More and more often, mental health professionals, religious leaders, educators, and even tech professionals are exhorting us to “unplug”—to disconnect from the internet and our beloved devices on a regular basis. But the more we’re pushed to unplug, the more we need to ask some very fundamental questions about this newly trendy form of self-care. Here are the four questions to ask whenever someone tells you to put your phone on ice.
1. What’s the problem we’re trying to address by unplugging?
Distraction. Addiction. Compulsion. A constant craving for attention.
Whatever your tech-related problem, someone will tell you that the solution is to simply unplug. In this respect, the off-switch resembles nothing so much as the humble leech, long used as a go-to treatment for a mind-boggling assortment of maladies.
As Margaret Modig recounts in “The Strange Lore of Leeches,” “The basis for the widespread use of leeches in medicine stems from the idea that all diseases are caused by tainted or impure blood that has to be removed from the body.”
We make a similar error when it comes to the psychological and cognitive problems of contemporary life. As Ian Marcus Corbin writes in “Time To Log Off,” “It goes without saying—everyone knows it now, even if they can’t say why—that things like social media are bad for us, that many of us are clinically addicted to our phones, that life online brings out the worst in many, and probably in most of us.”
But we’re well within our rights to ask for a more precise diagnosis before submitting to the surgical removal of our devices, particularly since the relationship between digital causes and human effects is still so murky. “With only observational data, and no experimental controls, it is notoriously difficult to make causal inferences,” Paul Resnick, Eytan Adar, and Cliff Lampe write in “What Social Media Data We Are Missing and How to Get It.” “For example, if we observe a positive correlation between posting frequency and loneliness, it could be that loneliness causes posting rather than the other way round.”
While we’re still trying to figure out which of society’s problems can be attributed to technology use, we can at least get clear on which of our personal or professional problems we’re trying to address by unplugging. Unless you know exactly what ails you online and what you hope to gain by taking a break, it’s probably safe to keep on surfing, texting, and tweeting.
2. What else would we (or our kids) do with this time?
Listen to the unplugging evangelists, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that all that stands between you and a day full of enriching activity is the evil, seductive phone in your pocket. Writing about the time he spends with his grandchildren in his column for American Libraries, Will Manley writes that “I endure the inevitable screams of protest when I snatch their iPads, turn off the high-def big screen TV, and hide the video game console. That leaves a soccer ball, a set of watercolors, and a glue-and-paper book.”
Uh, yeah….all that and a grandfather who is a professional librarian. Not all of us have a spare, well-educated family member available to pick up the slack on childcare. (Admittedly my own personal childcare backup is a retired classics professor, but you get my point.)
When we think about taking screens away from our kids, it’s worth thinking about what else they’ll do instead. Is it better for a kid to spend her afternoon learning to build her own video game, or lying in bed reading Archie comics? Is it better for a teen to stay home playing Fortnite, or to hang out smoking weed at a friend’s house? (I do not have a definitive answer to either of these questions.)
We should be equally honest about the opportunity costs of our own online time. It’s comforting to imagine that without the lure of Facebook and Twitter, I’d have written three novels, filled the freezer with meals, and refinished my hardwood floors. But I remember life before social media: my freezer was just as empty, and my floors just as scuffed.
If anything, our time online may be displacing less productive activities: In “Clash of the Titans: Does Internet Use Reduce Television Viewing,” Stan J. Liebowitz and Alejandro Zentner found that “the Internet has reduced television viewing for individuals with Internet connections,” particularly for those “who have grown up since the personal computer was developed.”
Whether that online time represents a better choice than an hour of T.V. depends on what you’d be watching, of course—but it also depends on exactly what you’d be doing online. Before we turn to unplugging as a way of reclaiming our “wasted” time online, let’s get very clear about which ennobling and regenerative activities we plan to do offline (especially if we can’t use Yelp or Eventbrite to find them).
3. What do we give up when we unplug?
Unplugging is far from costless—and I’m not just talking about the hours of therapy required to separate me from my computer. There’s a massive literature about digital exclusion and the “digital divide”: the gap between people (and especially young people) with significant technology access, and those whose access to tech and tech skills is more limited (or non-existent).
As Paul A. Longley and Alexander D. Singleton write in “Linking Social Deprivation and Digital Exclusion in England,” “There is increasing awareness that the failure of individuals, households, and communities to engage with new information communications technologies has negative consequences in both the private (for example, purchasing behaviour) and public (for example, accessing services) domains.” By mapping data from a national Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) against data classifying information and communications technology (ICT) usage, the authors were able to conclude that “nation-wide patterns of digital exclusion and material deprivation are linked, and that high levels of material deprivation are generally associated with low levels of engagement with ICTs and vice versa.”
