The cost of convenience
Our relationship with technology is continuously evolving. How we engage with our smart speakers and our smartphones, our fitness trackers and our thermostats looks different now than it did 10 years ago, and different still from how it will look 10 years from now. An increasing number of Americans own mobile phones and a quarter of adults report they go online “almost constantly.” You don’t have to look hard to find studies on how smartphone use impacts our mental health and well-being, particularly among younger demographics.
With newly advanced capabilities, smartphones bring ease and convenience to our lives. There’s little that can’t be done with a swipe, tap, or click. From navigation and weather reports to camera filters and endless emojis, it can feel as though we’re growing ever more captive to our pocket devices.
Having recently replaced my 6-year-old phone (ancient by today’s standards), I’ve been thinking about my screen time and its role in my life. Since giving up TV last year, I’ve sought to be more deliberate about how I spend the unoccupied minutes of my days, carving out time for meditation, writing, reading, exercising, hiking, baking, and the seemingly lost art of simply being.
Similarly, my latest handheld acquisition is a welcome opportunity to reevaluate where I stand in relation to the technology that pervades each of our lives. Here are some of the ways I’ve grown and continue to challenge myself:
1. Break the cycle: Technology keeps us in a constant catch-up loop, with new devices being revealed at an alarming rate. By the time you purchase the latest release of a product, development of the next is already underway. While tech companies aren’t necessarily engineering equipment designed to give out more readily to ensure that you replace it, they are working fastidiously to convince you of what you’re missing if you don’t. Before you upgrade or catch yourself gazing wide-eyed at the advertisement depicting the specs of the latest iPhone, consider your motivations. Are you feeling pressured to keep up with those around you? Are you an impulse buyer? Are you trying to fill a void? A good rule of thumb is to wait a week before following through on a big purchase. You may be surprised by how your attitude and sense of urgency can shift over a short period of time.
2. Set limits: Screen time limits aren’t just for kids. We each can benefit from being more intentional about how much time we spend plugged into our electronic devices no matter our age. In fact, we’re fairly diligent when it comes to planning and scheduling the other segments of our lives. We don’t linger over breakfast for 3 hours or luxuriate at the hair salon for 5. Rather, we divide our time into reasonable chunks, 30 minutes here, 2 hours there. Yet we can be quite lax when it comes to setting boundaries around our tech use. One study suggests that “American adults spend more than 11 hours per day watching, reading, listening to or simply interacting with media”. Decide what’s feasible for you. If your job requires you to sit at a computer for most of the day, develop anchors around your usage outside of the office. Consider powering down your phone, computer, or tablet at a certain time each day or activating the Do Not Disturb feature to create some consistency. Spend a week tracking your leisure use and identify where you want to make changes. Remember that you’re in control of your interactions. Don’t be afraid to let a non-urgent text message go unread for a time or step outside sans phone.
3. Cultivate hobbies that fulfill you: Have you ever ventured off the grid, and instead of feeling anxious at the thought of missing an important notification, you felt completely engrossed in your surroundings, blissfully removed from competing demands for your attention? Sometimes we become so tethered to our screens that we forget our lives exist outside of them. Technology is a proven godsend for keeping up with distant relatives and networking with friends across the globe; but it’s not a replacement for forging face-to-face connections. Join a book club. Strike up a conversation with the barista at your favorite coffee shop. People-watch at the local park. Fill your time with pursuits that engage your body and mind in new ways and you’ll soon find that doing so is far more desirable than refreshing your newsfeed.
4. Do your research: In our information-rich age, it seems like new studies are cropping up every week about technology use and its impact on our lives. One week it’s harmful to our attention spans, the next it’s a springboard for creativity. As consumers, we owe it to ourselves to remain informed about the digital companions we invite into our lives. Read the existing research and challenge its assumptions. Talk about it with others. Consider its implications in your own life. Ask questions. It’s our curiosity that drives trends and determines their importance in our lives.
What role or roles does technology fill in your life? Like all healthy relationships, our relationship with technology requires thoughtful engagement and routine evaluation. Where are we falling short and how might we improve? How are we using it to meet our needs and what needs would be better met elsewhere? If you haven’t asked yourself these questions lately, perhaps now’s the time.