Recently, I went on a weekend trip to Cape Cod in Massachusetts with my husband. Two other friends were travelling with us and the four of us – all between the ages of 29 to 31– each had an iPhone. The constant access to the Internet, email, news and social media applications made our trip quite convenient and stress-free. We could plan our local sightseeing itinerary by looking up all the relevant information during our trip itself and also easily look up nearby places to eat on Google Maps and search for reviews using the Yelp application. The long drive was also less tedious since we could keep ourselves entertained by listening to music on Pandora and checking out our Facebook updates and Twitter streams, all thanks to our smartphones.
At the same time, I could not help but notice how fidgety we all were. Throughout the trip, all of us were constantly inclined toward pulling out our phones every now and then and checking for new emails, surfing the Web or engaging socially online. Given that we had only one (slow) iPhone battery charger in our car, each of us competed and took turns in giving little bursts of life to our dying, over-used phones. When we stopped at rest areas, we ensured that we refueled not just ourselves but also our phones by carrying our iPhone charger and looking for plug points at food courts.
This may be a little exaggerated, but in some way, the continual survival of our phones seemed to have become almost essential to our existence. As this new reality sank in, I wondered: Are we over-wired, over-connected and over-indulging in all forms of media?
Part of the answer lies in this experiment called 24 Hours: Unplugged, conducted by the University of Maryland in April. Around 200 students from various majors were asked to abstain from all sorts of social media for 24 hours – this included not using any media device such as phones, laptops, iPods, and not engaging over Facebook, Twitter or online chat. The students were asked to write down their experiences during this experiment (which were later chronicled on a blog.)
Some students failed the experiment because they simply did not know what to do without access to media. Others failed because they could not avoid media – it was everywhere and inescapable – televisions playing at the gym, music blaring in hallways or their room-mates playing video games. The common responses among students included "In withdrawal. Frantically craving. Very anxious. Extremely antsy. Miserable. Jittery. Crazy.”
Many students also said they felt uninformed and cut off from others since their friendships and relationships were dependent on technology. At the end of the experiment, many admitted being addicted to technology and said while they felt ‘freer’ and a ‘little happy’ during the experiment, they also felt more disconnected and thus more discontented. Here’s one conclusion from the study: “Overall, a day without media ends up making you feel very uninformed and lost….Not being able to use media also makes you realize how much you are missing and how much time you are wasting. Media has a trade-off between its usefulness and its ability to waste your time.”
Increasingly, I find myself hearing or reading about people opting for a self-imposed exile from media-driven technology to help them overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed and dominated by it. Recently, The New York Times presented a challenge to readers, asking them to unplug for a period of time and share their experiences through short videos. Most readers took up the challenge with the objective of proving to themselves that they could survive without constantly consuming media, and thus feel liberated by that knowledge.
How do you deal with the onslaught of information and technology-driven media, which though useful can be a time-sinker that distracts you from other priorities? Some experts suggest measures such as setting aside specific times and places to use technology, and keeping computers and other devices away from the dinner table and the bedroom. Others suggest maintaining a time log to record one’s daily media consumption and also accept and recognize the fact that there is more information out there than one can possibly consume.
Do you follow a regime to regulate your usage of the Internet/social media and have you ever tried to unplug to avoid it all? How do you balance the need to participate in social media and communicate without over-indulging? I’d love to hear about your experiences.