Beware of Digital Gluttony
By Kate Wicker
My family saves all year for a trip to the lake region of Maine each summer. Once there, we head to Camp Loseekum, a bare-bones cabin that has been in my husband’s family since the late 1800s.
There are many things I love about this rustic retreat: the pristine beauty of the place, the hemlock-lined shoreline, hearing the mournful call of the loons at night, taking long walks in the woods with my kids skipping ahead, and the smells of summers past — smoldering embers, tattered Army blankets gathering dust, Coppertone, and toasted marshmallows.
But perhaps my favorite part about the Maine woods is that it’s a place where simple pleasures rule and we’re forced to unplug from electronics — and the craziness of daily life. There’s no modern plumbing (when nature calls, you visit an outhouse in the woods), no television, and no internet connection.
It’s always a bit of a jolt to return to reality — and a cluttered email inbox after being so far removed from my smartphone. Sometimes I’ll return home and entertain this “leave-it-all-behind” fantasy and imagine a world without constant connectivity.
But unless my family decides to become full-time cheese makers or join the Amish, it’s probably not realistic for me to think I can completely obliterate technology from my own and my children’s lives.
These days most, if not all, jobs demand that we are connected at least in some ways. As a busy mom of five, I rely on technology to stay informed with my kids’ myriad activities and help keep me organized. Technology is a real part of our lives. We are living in an “iCulture” whether we like it or not.
And yet we have to be careful to remember that we should be the ones controlling technology — not the other way around. I frequently speak and write about body image and overcoming eating disorders and compulsive eating.
One of the reasons food addictions are so difficult to master is that food is essential to living and also an integral part of gathering and celebrating together with our family and community. Technology is becoming a lot like food.
We need it to be successful, to stay in contact with our children’s teachers and activities, and to thrive in this digital age. However, it’s difficult not to fall into the trap of hyper-connectivity, especially when so many of us carry our smartphones with us at all times.
Consider someone recovering from a food addiction carrying a chocolate bar in her pocket everywhere she went. This would demand more self-denial than if she could close her fridge, or just chuck the chocolate bar for good.
The 2015 Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report revealed the following alarming statistics:
36 percent of people check their phones constantly, while 54 percent of young adults are checking constantly.
Nearly 40 percent of people never disconnect from cell phones even while on vacation.
44 percent of Americans say they couldn’t go a day without their mobile devices.
In addition, 50 percent of teens admitted feeling addicted to using their mobile devices, according to a May 2016 report by Common Sense Media. Experts suspect the actual number is even higher.
So how do we teach our youth digital detachment? How can we help them navigate this technology-rich world without falling into the trap of gluttony when many adults struggle with finding balance?
As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, all things in moderation.
James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, stresses that, when it comes to technology, healthy moderation is possible if people take the proper steps to curb its use.
“It’s all about finding your ‘digital sweet spot,’ that magical place where you’re still plugged in but have carved out time for the things that really matter,” Roberts says. “You, your relationships, and [your] community are the bedrocks of living a happy and meaningful life. They’re also the first things that suffer when our lives get out of balance.”
Roberts, author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Are You Addicted to Your Smartphone?, offers the following tips on how to take control of your digital life and to set a good example for young people.
No smartphones while driving
This may sound like a no-brainer, but nearly every time I slip behind the wheel I see people on the roads texting or holding their phones up to check what’s on the screen.
“This is by far the easiest tip to implement and also the most important. Simply toss your smartphone in the trunk of your car before you leave. It’s out of sight but probably not out of mind, but at least you’re not texting while driving. Don’t get me started on the fallacy of multitasking and hands-free devices. You’re dangerous when you are driving and on the phone — hands-free or not,” Roberts says.
Establish ‘smartphone-free’ zones and times
“Smartphones should be forbidden in certain places at home and work. For those of you in romantic relationships, no smartphones in the bedroom,” Roberts advises. “The dinner table should also be a smartphone-free zone. No phones within sight or earshot.”
