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February 12, 2019

Don't Let Disconnected Be the New Norm

Our heavy dependence on technology is getting in the way of our ability to be creative, focus in the classroom, and form meaningful relationships.

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Alvin Shi / The Chicago Maroon

My phone travels with me to the dining hall every morning, and even if the hash browns run out on certain days, I always have my scrambled eggs with Twitter. As I was walking back from class to my dorm last Thursday during the polar vortex, I could not resist pulling out my phone to check my notifications—I lost sensation in my hand for a good five minutes, but at least I knew I wasn’t missing out on anything “important.” Even when I don’t have any notifications, I instinctively tap on my inbox (12 unread e-mails) and stare at what continues to be a source of immense daily anxiety. Our devices are asserting an increasingly iron-fisted control over our attention.

Social media has become the default way to cope with boredom. When I was growing up, I’d get bored often and badger my parents, expecting them to provide some kind of entertainment on demand. They refused, knowing that I had enough books, toys, and friends to keep me occupied. I had to learn that sometimes, being bored is perfectly normal and often the birthplace of creativity. Social media not only interferes with this creativity on a disturbing level, but also prevents students from using boredom as a cue to try new activities; if you find yourself regularly bored, instead of checking your phone, why not take advantage of the opportunities on campus—attend a talk, join an RSO or interest group, or pick up a new hobby? Why not get your money’s worth—make that hefty Student Life Fee count for something? If nothing else, deal with that pile of laundry you’ve been avoiding or clean your room—you can always listen to music or a podcast while you’re at it.

We’re constantly distracted by our digital drugs of choice. It’s not just that kid who dropped from Honors Calculus and sits in front of you scrolling through the Supreme website during class. Long classes certainly can be difficult to stomach, but resorting to social media as a distraction is a risky move: You could be missing out on crucial information that you’ll later have to cram for an exam. Moreover, to reiterate what nearly every professor tells you during first week, you’re probably distracting others. This creates a sort of prisoner’s dilemma where everyone is constantly on their phone, impairing the learning environment for both themselves and others. If you really can’t help yourself, sit at the back. Though we might be able to get away with using technology as a crutch now, we are conditioning our brains to expect stimulation from technology alone—not only when our phones buzz but also when they don’t. These habits can have a detrimental effect on our daily lives, especially when the stakes are high—in the workplace, for example, pulling out your phone during a meeting could cost you dearly.

It’s easy to see where the danger lies—we are diluting valuable relationships and experiences, and getting nothing out of this except a superficial substitute for connection. The fact that we’ve rewritten social etiquette to condone these digital indulgences speaks to just how pervasive this predicament is. At gatherings, to cope with awkward silences, people often instantly pull out their phones.  Occasionally, I pull out my phone after a friend does, just to avoid looking like the only person in the room not on my phone. Disturbingly, it’s become socially acceptable to forgo in-person interaction altogether.  While social media does provide indispensable benefits, helping people connect with their loved ones across the world, these essential interactions can be accomplished without having to scroll through cluttered news feeds. Messaging, calling, or directly sharing content with those people does not require broadcasting that content to every one of your followers or friends—or viewing it, for that matter. What value does that 10-second video of someone jumping around at a club on Friday night add to your life? Or that Instagram post of a sunset, or a picture of someone you barely know captioned with a trite lyric from the latest Drake song?

Ironically, the use of phones as a distraction can actually create more stress than it alleviates. When we look to our phones as a refuge, we forget that this content is catered to hold our attention indefinitely. With incessant notifications, tailored ads, music and movie suggestions, and media content, tech companies ensure that we keep coming back for more. This dependence on social media has allowed for the existence (and success) of Instagram influencers, who add trivial value to society except as walking corporate advertisements. Social media can also become a cesspool of comparison and jealousy, as people share only their highlight reels and not the hardships that often come with daily life, which can cause significant harm to a viewer’s sense of well-being, and in extreme cases, even lead to feelings of social isolation.

As a student, checking your phone is often difficult or impossible to avoid. Checking your e-mail for announcements about assignments, exams, scheduling, and events is unavoidable. Information from the University can add to this clutter, as students are encouraged to sign up for every somewhat relevant listhost, and the resulting overflowing inbox presents yet another time suck. Undoubtedly, this mass of promotional e-mails makes checking e-mail even more of a drug. I’d encourage those who want to stay connected to the opportunities these listhosts to create separate inboxes; one could easily create a separate email account to sign up for accounts and newsletters from different websites. Furthermore, having the Canvas phone app is nonessential—you can check day-to-day deadlines through your laptop, and you can always use your phone’s browser to access Canvas or set up e-mail notifications if you are worried about urgent assignments.

While creating a second e-mail account alone is by no means a panacea, it’s at least a step forward in terms of controlling this troubling pattern of social media usage. More is not always better in a world of rapid technological change, and cutting down our use of phones and social media is a necessary safeguard against dependence. Cal Newport, a computer science professor who coined the term “digital minimalism,” recommends a 30-day detox from all social media. Delete Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter—keep only what’s actually necessary for work, school, and maintaining relationships with the people that matter—your close friends and your loved ones. You’ll avoid a lot of meaningless content, find more time to spend on meaningful activities, have more time to spend with the people you love, and have a break from the unnecessary anxiety that social media often brings. You might even find a reason to make these changes permanent. While the existence of a clinical “screen addiction” remains up for debate, it is certainly on the horizon. We should err on the side of caution—there is very little to lose and everything to gain.

Soham Mall is a second-year in the College.

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