Research proves the negative economic and social impact of digital exclusion; it therefore takes a position of relative privilege to see unplugging as a chosen step towards self-actualization, rather than an externally imposed denial of opportunity. In “Revisiting the Digital Divide in the Context of a ‘Flattening’ World,” Deepak Prem Subamony notes that “social/economic/cultural groups that find themselves on the right side of the Digital Divide—namely, those who comprise the technological haves-knowers-doers—can be seen as largely oblivious beneficiaries of a vast matrix of privileges.” Precisely because we are awash in the many benefits of ubiquitous technology, we have the luxury of underestimating the cost of switching off.
But it’s essential for all of us to think not only in terms of the online annoyances we want to escape from, but also, the proven benefits of internet access that we turn our backs on when we turn off the screen. Each person faces somewhat different trade-offs, as we see in Vaughan Bell, Dorothy V. M. Bishop, and Andrew K. Przybylski’s summary of the “The debate over digital technology and young people“:
With regard to social interaction and empathy, adolescents’ use of social networking sites has been found to enhance existing friendships and the quality of relationships, although some individuals benefit more than others. The general finding is that those who use social networks to avoid social difficulties have reduced wellbeing, while use of social networks to deal with social challenges improves outcomes.
The cost-benefit analysis of unplugging will differ for each and every one of us, depending on what we get (or lose) from our time online. But we need to spend just as much time weighing the benefits of technology—like the friendships and support we get through social networks—as we do disparaging its costs.
4. How does unplugging help prepare us for our daily lives in a digital world?
Of all the mysteries around the current vogue for unplugging, nothing mystifies me more than how it’s supposed to help us live in this actual reality—you know, the world in which most of us depend on our devices for little things like work, food, and transportation. In “Comte Unplugged: Using a ‘Technology Fast’ to Teach Sociological Theory,” Katrina C. Hoop writes about challenging a class of sociology students to spend seventy-two hours offline. As one of her students noted, “I had to tell my family and friends about this to prepare. Ironically, the fastest and most efficient way to do this was through a [Facebook] post. My post simply said: ‘wish me luck, no cell/phone/internet for 72 hours.'”
This student was hardly unusual: I’m exhausted by all the friends and colleagues who’ve announced their digital detoxes or Facebook breaks on Facebook or Twitter, and even more exhausted by the breathless social media posts about the experience. If a digital fast is not a turning away from the internet, but rather, some kind of tech vacation, what is its value in preparing us for the networks to which we must ultimately return?
In Hoop’s account of her students’ experiments, there are plenty of reflections on how hard it is to go without the internet, but no examples of how the experience actually affected student behavior or tech choices once they got back online. That represents a missed opportunity for the digital fasters: I actually think digital breaks can be useful, if you’re clear about what you want to learn from the experience, and how you might change your online behavior as a result. Too often, that reflection is left out of the process, so there’s no clear way for short-term unplugging to reshape long-term time online.
But all this undirected unplugging has a bigger cost, too. In framing the internet as something each one of us can check in or out of whenever we need to refresh our over-networked brains, it frames the perils of technology as a matter of personal choice rather than a social, political, or business problem. And as L.M. Sacasas writes, this is not “The Tech Backlash We Really Need“:
The tech backlash, emerging as it has within this centuries-old trajectory, will not achieve the perspective necessary to offer a substantive evaluation of our technological disorders. The critique emanates from within the system, assumes the overall beneficence of the system, and serves only to maximize the system’s power and efficiency by working out its bugs. Meanwhile, the big tech companies can rest ever more assured of their ability to withstand an occasional public battering and emerge unscathed so long as the bribe remains sufficiently enticing. So far, the tech backlash seems likely not to weaken the tech industry but to strengthen it, enhancing the power of the present techno-social configuration.
If you’re really concerned about the social, psychological, or cognitive impact of the internet, in other words, unplugging is both an ineffective and a selfish choice. Better to stay plugged in, and get ever-smarter about using mobile and social technologies to their full potential.
Yes, the devices and platforms of our new digital world deserve serious scrutiny, and require us to ask some tough questions about what we want from our online lives. But we should ask just as many questions of those who would have us unplug from technology, however briefly.
After all, unplugging is hardly a moral imperative. It’s a tool: a tool we can only use wisely when we are really clear about what we gain—and what we lose—by switching off.