Use airplane mode
“Airplane mode is a nice compromise,” Roberts says. “It allows you the safety of having your phone with you in case of an emergency but also allows you to focus on the task at hand with no cellular interruptions. Did you know that the average American has an attention span of 8.5 seconds, which is shorter than the attention span of an everyday, garden-variety goldfish?”
Don’t allow technology to “zombify” you by constantly being tethered to it. Remember, previous generations somehow survived without having a parent constantly on call in case of an emergency.
Put out a contract on yourself
“Social contracts are a great way to change behaviors. Simply write a contract that states explicitly what is acceptable or unacceptable use — and the punishment for such behavior — of your smartphone and enlist your spouse, significant other, and/or kids to be the enforcers,” Roberts says. “If your kids or spouse are like mine, they will not hesitate to let you know when you’re breaking the rules and what the said punishment is for such behavior.”
Lindsay Hindman and her husband try to keep each other accountable. “He doesn’t always see the times our toddler looks over to catch Daddy’s eye but instead gets the back of Dad’s phone, and I don’t see when I’m looking at my tablet,” she says. “So we try to gently let each other know, hey, time to put down the screen.”
Nix using your smartphone as an alarm clock
“It’s too much of a temptation to check for the latest YouTube cat video before you start your day. No smartphone until you’ve showered, had your morning cup of Joe, and made your bed,” Roberts suggests.
Frittering away time on technology just before going to bed is also not a good idea because the lit screen and the influx of information — no matter how mindless — that your brain has to process negatively affects your sleep patterns.
I’ll add this as well. I used to read a lot on my phone’s Kindle app. I would even read the Bible; however, I found the tricky thing about our smartphones is that we might be reading one minute, but then a text comes through. We read it, and it makes us think of an email we need to respond to, or we’re inspired to look up something online, and before we know it, we’ve fallen down a rabbit hole. And wasted time cannot be recycled.
Katelyn McDonald, a nanny and new mom of one, agrees. “I rent Kindle books from the library, and I used to read them on my phone, but I always automatically clicked through to texts and Facebook notifications. It was kind of exhausting to ‘read’ this way. I finally bought a Kindle, and I feel like — even though it’s still an electronic device — it’s actually a relaxing and enjoyable experience.”
Consider going the ‘dumb phone’ route
“When it comes down to it, all we really need to be able to do on our phones is to make and receive calls — and send texts, if you have teenagers. Email and social media are nice, but the dumb phone at least keeps us safe (the long-forgotten original purpose for cell phones) and is able to help us connect with those we need to,” Roberts says.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, “I ardently desire to be forgotten.” But with ubiquitous social media checks on our smartphones, it sometimes seems just the opposite for many of us. We’re no longer just keeping touch with loved ones via social media; we’re tempted to share every detail of our lives with friends and strangers alike. Our Facebook status updates share that we just ran three miles or are on vacation in Florida. Nothing is private anymore. Everything we do seems primed for human glory.
There are certainly good things about social media — the ability to connect with like-minded people, keep current with family and friends, and yes, even spread the good news. Sadly the only “gospel” some people may read all day is on Snapchat or their Facebook feed.
Yet if you find yourself constantly checking your social media accounts on your phone, delete the apps and then designate one daily check from your computer. And remember, you don’t have to respond to the serenade of dings and chirps of various notifications and texts — or even answer your phone just because it rings.
Commit to it, and do it
“All of the above suggestions will come to naught if you’re not totally committed to the cause,” Roberts says. “You must convince yourself that curbing your smartphone use is essential to your happiness before you embark on this journey. Without such steely resolve you’ll be sucked into the digital vortex that has lured so many of us into an existence where leading a meaningful life has been replaced by the continual pursuit of momentary pleasures.”
Resolutions are merely wishful thinking if you don’t back them up with a plan. And just like extreme dieting doesn’t yield positive, long-lasting results, there’s no need to go cold turkey on technology. Small changes eventually add up to big changes, so perhaps start by banning all phones and background television noise from the dinner table.
Personally, when I feel like I’m indulging in too many “empty digital calories,” I reflect upon the unplugged lessons I learn every summer in Maine — that the most meaningful experiences unfold when I’m out in the world, away from my smartphone and computer.