The 2018 National Day of Unplugging is on March 9-10 from sundown to sundown.
Back in 2009, Baroness Susan Greenfield, a trained neurochemist and member of the House of Lords, was laser-focused on studying changes to the brain and how this knowledge could combat Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile she couldn’t help noticing that another big factor was altering the brains of subjects more broadly: technology.
At that point, she said, she realized that as people began using social and mobile phones more and for far greater periods of time, their attention spans were taking a hit and their dependence on devices was starting to become noticeable.
So the baroness began speaking out, warning of the dangers of excessive tech usage. Her message, though, was hardly met with agreement and praise.
“At the time I got a lot of flack and criticism,” she said. “Some of it was very personal and heated.”
What makes her feel vindication and satisfaction now, almost a decade later, is that so many others have joined her camp, from academics to policy leaders. There’s a growing movement to examine the negative impacts of tech and to stave off addiction. Experts see a dramatic shift happening: tech reliance has never been higher and, consequently, there’s building evidence that excessive device usage is causing harm and altering our attitudes, brains and behaviors. At the same time, there’s more acknowledgement than ever before, and more attempts to combat it than ever before.
This growing movement includes the creation of dedicated organizations like the Center for Humane Technology — led by former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris and and Stanford’s Calming Technology Lab, as well as a flurry of public discourse and the advent of digital detox therapies and hubs.
Helping Kids Detox
Baroness Greenfield has published books on the subject of tech addiction and spends a good deal of her time giving talks to companies. At the end of each talk, inevitably, she said, someone will come up to her concerned about their child or teenagers over-reliance on tech.
She said her greatest worry is that, because of tech addiction, kids won’t reach their full potential.
“I can’t see how that [potential] can be realized when people are anxious and worried about their Facebook profiles, where their attention span is short, where they’re spending most of their time in front of a screen instead of talking to other people,” she said. “The person we might end up with is not a creative individual but closer to an emotionally volatile 3-year-old, who’s slightly adversarial and aggressive and hasn’t adapted to live in the real world, but in a virtual world.”
What Baroness Greenfield suggests to tackle this is not a detox center visit or an extreme stoppage of device usage, but a return to three simple things: eating together as a family without technology around, taking part in physical exercise and reading stories. All will promote neurogenesis of the brain and counteract the negative impact of tech very quickly.
“The brain will adapt and it will reverse,” she said. “I got a lovely email from a father in Australia. With his kids he was able to get them on a bike ride. They started giggling spontaneously. It was music to his ears.”
From Phobia to Addiction
Another expert who studies and shares his learnings about the psychology of tech is Dr. Larry Rosen, professor Emeritus and Past Chair of the Psychology Department at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
His line of work and area of expertise has exploded over the past decade, Dr. Rosen said, as social media platforms take on more importance — and shares of time — in people’s lives. His work actually began focusing on technophobia, in which someone has a fear or aversion to technology, but that condition is nearly obsolete now, he said.
“We’re no longer scared, just stressed,” he said. Lives are lived online and social media posting means an examined and judged life.
Dr. Rosen said it’s not just the kids either; he sees subjects of all ages becoming slaves to their phones. In his most recent study, he found that his students unlock their phone a whopping 56 times a day for more than 220 minutes. The next time he tests this it could very well creep up to 260 minutes, Dr. Rosen said.
What worries him most is the toll device usage is taking on relationships, and the resulting surge in anxiety.
“I hesitate to call it an addiction because with an addiction you get pleasure out of the activity,” he said.
His recommendation is not to just detox in one fell swoop and then to go back to old habits of excessive phone checking. A better tactic is to take tech breaks constantly during the day.
At first someone may just be able to avoid looking at their phone for a minute. But they can build up a tolerance over time. While taking tech breaks it’s important to also turn off notifications and to let others know that you’ll be offline for a span.
On a bigger scale, Dr. Rosen said he believes it will take drastic action from big tech companies. He likens the problem to tobacco companies and cigarettes.
“It’s their business model but this very business model is causing problems,” he said, noting that more people are paying attention to the problem of tech addiction now. “But we’ve got a ways to go.”
Dena Levitz is the manager of digital strategies for the Newspaper Association of America while also pursuing a master’s in Media Entrepreneurship at American University.