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Turn Off, Tune Out, and Drop In, At Least Sometimes
A modus operandi for living in a screen time world.
When Timothy Leary uttered the infamous counterculture-era battle cry, “Turn on, tune in, drop out”, he did not have electronic devices in mind. He was urging people to accept cultural change and challenge societal norms, conventions, and hierarchies. Psychedelics aided this process, naturally. Nowadays the primary drugs are the electronic devices we turn on, tune in to, and use in order to drop out of society. Most people, on average, spend 3 hours and 15 minutes per day on their phones. Of the top 20% of smartphone users, average daily screen time is 4.5 hours or more. Countless studies warn of the detrimental impact excessive screen time can have on our health, productivity, social interactions, and just about every other facet of our lives. There is no question of the benefits and efficiencies these devices create, but as with many things in life, moderation is key. So in an effort to inspire even a modicum of change, I recommend a new modus operandi: Turn Off, Tune Out, and Drop In.
With technology becoming ever more omnipresent forces in our lives, it’s imperative we set aside time to turn everything off. This is especially true for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Recent studies have shown that those little ones who used screens for longer than the recommended one hour per day had lower levels of development in their brain’s white matter. This white matter is critical for developing cognitive, language, and literacy skills. Given that humans experience their most rapid brain development in their first five years of life, excessive screen time could prove detrimental to the futures of millions of children who come of age in this screen time generation.
Apart from brain development, studies have also linked excessive screen time to poor academic performance, impaired cognitive functioning, unhealthy eating habits, and an inability to pay attention and think clearly. Moreover, screens interrupt children who otherwise could be performing activities that enhance brain development, whether that’s interacting socially or problem solving. Screens promote physical isolation, plain and simple. Despite these risks, young parents often stress that there’s simply no other way to quiet their children, especially on airplanes or in restaurants. Quick, give them the iPad! But what happened to children simply learning to behave? In fact, they often follow the example set by their parents.
If parents succumb to every screen in sight, their children are likely to do the same. By not turning them off periodically, there’s almost no time to interact as a family. What long term effects this lack of interaction has on children is hard to tell, but it’s unlikely to cultivate social aptitude. And for people without kids, incessant screen time can stoke emotions of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety. There’s even a new term for snubbing someone for your phone — “ phubbing.” The people I know who excel at phubbing also happen to be some of the saddest people I know. They live in their own worlds. Even in public they engage you with a 50% attention span at best. You can witness their minds wandering to their social media drug of choice like a fiend searching for a hit, fumbling for their phone umpteen times as you try to converse. Phubbing’s alarming trend has led more people to retreat into solitude, with many now opting to engage friends and family through a screen instead of through the flesh.
It should be no secret that the screens delivering social media content are addictive. As one Harvard article put it, “platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.” Like a casino or drug dealer, a social media company would not survive without repeat business and loyal customers. The companies that promised to change the world by connecting us online have made billions on reinforcing behavior that activates dopaminergic reward pathways. Namely, they tapped a clickbait cash cow of dopamine releasing social stimuli, as exemplified through the notifications that bombard us daily, whether it’s a text message, a Facebook post, or an Instagram “like.”
Given that all of the most popular social media applications are free, there’s a race to the bottom for your time. I say the “bottom” because this incentive structure forces big tech companies to develop applications that control your attention and entice you to keep clicking. Advertising revenue would disappear otherwise. These companies then mine and monetize your data to the most optimal extent possible, with minimal concerns given to ethical, personal, or societal consequences (see Cambridge Analytica). In the end, what you’re using isn’t really “free” per se ( no such thing as a free lunch!). You’ve paid a potentially significant personal cost by just having a profile and interacting on these social media sites.
If that doesn’t persuade you to turn off your social media applications and electronic devices periodically, then consider these strange physiological effects. Yes, selfie elbow, texting thumb, and text neck are becoming real colloquialisms to describe musculoskeletal injuries associated with excessive screen time. So protect your body, mind, and personal data and turn your damn device off every once in a while.
Even if you succeed in turning off your personal devices, screens and sounds will try to follow you everywhere. Anyone with an office job likely stares at a computer for most of the day. And if you live in a city like New York, electronic billboards flash messages at every opportunity. Moreover, in this renaissance age of streaming media, countless podcasts, audio books, etc., companies tempt you to tap into content stimuli at any moment of downtime. It’s sensory overload.
