We can’t pretend it’s okay when it’s not
This is not about Taylor Swift’s song. This is about living with electronic devices, motivated by yet another unsolicited email.
This one isn’t so bad: Photos of Taipai, Dubrovnik, San Francisco skylines… I linger on Cape Town because half of the frame is mountains. Inexplicably, I tear up.
Far from the madding crowd.
I used to adore traveling into the thick of humanity. Now, I’d rather go on a long walk, look at the creek rise and fall, write letters that require stamps.
I’m not afraid of other people or a terrorist attack. I love learning about other cultures and trying new things. This major shift toward solitude is recent.
Am I experiencing early onset of crotchety? Am I a recluse in late-bloom?
So Many Symptoms, (Seemingly) So Little Choice
I’m tired of the Noise. Not only the sounds, but the screens, even the tactile: I resent having to touch my devices in all their neediness. The icons, apps, taps, platforms, programs, plug-ins, swipes, likes, loves, invites, upgrades, downloads.
I try to keep myself honest. Some of my weariness may be related to getting older, but not in the stereotypical sense. People over 50 (or whatever one considers “aged”) as a group are not less capable of learning to use technology. Some may be less willing, but that relates to my next point:
We have experienced a very different quality of life in comparison to this one.
Of course my parents had a different quality of life than I did, and so did my grandparents, and so on. Yet, the rate of change — particularly in terms of how, what, where, when, and why we communicate with each other in every capacity — is vastly different.
I’ll spare you the “back in my day” crap. I didn’t walk to school uphill both ways for 19 miles. But those born mid-1970s or later might consider:
- At 23, I typed (on a typewriter — no word processor) my first thesis in 1982.
- At 25, the second thesis was on an IBM Selectric, capable of “whiting out” an entire line if I made a typo.
- At 29, my first home computer: a Macintosh SE in 1988.
- At 37, I could type intrinsic motivation into a search bar and come up with 27 hits.
- At 43, my first cell phone. (That was 2002; I held out as long as I could.)
So, I remember waking without anxiety or dread. I remember having a circle of friends who talked and then didn’t until we called each other to set another date. I remember thinking Saturday was the best because I got to see cartoons, then Soul Train and American Bandstand (no re-runs). I remember not looking at my damn phone. Taking pictures only when my Nikon was hanging from my neck. I remember having to face people and talk to them when things weren’t working between us.
If within 30 years we’ve gone from home phones and (maybe) VT 100s on our office desks, what noisy intrusions are possible over the next 30 years?
Living is Aging
Athens Community Council on Aging, here in Athens, GA, has a great tagline: Aging: Everybody’s Doing It.
Aging in the era of electronic devices is not for the weak. The shiny, loud, demanding “helpers” will just get faster, louder, more intrusive. I worry about what we’re doing to our brains and bodies.
According to Chris Kresser, per our evolutionary timeline:
“we’ve spent less than 0.01 percent of our history living in modern, urbanized surroundings; more than 99.99 percent of our time has been spent living in harmony with nature” (1).
We’ve gone from biophilia, an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other living beings to a faster-than-speed-of-light shift to videophilia,the tendency to focus on sedentary, solitary activities involving electronic media.
Just a few facts:
- The average American adult spends more than half of his or her day on electronic media.
- Teens spend nine hours a day and tweens spend six hours a day on electronic media.
- A study of nearly 12,000 Americans found that the average adult spends five hours or less in nature per week.
- The average American child spends an average of 30 minutes of unstructured time outdoors each week.
- According to the EPA, the average American spends 93 percent of his or her life indoors — 87 percent of that time is spent in buildings and 6 percent in automobiles.
What’s more alarming are the health effects we already know:
- Time spent watching TV is directly associated with insulin resistance and obesity in children and adults.
- Screen time before bed may be especially harmful to children, promoting sleep disruption and a higher BMI.
- Electronic media use predicts poor health among teens regardless of exercise and eating habits and, has been linked with an increased risk of depression and suicide.
In fact, screen time has created a mental-health crisis among adolescents, according to Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.”
“There’s not a single exception. All screen activities are linked to less happiness, and all nonscreen activities are linked to more happiness.” — Jean Twenge, The Atlantic
The very “social” tools that are supposed to bring us closer are tearing us apart — not just between imagined tribes, but at our very insides.
Solution: Rebel, Resist, Get the Eff Outside
Five days ago, I stopped my car as two does crossed the road. I looked at my bag on the passenger seat, fleetingly, as in “where’s my phone?” and then looked up as several others followed. I kept my hands on the wheel and paused to take in this experience. Slowly I rolled on to the next stop sign. Eight more emerged from a corner yard, looking at me for reassurance. I stopped again to watch their graceful crossing.
Our brains and bodies work as a team. Mine haven’t been so successful lately. Anxious thoughts and existential gloom have been doing their bugle call around 2–4 am for the last few weeks.
I’m not just awake. I cannot shake the bodily sensation that I’ve forgotten to do something. That something needs my attention. Immediately.
Just as excessive screen use correlates to poor health outcomes, so does a lack of time spent in nature.
Being outside is linked to improved blood pressure, obesity, other chronic health conditions. The great outdoors can also lower stress, and increase positive emotions, attention, and cognitive functioning.
Here is a new code of conduct I wrote to keep myself accountable:
- Schedule at least one (30 min) walk per day around my neighborhood or a green space. Lock my phone in the car or turn it off while I walk.
- Commit to 15–30 minutes for stretching or join a yoga class — every other day.
- No meals with electronic devices (no headphones or buds, either).
- Time box use of all devices. Cut them off two hours before bedtime.
This will be hard. Today is Day 1. I don’t want to return to the first half of my life. I just need to get back to my own nature.