or misplaced alarm at night, end up using the phone instead of shutting it off and going back to sleep. Over half of adults and two-thirds of teens regularly use their phones while socializing with others in person (there’s nothing like a tableful of people staring at their phones in unison, is there?). About a quarter of adults use their phone during dinner. A third of teens can say the same. 47% of teens use their phones on the toilet, while just over a fifth of adults do the same (don’t they know the bathroom is for thumbing through the wife’s Cosmo?).
In the US , 59% of teens admit that they go online too much, 58% say they use smartphones way too much, and 48% use Facebook (and other social media sites). Of course, they admit it, but they don’t do anything about it. But hey, at least they’re watching less TV!
Internet Addiction Disorder is now a real thing, gaining acceptance as a legitimate clinical disorder and characterized by the classic trappings of a substance addiction. A series of studies out of China have found large structural differences between the brains of Internet addicts and controls, including impairments in white matter fibers involved in emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control (PDF ). I’m not saying we’re all full-blown Internet addicts, but there’s a spectrum, and I think a lot of people are hurtling along it.
Near as I can tell, this is a real problem. A recent study  even found that people who stopped checking their email for a week were more productive and experienced less stress (as indicated by the heart rate monitors attached to them for the duration of the experiment) than the folks who maintained their email habits. Those who checked emails switched windows an average of 37 times per hour, while the email abstainers switched windows just 18 times per hour. More than objective effects on productivity and stress, though, I just find it really sad to see people miss out on life because they “had” to check their phone. It’s sad seeing strollers full of wide-eyed babies who are absolutely amazed at everything they’re seeing – that bushy squirrel tail flashing across the powerline overhead, the cat sunning itself on the sidewalk, a garbage can left out from garbage day, a bush, a cloud, a man on a recumbent bike, a leaf fluttering down from treetops – pushed by moms and dads with their eyes glued to their 3.5 inch screens, totally oblivious to the sensory explosions going on in their offspring but completely up-to-date on whether or not someone “liked” their most recent status update. “Ooh, red notification!” At least take a photo of the kid or something, sheesh.
Okay, time to fess up.
In the past week, what’s the longest you’ve gone without checking your smartphone, surfing the web, or checking Facebook, Twitter, or your email? Just give a ballpark figure. You don’t need to be exact. Sleep doesn’t count (nice try). Waking hours only.
So here’s your challenge for the week: don’t use your phone or check your email after 7 PM for the next seven days. Extenuating circumstances? Sure, fine. Don’t lose your job over this or anything like that, but do your best to avoid those frivolous mindless thoughtless check-ins “just because.”
This may sound easy. 7 PM? Psh. Assuming you go to bed around 10, 10:30, 11 PM, that’s just a few hours of downtime. You can do that. Right? I was originally going to make it a bit more hardcore, but I think this is easy enough that everyone can hit it if they try, and dramatic enough that you’ll see and feel a real difference.
We’ll see. If it was so easy, if real life was so preferable to a smartphone, you’d already be doing it on your own. Don’t disappoint me!
One more thing: don’t just turn off the phone and close the laptop and turn on the TV. No, do something. Go out dancing . Light some candles and have a game night. Go for a walk. Go for a night hike . Take a short vacation (and leave the phone altogether). Engage with the physical world and its inhabitants, face to face. And let this engagement with the world carry over to the rest of your time, your “connected” time. Smartphone usage and being present are not mutually exclusive, believe it or not.
Please, whatever you do, keep that phone off, in your pocket, or back at home when you go on a walk with your kid. Don’t shuffle along, oblivious to the world around you, eyes and attention trained on that screen.
Okay, I’ve said my piece. Now it’s your turn. Get out there and stop missing out on real life!