I have a confession to make: I didn’t participate in the National Day of Unplugging
this year. The event, which has people completely disconnect from their screens from sunrise to sundown, happened earlier this month — and for circumstances out of my control, I had to use my phone.
But just because I didn’t participate in the holy grail of unplugging holidays doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in completely ditching my devices for a few days. In fact, I’m a huge advocate for it.
Earlier this week, Casey Cep wrote a column for the New Yorker, criticizing the idea behind taking a digital detox. “[T]he unplugging movement is the latest incarnation of an ageless effort to escape the everyday, to retreat from the hustle and bustle of life in search of its still core,” she wrote.
“Like Thoreau ignoring the locomotive that passed by his cabin at Walden Pond or the Anabaptists rejecting electricity, members of the unplugging movement scorn technology in the hope of finding the authenticity and the community that they think it obscures.”
But isn’t the whole point of unplugging to do just that? We unplug to make the escape, to reconnect with the world, to play with our real pets instead of watching ones on YouTube. And when we do so, research shows we’re a lot better for it physically and mentally. So I’d argue that Cep’s reasoning — that disconnecting is rather pointless — is missing, well, the point.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love technology just as much as the next person and I see the immense value of it (after all, I do work for an online media company). I also agree with Cep when she argues that it connects us with others in ways we were never able to before. But there are extreme advantages to going off the grid for a while — and there’s science behind it that can’t be ignored. Studies have shown that being constantly plugged into our devices can make us feel more lonely, less likely to engage in prosocial behavior, can severely mess with our sleep and can even cause weight gain.
And it’s not just ourselves we’re protecting by being mindful of technology — it’s future generations. Now more than ever, children as young as 2 have their eyes fixated on screens — and it’s negatively affecting their growth. Children’s excessive technology use has the potential to cause attention, brain and behavioral problems. When I think back on my childhood, I think about playing jump rope outside and going swimming. The only faint recollection I have of technology is the grating sound of dial up. When the next generation gets older, what will be the source of their nostalgia? Angry Birds over the real birds they’d hear if they were playing outside?
Many of us seem to forget that there was an existence before technology. People were able to meet up for coffee without carrying a phone with them. They were able to find out urgent news. They were able to communicate with their families without Facebook. Was it better? No, probably not. But were people able to function? Were they able to lead joyful and fulfilling lives? Absolutely.
It’s my belief that the point of “unplugging movement” isn’t to completely tear us away from our devices — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The point of disconnecting from our devices and reconnecting to the world around us is to remind us that there is a world outside of our screens — and as a result, there’s a way to come back to them and use them in a more mindful manner. There are real interactions waiting for us, not just the Facebook chats and emails waiting in our inboxes. Unplugging reminds us that life is happening.
I urge you to think about the happiest moment of your life — was it something you saw on social media? Or was it the moment you got engaged, or saw your best friend for the first time in years, or heard incredible news from a doctor? Happiness lies in the moments where we’re living. It lies in the company of others or a randomly warm day in the middle of a miserable winter. Our joy shouldn’t be dependent on what’s written on a screen. And that is the point of unplugging.