Uncategorized, Writing

Disconnection Failure

So I thought I’d share some of the writing I did while I was on blog hiatus last year. First up, a personal essay about my attempt to unplug for Easter weekend 2012. Spoiler alert: I failed. Read on if you’re interested…

Disconnection

You don’t need to look far to see these addicts. They are at the next table in restaurants, sitting with other living, breathing people and yet fixated on a device in their hands. They are in cars at intersections, hoping the light doesn’t turn green before they have the chance to place their digital tiles on the Words with Friends board glowing in front of them. They surround you on trains and buses and stand in front of you at concerts, watching much of the show occurring live before them through a two-inch screen. And this is just the public users. For every one of those, you know there are many more behind closed doors, logging hours in front of other, bigger screens, getting their fix of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Pinterest, sharing and ‘connecting’.

If it sounds like I am speaking from a position of judgment or superiority, I assure you that I am not. Hello. My name is Chelsea, and I’m a screenaholic.

I recently came to grips with the ugly truth about my addiction when I attempted to take Easter weekend off from screens of all kinds: no TV, no texting, no social media. What’s 96 hours, right? Wrong. Three hours in, I had texted, watched a movie and just barely resisted logging on to Twitter to tweet about my strange attraction to Paul Giamatti. That first night, watching just one screen without being able to simultaneously operate another caused me physical discomfort that was apparently observable to my flatmate.

“You’re in withdrawal, aren’t you?” she laughed. “You really do have a problem.”

Addicts talk about taking recovery one day at a time, but what does it mean when you can’t make it even one day?

***

It’s worth nothing that I am a Millennial (or a ‘Gen Y’ if you prefer), so I am a quick and eager adopter of new technologies. However, I’m a Millennial who was born close to the border of Generation X and remembers well what life was like before all this technology changed the way we live and communicate. I spent childhood summers reading in hammocks. I have had Internet access at home for only half my life, didn’t own a mobile phone until the age of 20, and didn’t text until I was at least 22. This isn’t to say that my perspective is particularly unique—there are people much older than me who are addicted to screens, and people much younger than me who probably wish they spent less time typing and more time experiencing—but it does give some idea of where I’m coming from, and why a four-day screen detox was not completely unfathomable.

The idea for my fast came to me on a Thursday morning, via Twitter. I was well behind where I wanted to be on an upcoming deadline because I was, well, on Twitter. And Facebook. And Pinterest. As far as Tweets go, this one hit me hard: HOW THE INTERNET IS RUINING YOUR BRAIN.

It wouldn’t have been so compelling, I’m sure, if I hadn’t already been thinking a great deal about my compulsive overuse of social media and other online temptresses when I was meant to be working productively. The infographic this tweet pointed me to confirmed what I already suspected: overuse of the Internet and overexposure to information is making us dumber, more depressed, less focused, and less creative. Heavy internet users suffer from an estimated 20% reduction in cerebral white matter. I’ve watched enough medical television to know this is not a good thing.

Previously, I had been able to shrug off my internet addiction by reassuring myself that I was in good company (61% of the American population claims to be similarly afflicted), that the Internet has a lot of legitimately good stuff to offer, and that as far as addictions go, this is a relatively harmless one.  This infographic suggested otherwise—and that only dealt with our brains. Surely there are additional dire social and emotional consequences.

So it was decided and declared, that Thursday morning, that I would take the weekend off screens of all kinds. Being Easter weekend, this meant more than 96 hours of digital detox. Like I said, a daunting task, but I thought an achievable one.

I failed, slowly, bit by bit. First, it was texting. I had decided that it was permissible to call friends, but not text them. Then I concluded that since my friend has an Irish accent and can be difficult to understand on the phone, I would text him after all. I did a fair bit of walking over the weekend, which seemed entirely unreasonable to do without music, so I conceded to myself that iPod use should be allowed. Although I did manage to avoid sharing my strange celebrity crush on Day One, I was not so strong the following morning, when I logged onto Twitter for what was meant to be ‘just a minute’ and turned into two hours. I ultimately had to change all my passwords to a random string of letters and numbers, write them in a notebook, and put the notebook in my sock drawer. I also allowed myself to read my Kindle, which seemed fair, since it’s basically a book.

