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Unplugged and Liberated: The Joy of Falling off the Grid (if only for a little while)

How many times a during the day do you unconsciously reach down and grab your smartphone from your belt? If I make an honest assessment of my own smartphone use throughout the day, I  find myself grasping my phone quite frequently–sometimes in response to “false” vibration alerts and sometimes just out of habit quite similar to the learned behaviors of Pavlov’s dogs.   I guess that my obsessive-complusive (OCD) side probably promotes and really enjoys the repetitive checking behavior.   I reach for my iPhone while standing in line, while waiting to order a cappuccino, while walking down the street or at any other time when I am not actively engaged in some activity that precludes smartphone access.   Recently the New York Times published an article about unplugging from our smartphones.  In the piece, Jenna Wortham relates her experience with being forced to leave her smartphone behind while enjoying an afternoon at the pool.  For Ms Wortham, the experience was quite liberating.  After reading, I began to think about my own mobile-connectivity behaviors as well of those of my family and colleagues.  

According to Neilson, smartphones are used by 50.4% of Americans and for an average user with an average data plan may cost $1200 dollars annually.  In less than one year smartphone use has increased by 11%.  The number of Americans with no cell phone of any kind has plummeted to an amazing 12% as of February 2012.  This data is staggering.  More than ever our society is plugged in and connected–day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.  Events (both newsworthy and not so newsworthy) are chronicled on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  Access to real time information has many positive and practical uses such as communication during natural disasters, managing  travel, and alerting family of important events.  However, as Ms Wortham points out, there is a downside to always being connected.  A study from the British Psychological Society demonstrated that many smartphone users are so obsessed with staying connected that they actually experience phantom vibration alerts.  In this study, the investigators found that patients who experienced phantom vibrations were more likely to be highly stressed and most of these had their smartphones supplied by their employers.

There is certainly value to connectivity, but there is also great value in falling “off the grid” from time to time.  As Ms Wortham described, her day at the pool was initially met with separation anxiety from her phone.  However, she began to feel liberated by the separation and started to work “unplugged” time into her daily routine.  I believe that we can all learn from her experience.  Although technology is essential, we are still human beings and must continue to interact in human and personal ways.  We must re-learn how to weave in old-fashioned conversation to both family and personal time.  Stress and work related pressures definately promote smartphone obsession.  We must strive to take control of our technology habits and “unplug” at some point in every day.  Unplugging may allow one to participate in more physical activity or exercise, may improve family relationships and may provide a much needed mental break.  Although anxiety provoking, I also believe that it is critical to unplug when on vacation.  Although I have not yet succeeded at this yet, I am improving–during a 7 day vacation this month, I checked my email only 3 times. I found that by turning my phone off and locking it in the in-room safe, I was able to control a lot of my pathologic phone-checking behaviors.  I felt more relaxed.  I didn’t worry about what was going on at work simply because I didn’t really know–sometimes ignorance is truly bliss.
Our children learn from our adult behaviors and clearly mimic what they see. I briefly chuckled last friday night when my daughter had a school pal over for a sleepover.  Instead of talking at dinner they began to text one another (mind you, while sitting at the same table eating pizza!)  After thinking about it, I began to wonder what might happen to the next generation if we do not teach them how to manage technology use.  Will there be no more conversation?  Will social visits filled with laughter and stories from the past only be chronicled in YouTube videos and online blogs?  We must set a better example of technology management for our colleagues and for our families.  Embracing technology is critical to success in business, in medicine and in our daily lives.  However, we must manage technology responsibly and not allow connectivity to obviate the need for human interaction.  Unplug today.  Take a deep breath.  Lock your smartphone in the safe for an hour and fall off the grid (if only for a little while).