I find myself falling prey to these temptations everyday. I listen to multiple podcasts regularly. After a long day at work, it’s dangerously easy to lay waste on the couch like a garbage monster and consume anything HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, or any sports app has in store. Don’t get me started with video games. While I consume, I often browse Twitter, Instagram, email, and news apps. If somebody texts me, stop everything! Suddenly it’s 10pm and I have to think about sleep before I do it all over again the next day.
I need to tune out. Forget devices. Ignore sounds. Meditate, practice mindfulness — anything to escape the incessant noise and commotion that the world blares at me for “free” everyday.
At this point in my early thirties most of my friends have either deleted Facebook or cut their use significantly. Any time I do go on to browse the mind-debilitating Newsfeed, I’m immediately greeted with numerous irrelevant notifications since my last visit. I don’t care what “Kelly” posted last week — what happened to the Facebook that used to send notifications only when something happened to me directly? All of the noise from randos I barely know anymore, not to mention the creepy ads that seem to track my entire internet existence, make me want to tune out for good.
But what can I do? I don’t want to lose touch with these randos completely. There have been moments when my only means of getting ahold of someone was through Facebook. What I’ve come to learn is that I need to fight back against the temptation to waste minutes of my day browsing a Newsfeed I don’t care about. So I deleted the app from my phone. The rest of my screen time battle I’ve turned into a game. Certain apps like Forest can even help you in this quest to take control of your screen time life. Their slogan of “Stay focused, be present” should be the societal ethos of the 2020s. The app challenges you to put down your phone and grow a virtual garden in the process. If you leave the app and look at your phone, the tree dies. Flip the incentive structure on the social media companies that have stacked the dopamine deck against you.
I also tune out by setting device free times and zones. An hour before sleep I leave my phone on the dining room table, far from the bedroom and my bed. I bought a real alarm clock to nullify the need for relying on my phone to wake me up. During waking hours I’ve significantly cut down on which apps can notify me and which can’t, along with specifying the types of notifications they can send. Some people even go as far as dumbing down their phones or adjusting their display to black and white so it’s not as enticing. I may not be that intense, but if you are, I commend you.
Turning off and tuning out of the electronic world allows you to drop in on what truly matters — your connection to family, friends, and yes, even yourself.
Some 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville traveled from his native France throughout the United States on a journey to discover what made American democracy work (the French attempt had recently failed). Of course, some may question whether American democracy works today, but one primary observation de Tocqueville made in his magnum opus, Democracy in America, was that Americans maintained a strong sense of community through civil society and robust institutions. Whether it was the church, rotary clubs, sports leagues, or communal neighborhoods, Americans were uniquely skilled at building and preserving strong connections. Robert Putnam famously recognized the fraying of this social fabric of American life as civic institutions witnessed substantial declines beginning two decades ago.
A major reason for this decline today is somewhat ironic. It’s technology. Advances that were intended to build better social connections globally have compromised the very quality that made American democracy so recognizably unique to a foreign observer all those years ago. Local communities are dying in America and throughout the world as more people disengage in real life and hop into the digital realm. This desire is even more pronounced in younger generations (i.e., the toddlers growing up with iPads on airplanes so they’ll be quiet). The longer this trend persists, the less connected people will feel. Social unrest is inevitable — you can already see it in the current divisive state of American politics, with Brexit, in Hong Kong, and in the increasing rise of authoritarian regimes around the world ( Brazil, India, etc.).
“Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.” — Melissa Hunt, Ph.D., Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
We must drop back in as individuals, families, friends, and communities. While it would be helpful for governments to modernize the regulatory environment to better reign in technology and social media companies, we cannot wait for that time to come. If we promote social connections, meaningful conversations, and time spent with family and friends, we all stand to live happier, more productive lives. Anyone playing on their phone at dinner should be socially shunned. It should be taboo to “phub” someone. Screen time is undeniably a major part of our present and future lives, but cultural norms and mores must evolve so the technology designed to help and connect us doesn’t lead to our collective downfall.
In line with Timothy Leary’s battle cry of the 20th century, we need a new one to combat the forces that aim to hypnotize us into submission. We need to control screen time before it controls us. With the holidays in full swing and New Years resolutions beckoning, there’s no better time than now to turn off, tune out, and drop in.