Thursday, September 17, 2015

Unplugged Vs. Disconnected: The 7-Day Digital Cleanse

I survived a week without a phone, TV or my computer and I wasn't even on a remote vacation. While a week of going totally screenless may not qualify as an accomplishment, it was a feat for me. When I lost my phone on a trip this summer, it became a first world crisis. When I finally got it fixed, I took it to bed with me and woke up the next morning still clutching it tightly in my hand. It was time to make a change.

I wanted to try a seven-day digital cleanse. A few days didn’t seem long enough to change any habits, though more than a week seemed unrealistic. The cleanse required planning. I literally penciled meetings on a paper calendar. I made my husband the emergency contact at school. My son was worried. Can’t you just check your phone once an hour?” He suggested.  I was nervous as well. We haven’t had a landline in years. As a precaution, I kept my cell in the house but turned it off. In an effort to avoid any temptations, I ordered several new books to keep me busy. To ensure success, I timed the week to begin the day after we brought our new yellow lab puppy (aptly named Happy) home.

As I taught Happy how to walk on her leash, I tried figuring out how exactly to untether myself. Somewhere between keeping up with LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts, I’d become that mom who never misses a game but misses most of the game staring at a phone. It wasn’t that I particularly enjoyed commenting on clever selfies, but when my phone buzzed with an update, there was an undeniable Pavlovian impulse to respond- immediately. A dog trainer recommended we hang bells on our back door to train Happy to associate the sound with going outside. On the first day of the digital cleanse, those jingling bells made up for the unnatural silence of my phone and computer.

On the second day, I opted not to exercise outside because I couldn’t monitor my workout with a fitness app. But there was no escape from the screens at the gym. Every cardio machine had a TV that couldn’t be disabled. Instead, I flipped the channel to snow. The woman on the elliptical next to me, who was reading her Kindle on top of the TV, didn’t notice. When I returned home from the gym, flowers arrived. The card said, “Since I can’t text you that I love you.” My husband needed this digital cleanse to work too. The phrases, “I’m still listening,” or “Just a minute,” or “Almost done,” had become too prevalent in our home. Researchers have found that the mere presence of a phone makes people less trusting and less empathetic. I didn’t need studies to see the impact our devices were having on our intimacy. There were charging stations on both nightstands. I put the bouquet of calla lilies, our wedding flowers, on my side of the bed. As fragrant and lovely as they were, they seemed somehow less real because I wasn’t sharing a picture of them on social media. If no one else knew my husband sent me flowers, did it really happen?

A few days into the cleanse, I began to notice how many other people appeared to be prisoners of their own devices. There was the lady who kept up her phone conversation while using the bathroom in the stall next to me. There was a baby streaming a movie on an iPad, while his family ate in silence in a restaurant. My jaw dropped when a guy on a bike veered straight into traffic. He had both hands on his phone and none on the handlebars. Of course, there were the fellow dog walkers who passed Happy and me on the sidewalk without looking up. I later wasn’t surprise to learn that thousands of people are killed and injured each year due to “distracted walking.”

By the weekend, being screen-free was becoming my new normal. But it wasn’t my family’s idea of normal. On Saturday morning, the sound of cartoons woke me from downstairs. Our seven-year-old didn’t play with Happy (even though the puppy was her birthday present) or even ask for breakfast: She bee-lined for the couch and remote. Meanwhile, before my husband even got up to brush his teeth, he was checking sports scores on his phone. Our son alternated between playing X-Box and Snapchatting. We were alone – together. With a sigh, I tackled that pile of new books, but something was off. I’ve always finished one book before starting another. But over the years, I’d gone from a fast reader to more of a skimmer. On the weekend of the cleanse, I started four new books at once, unable to focus or even remember what I’d just read unless I took notes. I’ve since learned that web surfing is linked to altering attention spans.

Over the weekend, we also made plans to go out with three other couples. After setting our plans, it struck me that I knew what these friends had for lunch by their status updates but had no idea what was really going on with their careers or personal lives. It felt so good to catch up in real life. They lived vicariously through my experiment, wanting examples of what was so different. I mentioned that I was interacting with Happy instead of just taking a thousand puppy pictures that would never be printed. “Good for you,” they said, “but I could never make that work.” That sentiment was the general consensus. One friend had an interesting reaction. She said when she went to text me about what to wear and remembered I was unplugged, she experienced a sense of relief. It was one less thing she had to worry about. 

The benefits were enviable, but my friends were certain there had to be a downside. I admitted that I missed the convenience of instant knowledge. Earlier that day I had bought a mushroom-growing kit for our terrarium. It didn’t come with instructions. “Just look it up,” the farmer’s market vendor advised. Instead, I drove to the library, which had a limited mycology section. I had to wait until after the digital cleanse to learn care instructions for pleurotus djamor, a type of coral pink Oyster mushrooms. Although, the inconvenience of not knowing everything instantly had an upside: It was refreshing to not know everything, to leave things open for debate once in a while. After dinner, our group migrated to a bar that was playing MTV classic eighties videos. When someone speculated about the age of the singer Berlin, it would’ve been easy to turn to Wikipedia to settle it. We didn’t.

When the week ended, it was unclear whether I was leaving the real world or returning to it.  My real world is a virtual world. It is impossible to work without being in front of a screen several hours a day. Like a dietary cleanse, one can’t live indefinitely on green juice alone.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one to two hours of screen time per day for children over the age of two. Adults are left to figure it out for themselves. For me, that starts with recognizing the difference between being unplugged and disconnected. Because I work from home, I’ve re-established work hours.  If it is after six, I want our family to be together-together. My husband and I were already discussing turning our bedroom into a digital free zone when our TV happened to break. We don’t miss it. I’m also consciously reducing my  “discretionary spending” of screen time. If my monetary spending was out of control, I might cut up my credit cards. In this case, I deleted all the social media apps from my phone. My maintenance program includes having set times to check emails and time limits on Internet surfing.  For every hour of discretionary screen time, I try to balance it with equal time spent the same day in either physical activity or face-to-face interactions. I find a simple walk outside, with or without Happy, is far more effective at clearing my head.

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