Disconnected and Discombobulated

I scoffed when I read about college students becoming anxious when separated from digital technology—email, Facebook, and other social media. Or rather, I believed they became anxious, but thought smugly, Glad I’m not hooked like they are.

Except that now I am.

Recently, I was camping at a state campground that didn’t have cell signal. At all. Although we were only about 30 miles from Rochester, Minnesota, we were in the land that time and technology forgot. At first I was delighted. No New York Times news flashes or Facebook posts reminding me of depressing political news. I wasn’t expecting any urgent emails.

Being disconnected felt a bit odd, but I knew my friends would understand if I didn’t respond to their texts or emails promptly.

Not having instant access to the weather app was OK. I didn’t really need to know exactly how cold it would get at night. 55 degrees or 50 degrees—what’s the difference? Either way, we’d have a fire and then burrow into our sleeping bags at bedtime.

But what if my 90-year-old mother-in-law had a health issue? Would my sons be able to track us down? If one of our sons got seriously ill, how would they contact us? Since they’re in their 20’s, that’s usually not a big concern, but one of them had had a significant health problem a few weeks ago, so the possibility seemed more real.

You see where all this was going—good ole free floating anxiety racheted up by lack of connectivity. Wow.

Several times I had to tell myself to knock it off. Everyone was fine. Despite knowing that, I still tried to fire up my phone when we visited the park office. No signal.

For years I’ve had the constant chatter: texts, email, and commentary from Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, so it took a while to get used to the sound of my own thoughts. Or no thoughts whatsoever.

At first I had to concentrate on being in the moment. Resist the urge to curate my experiences. Just live them. I noticed the lavender and white phlox blooming in the meadow we were hiking through, heard the wind in the trees and the creek murmuring behind our campsite, and squinted at the zillions of stars you can see out in the country.

I hate admitting that being disconnected made me anxious. But instant access has become too gratifying. The more I’ve gotten used to it, the more I want it. When I hear the ding of a new email or text hitting my phone, I’ve got to know who it’s from. It’s obsessive. As reinforcing as treats would be to Pavlov’s dogs.

Who's the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Who’s the text from? 15 emails?! OMG!

Technology is supposed to be a helpful tool, subservient to me, not my master. I don’t want to feel so controlled by it.

How did I get to be at the beck and call of this device? I let the lure of instant access get to me.

So I’ve decided to try disconnecting intentionally one day a week, as an experiment.

On those days, I’ll use my phone for calls, but otherwise avoid checking emails, weather apps, maps, Facebook, Snapchat, and the New York Times news feed. Fasting from email, apps, and social media will be hard—after all, the first thing I did after we packed up and drove away was check email. 56 of them had piled up in three days. Most of them weren’t that important, which reinforces my decision to go offline periodically.

It’s so easy to be caught up in the bizzyness of the internet and social media. I want to rediscover what else I can do with my time.

When did cell phones become a cure-all for awkwardness and boredom?

I sat in the classroom feeling awkward. The students were on break—some of them chatting in Chinese or Spanish, a relief for them after the rigors of learning English. Others were stretching their legs. I had 10 minutes until class resumed and I was once again a tutor.

I reached for my cell phone and began checking emails. Not that I was expecting anything important, and indeed, none of the emails required my urgent attention. But I looked busy. Important, even.  Anybody looking at me might have thought I had vital emails that must be attended to NOW.texting

When did cell phones become a cure-all for awkwardness and boredom? Why did I succumb to the feeling that I have to be connected and productive at all times?

Before I became addicted to my electronic devices, I could amuse myself if I had a spare 10 minutes. Instead of isolating myself from interactions by fiddling with my phone, I might have wandered around and talked with someone. Maybe not my students. They’d be polite, but sometimes they need a break from “Teacher,” as they call me. But I probably would have found someone from another class.

Or if I wasn’t in the mood to talk, I might have gone for a walk. I could have quietly thought my own thoughts without needing to look busy. I might have sat in the atrium people-watching. The clothes, faces and manners of the new Americans who are learning English tell a story—something the writer in me finds interesting.

Before cell phones became so widespread, I would have thought it was fine to spend time doing nothing much. If I really really wanted to be productive, I could have planned dinner and made a grocery list.

But none of those options occurred to me, because without meaning to, I have learned to engage with my device instead of with people. And I’m not alone in this behavior. A recent study of college students in 10 countries found that they “literally didn’t know what to do with themselves” when they had to live without their smartphones and other electronic media for 24 hours. And Arianna Huffington acknowledged this issue when she issued her challenge to unplug for seven days.

With my cell phone handy, I don’t have to risk the slight discomfort of exchanging pleasantries with people I don’t know. I can talk with people who are far away, but I’m less likely to connect with the people close at hand.

My phone rewards me with a sense of purpose—fake busyness in this case—but it helps me pass an awkward or boring moment. And it’s always there. Somehow I’ve let myself get sucked into feeling that because I can be connected, I must be connected. Really? Why? I didn’t need to know right that minute that my online order had shipped or that a blogger I like had posted something new.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not getting rid of my cell phone any time soon. Cell phones have vastly improved many kinds of communication. But I do want to restore my ability to cope with boredom and discomfort without resorting to my phone. I do want to be more mindful of the ways cell phones can isolate people instead of connecting them.