I recently decided to embark on a 30-day social media fast after realizing that my excessive phone use was negatively effecting both my physical and mental health. Thanks to the internet, I was welcomed with open arms by the droves of people who have similar experiences and who also have suspicions that there’s something concerning about all of this screen time. I found articles about the troubling correlations between excessive phone use and negative mental health outcomes, learned from experts about how to engage with technology intentionally, and observed the growing trend of organizations and companies that are trying to solve our problem.
An article from WIRED technology writer Robbie Gonzales titled, “The Subtle Nudges That Could Unhook Us From Our Phones,” makes a very important point in stating that, while “science doesn’t have a definitive answer about the effect technology is having on our brains, or on society…evidence does suggest that the ways in which we use our devices on a minute-to-minute basis often contradict how we wish we used them—or didn’t.” We can’t yet prove that our phones are having drastic effects on our brains and society, despite the vast amounts of anecdotal evidence and commentary about our society’s growing reliance to tech.
But many of us feel a lack of self-control around technology and have strong desires to develop healthier relationships with our devices. We can observe members of our own communities, families, and networks to find numerous ways that technology is negatively affecting the way we show up in the world. Luckily, the lack of scientific evidence has not slowed the dozens of authors, commentators, and individuals who are helping us envision radical new ways of living lives independent of technology. As WIRED’s Gonzales notes: “the vast majority of critics—and more and more companies—agree: People could use help deciding where to place their attention, to ensure that their time with technology is—to borrow an increasingly fashionable phrase—time well spent.”
It was precisely the catch phrase “time well spent” that introduced me to Google’s former project manager Tristan Harris who eventually left the company to publicly criticize the tech giants who have captured our attention with various dopamine-inducing algorithms. In 2018, he founded the Center for Human Technology (CHT) where “time well spent” would become the rallying cry for a movement to pressure companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix to do more to change the ways that their products impact our lives. Their lofty mission is to “reverse human downgrading by inspiring a new race to the top and realigning technology with humanity.”
Organizations like CHT have made serious strides, pressuring large social media companies to improve their platforms by including time-limiting features and algorithms to remove harmful and hateful content. But like many complicated issues, the issue is primarily systematic. The tools themselves need to be re-designed with options for better choices. We’ve allowed these companies to utilize the easily distracted qualities our of monkey brains to suck us completely dry of our personal data and time.
Part of the inspiration for my 30-day technology fast was a new book by author and professor Cal Newport titled Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, which lays out a philosophy and practice for healthily and intentionally engaging technology. After the 30 day fast, Newport suggests the following:
“At the end of the break, reintroduce optional technologies into your life, starting from a blank slate. For each technology you reintroduce, determine what value it serves in your life and how specifically you will use it so as to maximize this value.“
For example, maybe I think Instagram is a great way to reduce anxiety because it takes me out of my head and distracts me. I might limit my use of Instagram to a 20 minute window when I get home from work, to unwind from work and to begin the second part of my day. It serves a value, and I’ve set up a firm boundary with myself.
Ideas for technology reform mirror Newport’s suggestion. Can these platforms be re-designed to force us to think of the exact reason why we’ve arrived on the platform? WIRED’s Robbie Gonzales describes what this could look like: “typing ‘facebook’ into your address bar, for example, might prompt you to select whether you intend to visit for a ‘Quick Break,’ ‘Easy Reading,’ or to ‘Organize an Event.’ Reform in this space, it seems, attempts to counteract the many subconscious ways we are lured to these platforms by creating “nudges” that lead us to healthier choices.
Having space away from technology has allowed me to reflect about my own relationship to my devices. If I can understand that the inherent design and intention behind these platforms is to capture and retain my attention for as long as possible, then I am able to more easily forgive myself and realize that I am not a hopeless, technology-addicted drone. I’ve realized that change means creating personal guidelines for how I engage with my tech, and also modeling those changes in behavior to my friends, families, and co-workers. Ultimately, it is an opportunity to be mindful of our choices, big and small, so that our time with technology can ultimately make us happier and more connected.