It pays to put the phone down

Last week, I landed back at my desk after 14 brilliant days of holiday, which I spent seeing extended family in Ireland and completing a five-day hike in the Highlands. Holidays are meant to be restorative. A chance to leave behind the stresses of working life, and recuperate physically, mentally, and spiritually. I’m glad to say I am refreshed, on all counts. This hasn’t always been the case for me though – particularly in recent years. It’s common for me to feel less than rested, even after time off. I expect I’m not alone in this.

One of the main culprits for the exhaustion we can feel has to be technology and more specifically the smartphone, which most of us now own. Our phones are incredible from a technological standpoint. They allow communication and access to information in more instantaneous and diverse ways than at any time in human history. We can communicate with friends, family members and business contacts across the globe via email, text, calls, FaceTime, or via social media at all times of the day and night. We have access, via the internet, to an ever-increasing goldmine of information on everything we could possibly imagine, from cats, to communism, to the cosmos.

Perpetual connectivity and information overload takes a toll on us, though. Our brains are working overtime all the time. There’s little opportunity to disconnect and decompress. A plethora of studies link smartphone use to anxiety, depressionlonelinessshort attention spansreduction in reading ability, and even suicide. There are also more philosophical considerations. As human beings in the 21st century, we are frequently ‘plugged in’ to something in ways we weren’t in the past. Our parents had TV and radio, but they also had more time to think. TV and radio didn’t travel with them. They had time to grapple with more profound questions.

The writer Tony Reinke describes the deeper implications of information overload and mounting tech addiction in his book 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You:

“The philosophical maxim ‘I think therefore I am’ has been replaced with a digital motto, ‘I connect therefore I am’, leading to a status desire: ‘I am ‘liked,’ therefore I am…our digital connections and ticks of approval are flickering pixels that cannot ground the meaning of our lives”.

He’s right, sadly. How many of us have real time for true, deep reflection about our lives, our relationships, and the world around us today? About death and what lies beyond? About God? And by contrast, how many hours and days do we spend obsessing over online content that adds nothing to our lives, and distracts from what’s truly important? It’s clear that the enormous benefits of smartphone technology come with huge disbenefits. With the good comes the bad, as is often the way in this world. The challenge we face today is making use of the immense blessings of smartphone technology whilst mitigating the harms it may do to us when misused.

For me, the hardest single thing to disconnect from is social media. During my recent holiday, I thought I’d go cold turkey for the first time in a long time. The results were tangible. For one thing, I instantly had more time to think and speak with others – it’s amazing how many hours are eaten up scrolling through feeds. I felt less anxious. I’ve notice that I often feel like this on days when I’ve spent several hours on Twitter, worrying about Tweets, likes and reactions, and doom scrolling. I was able to fall asleep faster and woke feeling more refreshed. Blue light late at night isn’t good for your brain. My wife felt that I was more present and chipper too – husband points there.

Like most readers, I’m unlikely to part ways with my smartphone any time soon. But I’ve learnt that it needs to be handled with care, to ensure a healthy life. It’s good for us to look up from our phones regularly and walk away from them when we have the chance.

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