According to addiction specialist Charles Roper, one of the main criteria of an addict is “use despite plan not to use (broken promises)”. Check. Also: “continued use despite negative consequences” and “remorse and guilt about use or behaviour when using”. Check and check.

In all seriousness, I probably do not sufficiently meet the criteria for Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), which is currently being considered for inclusion in the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the psychological professions. The word ‘addiction’ is tossed around casually and glibly, and most people who claim to be addicted to the Internet, strictly speaking, are not.

But then you hear about cases like the Korean couple whose obsession with caring for a virtual baby caused them to neglect their real baby, who starved to death. Obviously, this is an extreme case, but surely this goes well beyond an attraction to that which is novel, bright and shiny. So what is it about these gadgets that we’re so compulsively drawn to?

The results of a study conducted at the University of Maryland hint at at least a partial answer. After 200 students were asked to refrain from using electronic media for a day, one of the successful participants (of which there were very few) commented, “Texting and im-ing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.” The overall effect, the student said, was “almost unbearable.”

Is that it? Are we addicted not to the alluring glow of LCD but to being constantly ‘connected’ to people through it? In my case, that would make sense. I am an international student who currently lives 11,000 kilometres from home. I use social media to stay in touch with and get to know new friends, as well as to ensure that my loved ones don’t forget about me while I’ve overseas. Facebook can be a good antidote for homesickness, since you can continue to feel involved with your friends’ lives without physically being there. But it seems significant that when those friends aren’t prolific enough with their updates and messages, I seem to be willing to settle for the updates of, or interaction with, strangers via Twitter and Pinterest. Just knowing that someone is out there ‘listening’ to (and hopefully ‘liking’) what I share seems to provide a sense of comfort.

But these ‘relationships’ aren’t real. In an article arguing that Facebook is actually making people lonelier, Stephen Marche comments that for many of us, our “web of connections has grown broader but shallower.” The interactions are fleeting, and disappear off the bottom of my screen within a couple of hours. And then if I don’t share something else—say, my thoughts about Paul Giamatti (it’s all in the voice, I tell you)—in 140 characters or less, I’m left alone again. In silence. With my own thoughts, which these days often sound a whole lot like tweets or status updates. This is deeply disturbing to me. I would much rather have an intrinsic attraction to the bright and shiny than a fear of being alone with my own (increasingly insubstantial) thoughts. In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers writes that hyperconnectivity is making life more “frantic and rushed”, and causing us to lose “something of great value, a way of thinking and moving through time that can be summed up in a single word: depth.”

So it seems, if we are to believe the ‘experts’, that our social networks are getting shallower and our attention spans are getting shorter and our thinking processes are becoming increasingly hurried and distracted. One day in the not-too-distant future, the world will be run by a generation that has been ‘connected’ pretty much since they were disconnected from their mothers’ bodies. What will that look like? The optimistic and technophilic would probably say that this generation won’t know any better, that its members are by nature adaptable, and that the brain will evolve and adapt as needed. Clearly people are still connecting offline and will continue to do so; they just might be on their mobile devices much of the time. And there is hope, says Powers, for people to “lead happy, productive lives” in our screen-obsessed world. The solution, he says, is simple: we just need to “master the art of disconnecting.”

The matter-of-factness with which Powers seems to make this statement suggests to me that he has never had to hide his Facebook password in his sock drawer.But maybe, like with many things, the key to ‘mastering the art of disconnecting’ is practice. A concerted effort to unplug and enjoy digital silence now and again may not be entirely successful every time, but there are still benefits to be found in trying. Although my experiment didn’t go as planned, I was able to notice, remember, and learn a number of things that weekend: how much I enjoy writing my blog; which aspects of the internet genuinely engage me and enrich my life, and which ones I use merely out of habit; how much I enjoy spending Saturday mornings with a cup of coffee and a crossword; and how many of the things I claim not to have time for are really the things I’m choosing not to prioritise. Perhaps not such a failure after all.

Coffee and crossword

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