I don’t know about you, but my smartphone sometimes seems like Grand Central Station at rush hour. Between texts, emails, regular old phone calls, and notifications from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, keeping up with all the inputs can feel like a full-time job. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I passed a full 48 hours without checking my phone at least once. You’d think just turning off the gizmo would solve this (admittedly first world) problem, but going without technology can feel like cutting off a limb for young adults who’ve been “plugged in” since middle school.
I’m not the only one who's noticed this—lately, I've read a ton of thought pieces by Internet bigwigs about the importance of taking deliberate breaks from all things web-related. Talking about taking a break from the Internet (gasp!) raises a few important questions: Has technology transformed from a convenience into a curse? And is disconnecting an important life strategy for making constant communication sustainable, or is it just the latest tech trend?
Open 24/7: Why It’s Not So Great
Research suggests social media is the millenial generation’s drug of choice. While not technically considered an addiction, excessive attachment to the Internet is becoming more and more commonplace and problematic. A 2010 University of Maryland study found many young people describe their dependence on the Internet as an addiction, even if they’re not officially diagnosable. The 200 students were required to go on a 24-hour media fast and then write about their experience. Overall, the students complained that they felt bored, disconnected, uncomfortable, and anxious without their phones and computers.
These withdrawal symptoms suggest there must be some benefits to being “plugged in” all the time, right? For many people, the allure of being attached to an iPhone or Android is the ability to keep tabs on family, friends, and breaking news whenever, wherever. Compared to reading a newspaper or calling a friend for a long chat on the phone, social media encourages brief, unfocused, multitasking-friendly “check ins” rather than long periods of absorption. For better or worse, smartphones make it easy to check various sites and social media profiles with the tap of a fingertip, all while keeping the rest of our brains and bodies engaged in other tasks (though sometimes with dangerous consequences).
But in some cases the downsides to keeping phones and computers switched on 24/7 could outweigh the benefits. Multitasking — perhaps this generation’s Great White Whale—almost never boosts productivity. In fact, it’s usually just a form of procrastination that distracts us from what’s important and inhibits the formation of short-term memories  .
Social (Media) Butterfly
Obsessive social networking isn’t doing us any favors, either. Constantly checking social media sites, work emails, and texts from far-flung friends sounds like it’s fostering connectivity, but the opposite is often true. Studies show spending tons of time online can actively harm relationships, interpersonal communication skills, and mental health   . A recent study also shows that (perhaps unsurprisingly) following ex-lovers on social media can make it difficult for partners to move on after a breakup.
All of this might be due to the fact that social media is the Green Eyed Monster’s preferred stomping ground. Checking in on friends’ frequent vacations, late-night taco truck runs, and sunshiny days at the beach can create a constant state of Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and anxiety. People obsessively refresh Facebook feeds and track Twitter followers because they’re afraid to be "on the outside" of news, events, and social gatherings. But at the end of the day, browsing photos from other people’s fun times is not the same as attending those parties and picnics and actually hanging out with friends in the flesh.
Open Office Hours
Constant connectivity hasn’t just changed how we socialize, but also how we bring home the bacon. Smart phones have created a whole new interpretation of the traditional “workaholic” trope. Instead of the classic image of a busy professional ensconced in their office at 2am, we now see young worker bees emailing while brunching and checking expense reports at the grocery store. As more and more business happens online versus in a cubicle or a meeting room, it’s entirely feasible to never stop working (minus a few hours of sleep). But is that a good thing?
The general agreement (thank goodness) is “no.” Studies show that in spite of modern work trends, we actually need weekends and nights off to disconnect and recuperate from the stresses of work . Constantly checking email, in particular, prevents people from distancing themselves from the work environment—which can make it impossible to keep stress in check.
Rage Against the Machines
In the past, people could “switch off” after work by simply going home or avoid dealing with dramatic friends by not picking up the phone. But smartphones, social media, and the expectation that everyone should be available all of the time have made taking a breather much more difficult. From this necessity a new (anti-) tech trend has arisen: Over the past few years, the concept of “unplugging”, or ditching technology for a given period of time, has become popular amongst bloggers, tech wizards, and thought leaders around the web.
Press Reset: How Unplugging Helps
If multitasking and constant email cause a lack of productivity, negatively impact social relationships, and increase overall stress, can simply abstaining from using technology reverse these negative consequences? The simple answer, according to most research, is “yes.”
Scheduling regular “rest time” in the form of unplugging makes sense—like a muscle, the brain needs recovery time in order to develop and grow (and in this case, retain new memories). In fact, shutting off completely may be crucial: One University of Michigan study found that participants who walked in the woods after learning something new were more likely to retain it, suggesting that a little quiet time is essential to optimizing brain function . Even brief activities such as taking a short walk (sans phone, of course), spending time in nature, or daydreaming can help the brain reboot. But without free time (i.e. totally unstructured and without Facebook, idle web surfing, or TV), it’s impossible to fully learn new skills and keep the brain at its cognitive best.
Luckily, more and more people are validating the importance of down time. Over the past few years, the idea of disconnecting from all online communication (and the stress that comes with it) has grown into a verifiable movement. In 2010, a group of Jewish artists created the Sabbath Manifesto, a movement designed to help people of all faiths and creeds find a day of rest amid the hullabaloo of modern technology. The Sabbath Manifesto also created a new holiday dedicated to taking time to smell the roses: The National Day of Unplugging happens once a year (It will be celebrated next on March 7-8, 2014).
Over the past few years, countless bloggers and thought leaders have embarked on their very own technological “fasts” and written about the trials and tribulations of doing so. For example, the bloggers behind lifestyle website The Minimalists suggest cancelling home Internet access to make using a computer in the house less appealing. Some Internet celebs-at-large, like writer Baratunde Thurston, advocate a more stringent approach: Thurston went cold turkey with a 25-day “digital detox” after noticing that his social media addiction was getting out of hand. Even more extreme, The Verge writer Paul Miller spent an entire year sans Internet. After their tech-free hiatuses, both Thurston and Miller are back online. It seems that both writers used their Internet sabbaticals to take a breather rather than establish a new lifestyle.
For those who can’t resist the Internet’s siren song, special getaway experiences offer real-life activities and bonding experiences that distract former tech fiends from the withdrawal process. One popular example is Camp Grounded in California, which guides tech-weary adults through a gadget-free weekend filled with vegan meals, field games, arts and crafts, yoga, and stargazing. The travel industry is also in on the trend; these days, people can sign up for fancy digital detox vacations in a number of luxurious settings.
Regardless of length or intensity ("Does texting count? What about checking email?"), these digital detoxes or technology fasts prove an important point: It is feasible to take a step back from our always-on lifestyles. With a little bit of effort, it’s entirely possible to stop living through our phones and computer screens, re-connect with other human beings, reduce stress, and enhance creativity.
Off the Grid—The Takeaway
Currently, “unplugging” is a trendy buzzword, but hopefully taking regular technological breaks isn’t just a passing fad. The Internet and mobile communication have grown by impressive leaps and bounds in the past ten years, largely to our society’s benefit. But because we’re used to tech companies rolling out a new (and better!) product or software every week, we’ve been operating under the idea that “more is more”—more communication is good, more social media sites are better, and, above all, the ability to contact anyone at anytime is best of all.
But in reality, this behavior might be unsustainable. Keeping up with email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other sites 24/7 can be exhausting, bad for our brains, bad for our relationships, and bad for our productivity. Instead of fading out like many transient trends, perhaps it would be better if the concept of “unplugging” catches on even more and helps us tech junkies develop new protocols for how to communicate and connect (without going crazy) in the Internet Age.