Unplugging Can Feel Unproductive, But Research Shows It May Be Exactly What You Need

We have to fight for quiet time in a noisy and distracting world.
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We have to fight for quiet time in a noisy and distracting world.

Not long ago my brother and I were at the beach. As we stepped foot onto the cool, evening sand, my first reaction was to reach for my smartphone. I mean, how could I not capture the Insta-worthy sunset casting colors into the water?

“I’m taking in the sunset, and you’re just looking at your phone,” my brother interjected.

His comment struck me as awfully similar to what he had told me the night before at dinner: “You’re on your phone half the time when we eat together.”

After being roommates for two months, my shrewd little brother had picked up on my compulsion to keep my phone close at hand. Each day, I filled my extra minutes with mindless scrolling. Not only that, I centered my morning routine on my cell phone—flipping through social media apps one by one, opening emails, scanning articles, and rummaging through the occasional online sale—before anything else. My nights would usually unwind with the same practice.

How had I gotten to a place where so much of my time was dictated by this device? And more importantly, how was I going to stop myself from continuing on as I was: hyperconnected digitally yet seemingly disconnected in person?

Distractions Everywhere 

With our personal computers and handheld devices nearly glued to our palms, connectivity has become constant—but so has distraction. The merits and convenience of our devices can’t be overlooked. However, speaking from experience, those handheld devices can divert us from paying attention to others, getting things done, being alone with our thoughts, and even reaching for in-person connection.

Ninety-two percent of Americans own a cell phone, and about nine in ten cell phone owners keep their phones on them “frequently,” according to the Pew Research Center. Six percent report “occasionally” having their phones on hand, compared to even less who “never” (1 percent) carry their phones with them. Most of us rely on our phones for a lot, so it’s no wonder we need them close at hand.

Pew’s 2015 study reveals that we mostly use our phones in public to access helpful information about where we are going, such as directions, or to get in touch with family and friends. But about half of cell phone owners use their devices “for no particular reason, just to find something to do.” What’s most interesting about the study, though, is that for a portion of the participants, their cell phone wasn’t just a means of information seeking; it was a means of consciously avoiding personal connection. One-quarter of the participants actually reported turning to their smartphone to avoid interaction with others from time to time.

Most Americans believe cell phones should not be used at the dinner table, in meetings, at church or worship services, or in quiet places such as movie theaters. In fact, 82 percent of adults believe the use of cell phones at social gatherings dampens the atmosphere or conversation. Even so, “the vast majority of cell owners say they themselves use their phones during their own social gatherings,” the study says.

Smartphones have many functions, no doubt. It’s no wonder, then, that we spend hours using these devices. But it’s concerning to me that we aren’t entirely aware of our own behavior. One study found that young adults spend an average of five hours per day on their smartphones. What’s more is that the time spent scrolling was twice as much as the participants in the study estimated.

“The fact that we use our phones twice as many times as we think we do indicates that a lot of smartphone use seems to be habitual, automatic behaviors that we have no awareness of,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Sally Andrews, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University.

Too Connected 

Can constant connectivity be good for us, though? One study of young adults, ages 20 to 24, hypothesized that mobile phones could, in theory, have a positive effect on mental health. “For instance, the ease of reaching someone to talk to when in need, implying access to social support,” the report reads. “Social support buffers negative effects of stress, while low social support is a risk factor associated with mental health symptoms.”

As we’re learning, though, too much screen time comes with a downside. Digital screens cause eyestrain when used for hours per day, while the blue light emitted from many screens subdues melatonin, the sleep hormone, making us feel more awake and interfering with sleep. In addition, technology disrupts our sleep by stimulating the brain, speeding up neurons and electrical activity.  Not only that, the task of responding to emails, for example, can actually bring the body into fight or flight mode, spiking levels of cortisol, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands.

Many of us indulge in time on our phones and social media to de-stress, but the effects can actually leave us more worked up than before, triggering feelings of envy, loneliness, frustration, or anger. One consequence of constantly knowing what others are up to is that we start to feel inadequate or isolated.

Rather than eliminating cell phones from our lives altogether, the study suggests that young adults “set limits for their own and others’ accessibility.” It’s possible to harness the advantages of our personal devices—such as our contacts, access to directions, and helpful apps—without sacrificing hours of our time.

Finding Quiet Time in a Noisy Culture

Hoping to kick my own excessive screen-time habit, I decided to go on a social media fast. I also chose to forgo nightly Netflix dates for good old-fashioned book reading. During my fast, I didn’t miss my beloved Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat, but I fed my compulsion to stay connected in other ways. (I’m looking at you, Pinterest.) No, I’m not above distractions. Now that my fast is over, I’m being more intentional about when and how I use my devices. As with anything, I think moderation is the key.

But more than unplugging, I want to replace my bad habit with a good one. While I still spend more time on my phone and laptop than I want to admit, I’ve established a new habit that has helped me begin my mornings better. I decided to start my days with time for quiet and contemplation. Whether my schedule allows for fifteen minutes or an hour, I’m waking up to prayer and reading a book (rather than texts or emails).

Time for silence and stillness does not go to waste. Prayer and meditation, for example, have powerful effects on health. Research from the University of Massachusetts concluded that mindfulness meditation has long-term benefits, namely reduced stress, in those with anxiety disorders. In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term “relaxation response,” which describes the stress-reducing effect of prayer and meditation. His studies found that contemplative techniques such as meditation and prayer counter the fight or flight response triggered by stress (and even our inboxes). These contemplative techniques lower stress levels and promote overall well-being.

Slowing down, not jumping into a world of distractions, keeps my priorities in order and gives me peace. If morning sets the tone for the rest of the day, I want to sow seeds of intentional living. Carving time out of each morning or night for quiet and contemplation sounds like a luxury, I know. But it’s actually a necessity in this bustling world of ours. And it feels good.

Turns out, my brother did me a favor by pointing out my bad habit. Trading some screen time for unplugged mornings and evenings has been refreshing. In a noisy culture brimming with constant connectivity and distractions, time spared for quiet and contemplation can seem unproductive. But, as it happens, those unplugged moments are exactly what our minds need to recharge.

Photo Credit: Alex Mazurov