Tech overuse: Is it time to unplug?

Why We Wrote This

Technology is often painted as the key to the future. But some people are taking a step back and unplugging to preserve tech-free aspects of society.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Hikers climb on rocks at Papago Park as the setting sun lights up clouds March 1, 2020, in Phoenix. Beginning at sunset on March 6, thousands will take a 24-hour break from screens in observance of the 11th National Day of Unplugging, an effort to reconnect with tech-free aspects of society.

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As technology becomes ever more entrenched in our lives, even some of its most ardent proponents are suggesting we step away from time to time. 

Tech-free retreats have become common among Silicon Valley’s elite. And beginning at sunset on March 6, thousands will take a 24-hour break from screens in observance of the 11th National Day of Unplugging. Even the famously tech-savvy Pope Francis said on Ash Wednesday that “Lent is a time to disconnect from cellphones and connect to the Gospel.” 

Critics caution that if we don’t reconsider our relationship to technology, we may be unwittingly making a huge sacrifice. Some say such digital fasting is a first step in reclaiming our lives from tech overuse, but it may miss the bigger picture.

“The problem is not that we are spending too much time on the screens,” says Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of the digital well-being training consultancy Consciously Digital. “It’s that so many of our functions are now outsourced to technology, and there’s no culture around this, what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate.”

To hear Tiffany Shlain talk about her “tech shabbat,” it sounds less like a fast and more like a banquet.

“It’s so much more about what I get back,” says the filmmaker about her sunset-to-sunset breaks from screens on Fridays and Saturdays. “I feel like my whole day is extra long and wonderful.”

Prodding people to unplug for 24-hours each week may look like an odd stance for Ms. Shlain, who founded the Webbys, one of the most prestigious awards for internet content. 

But she’s not alone. Tech-free retreats have become common among Silicon Valley’s elite. Even the famously tech-savvy Pope Francis said on Ash Wednesday that “Lent is a time to disconnect from cellphones and connect to the Gospel.”

Sunset on March 6 marks the start of the National Day of Unplugging, a 24-hour break from screens started in 2009 by the Jewish nonprofit Reboot. Past years have seen over 60,000 people participating. Ms. Shlain, whose book, “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week,” was published last September, embraces this effort. Like many critics of tech overuse, she argues that always-available information feeds interfere with our fundamental need for mental downtime. “I just don’t think we were designed to be on 24/7,” she says.

As technology becomes ever more entrenched in our lives, even some of its most ardent proponents are suggesting we step away from time to time. If we don’t, they caution, we may be unwittingly making a huge sacrifice.

“This really does touch everyone’s lives,” says Kim Cavallo, an ambassador for the National Day of Unplugging and the founder of lilspace, whose smartphone app rewards users for taking breaks from their phones with local perks and charitable donations. “It’s not any one particular religious group. We all feel the sense of disruption of human connection.”

A “detox” or a transformation?

Many critics agree that unplugging for just one day will not, by itself, change your relationship with technology.

“I’m not a big advocate of extremes,” says Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of the digital well-being training consultancy Consciously Digital. “It’s much more interesting to find a balanced way.”

Dr. Dedyukhina sees digital fasting as a first step in reclaiming our lives from tech overuse, but warns that, like many simple fixes, it can miss the bigger picture.

“It’s actually very dangerous to see this as a solution,” she says, “because the problem is not that we are spending too much time on the screens. It’s that so many of our functions are now outsourced to technology, and there’s no culture around this – what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate.”

Computer scientist and self-help author Cal Newport agrees that unplugging can be a good first step, but warns that doing so needs to be seen not as a break – or worse, a “detox” – but as the first step in a transformation.

“The reason to step away is not just to lose the habit of technology, but to give yourself back the space,” he says. 

Another option: a 30-day tech fast, followed by a mindful reintroduction of only certain devices and apps, suggests Dr. Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University and the author of the 2019 bestseller “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” 

“You don’t go back to what you did before. You rebuild it from scratch, but this time with intention,” he says. The key is to ensure that “all the tech you have is amplifying something that you really care about.”

Dr. Dedyukhina, who used to be hooked on her phone until about five years ago, says changing her technology use has helped her recover some of her humanity.

“In an age when computers are becoming more powerful,” she says, “we end up behaving more like computers.” 

Today, Dr. Dedyukhina mostly uses an old-school cellphone only for calling and keeps her smartphone turned off and in a drawer. “I suddenly became much more creative, with more space in my head,” she says.

Space for contemplation

Our phones stop our minds from wandering, says Dr. Newport, which might explain why many religious groups have encouraged their followers to limit their technology use. 

“What you see in the world’s wisdom traditions is contemplation. Inward focus is in many ways a key step toward gaining intimations, if not outright revelations, of the divine,” he says. “As soon as you remove comfort with the interior, you lose the basis on which all theological wisdom is based.”

But to Heidi Campbell, tech can be a positive force for religious understanding.

“It’s easy to say technology is good or technology is bad,” says Dr. Campbell, a professor of communications at Texas A&M University who studies religion and digital technology. “It’s another thing to do the hard work of figuring out which is which.”

She argues that such absolutist approaches can unwittingly promote “technological determinism.” 

“It assumes that people are robots and that they don’t have any ability to make decisions,” she says.

For Lent, Dr. Campbell created a website (and Instagram feed) to promote 40 Days of Kindness. “Instead of taking a technological sabbath this Lent,” the site reads, “prayerfully and strategically embrace technology in ways that spread kindness!”

Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-policy think tank in Washington, D.C., does not oppose taking extended breaks from screens, but reminds us that alarm over tech overuse is primarily a problem of the affluent.

“Even for someone in the gig economy,” he says. “They’re not going to give up their means of income. ... It would be like not paying your bills each month.”

Mr. Castro suggests that those giving up technology don’t frame it as relinquishing a vice. “Think of it as sacrificing something you genuinely enjoy, so that you can appreciate it when you resume using it,” he says.

He also offers an alternative to tech abstinence: “Instead of saying ‘let’s unplug,’ can we ask, ‘Can I be nicer on social media?’”

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