I’m not a huge tech junkie but as I look around my cosy little office it raises a smile as I find myself quite literally surrounded by the warm glow of Steve Jobs’ lifes work. I am writing this article on my Mac. As I look down onto my desk my iPhone lays casually to the side of me, and my iPad and laptop are both stored carefully away in my desk drawers. My next impulse, of course, is to take a photo of this and share it on online! My office is a good example of the obsessive preoccupation we all have with our mobile devices. Truthfully though there is nothing fundamentally good or bad about the technology that surrounds me. Technology is what it is. It is how we relate to it and use it that matters. And quite honestly I do not always use it in the wisest and healthiest of ways. Our constant connectedness brings with it a lot of potential and possibility, but I believe it can bring us even more when used in moderation.
The relationships and attachments we have created with technology have been rapid and unalterable. Technology and our devices have undoubtedly made daily life less arduous in may respects, far away people and places feel closer to us than ever before. Our personal devices have quickly become an extension of our very beings and many of us would attest to feeling “lost” without them. This digital pandemic has become so severe that it is becoming more common to see a person looking at their phone as you pass them by than it is to make eye contact or share a smile with them. Despite the many benefits technology has afforded us however the true cost of our addiction is beginning to make itself known. The esteem with which we hold our devices is, we now know, a great inhibitor to creativity, focus, and presence in the real world.
In this digital age the paradox is that the same technology that brings us close to those that are far away, takes us far away from the people that are close. 30 billion people use WhatsApp to message friends and family every day, and yet 48% of people say that they feel lonelier in general. It seems that the way that we are using and engaging with technology is not always to our benefit. Our engagement with technology can mean we are too busy to attend to our own needs. We learn to deal with emotions through looking outside of ourselves, rather than looking inside at the first signs of discomfort. These devices that are oh so casually strewn around us hold out the false promise that there is something more important, more urgent, more interesting than our present-moment experience. Ask yourself, how long do you spend in the morning checking in with yourself or those around you in person before you reach for the warm glow of your smart phone? Where is your phone right now even?
It isn’t a stretch to understand how technology fosters this mindless way of existing in the world. Technology is decidedly not in the self or in the moment. Technology is all about the constant flow of information, of dipping into superficial relationships and connecting rather being connected. Mobile phones, texting, and social media are sending us all a nonstop stream of information to engage with, judge and compare ourselves and our lives to.
When we disconnect, we provide ourselves with the opportunity to look inward, get in touch with our internal experience, tolerate it, and maybe even learn from it. In this way, we give ourselves the chance to grow, to become happier and healthier human beings. There is no question, when we are struggling it can be both painful and uncomfortable to spend time with ourselves. That checking in with social media rather than ourselves is a nice distraction and is in many senses much easier that realising and feeling the physical or emotional pain we might be in. But it is in this acknowledgment of the reality of the present moment that we begin to cultivate compassion and empathy for ourselves and those around us.
Even more interesting than our own experience and relationship with technology perhaps is that of the younger generation who have been exposed to technology and touch screen devices from the very start. We can, and do, tell our children that they need to develop their own healthy boundaries around technology. We can also show them this with our own actions, which is of course far more difficult but considerably more effective. I am as guilty as anyone else. But the truth is our devices don’t come with rules and regulations. We want all of the latest technology but we don’t always know when and how to use them appropriately. It is up to us to instill a culture of how to use technology to enable rather than disable. When we teach children to disconnect from their experience with digital distractions, by modeling that behavior ourselves, it is no wonder they never learn some of the more basic skills of emotional fluency, acceptance of strong or difficult emotions, and social cues. They don’t learn that emotions and urges arise and pass, and that we can tolerate and manage discomfort without distraction.
What can we do to use technology with a bit more wisdom and skill?
The first thing we can do is be more intentional about when we would like to connect, and when we would like to disconnect, and therefore it is not something that is done merely out of boredom. When we are intentional about taking time off from technology, we may face resistance at first, the pleasure and reward centers of your brains will see to that. But ultimately sticking with it can be incredibly fulfilling. You might try establishing tech free times for example. In our house we have “phone free Friday”. You might also want to designate tech free areas such as at the dining tables or in the bedrooms. Try turning off the alerts in the applications and email services that you use and agree with yourself that you will only check your emails or texts when you can actually respond to them, or leaving your phone in the car or in your bag whilst you run errands. If you simply can’t tear yourself away from your device try to use it as a window to the present moment. Build mindful reminders into your device. Make the background wallpaper some kind of reminder to breathe or check in with yourself. Instead of reacting to each and every noise and vibration take a moment to notice the body’s and the mind’s reactions to each beep and buzz. The comments, judgments, urges and feelings that arise as a result.
At the intersection of our digital and real worlds perhaps we should take some time to rethinking the path we find ourselves wandering down.