Consistently, we have our heads buried in cell phones and digital devices.
As we have created more intimate relationships with our gadgets, we have simultaneously lessened our intimacy with family and friends, creating an inverse correlation. While smartphone technology has benefited us in many ways, balance is something that many struggle with.
In a poll reported by "Time" magazine on Aug. 16, 2012, one in four respondents claimed to check his phone every 30 minutes, and one in five every 10 minutes. One-third of respondents noted that being without a cell phone for even a short period makes them anxious.
How many times have you left your phone in the car or at home only to mask the panic that washes over you when you realized what you had done?
No one knows this feeling more than a former digital addict; I raise my hand high in recognition. It all started for me in New York City while working at HBO in 2005. I had a fantastic job working at my dream company. My mentor Steve Pamon, at HBO, inspired me to start a media and technology blog. Between tech blogging and working the corporate life, my days began at 5 a.m. and ended whenever exhaustion took hold, my cell phone and Flip Video as weapons plastered in my sweaty mitt.
My blogging life was focused on covering new technology and digital experiences, from art installations to conferences. I was wired to cover each piece as it unfolded in front of me, and as any blogger will tell you, the intention of constant coverage keeps us hardwired to reality in a way that others don't need to stay tapped in. I slept with my cellphone, spooning it like it was my better half, to the frustration of my partner. I would head to the bathroom at dinner, not with any need for the facilities, but purely to check and participate in social media.
When panic attacks became prevalent in between my Foursquare check-ins, I realized I needed to disengage.
I left New York City for the West Coast in 2009 with a glint of hope in my eye.
Every time we receive an email or notification from social media, dopamine is released in the brain.
Los Angeles promised fewer tech nerds, and I imagined this would provide relief, like removing yourself from the alcoholics who gave you the problem in the first place.
While disconnecting from a group engrossed in bad habits helped, the problem, it turned out, was within me. Why did I seek self-worth from Facebook and Twitter? Why did I feel alone when my cellphone was in another room?
It turns out the answer lies in how our brain responds to the pings and “likes” from the social network and further what the social network implies about being social. Every time we receive an email or notification from social media, dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which causes us to feel pleasure and satisfaction. We regard the email or the "like" as a form of acceptance, a little gift. Because we feel pleasure in these instances, we seek more and at times to the detriment of the physical experiences right before us. When the quest for constant dopamine inflections comes to a tipping point, this becomes an addiction.
There is no consensus from the psychology community on this, however.
The year 2013 marks the first time a hospital in the United States has begun to treat those afflicted with what has been called Internet addiction. During a 10-day program, a group of four who have been diagnosed with a severe problem will undergo an evaluation and be limited from all technology use for 72 hours at the Behavioral Health Services at Bradford Regional Medical Center in Pennsylvania. Kimberly Young, a psychologist and founder of the program, defined addiction not as hours spent online but instead as an imbalance that affects your career and relationships negatively much as a drug or alcohol addiction. The program is not covered by insurance, because Internet addiction is not recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Five by the American Psychiatric Association.
I didn't need the medical community to recognize the addiction in a manual to know I had a problem. I saw a direct reflection in my relationships, which diminished greatly, and in my own mental state, which became fractured at best. The adage goes, "Recognizing you have a problem is the first step," and if we pretend that this isn't a real issue it's only bound to create a culture racing toward bad behavior.
Case in point, I bring to your attention a story of a doctor who drove his car over a cliff on the Pacific Coast Highway In Los Angeles while tweeting a picture of his dog. The dog survived the crash. The man himself was not so lucky. Am I presuming he had an addiction? No, of course not. I am, though, trying to frame why the compulsion to share can have dangerous consequences.
While the social networks are meant to connect us, this connection to the masses may come at the sacrifice of close relationships. For example, if while posting a photo on Facebook you ignore a story from your wife or child, you have just lost.
It turns out that social networks are social but at a scale that need not consistently be fulfilled. If a tree falls in the middle of the woods, but no one posts it on Facebook, does it exist? Yes. Yes, it surely does.
I turn to a story shared with me recently. While managing a bout of depression after a car accident, a friend shared a photo on Facebook that showed her out having a cocktail with friends. To casual friends viewing that photo on Facebook, it appeared that everything was lovely in this woman’s life and she had not a care in the world. Truth? Fiction! I ask you, who posts, "I am depressed," on their Facebook wall? The truth may be dark, and for most people this information is to be shared with close friends and family, as a vulnerable admittance. Our Facebook existence is merely a TV channel, programmed with highlights demonstrating the person we want to be, not necessarily the person we are. Armed with this understanding, we all need to be careful of the weight we place on the information we learn there. Facebook is not reality.
Technology provides us access to an immense amount of information, the Internet at our fingertips. In the quest for more and more, we layer on countless tasks, leaving endless windows open on our computers and switching between talking on cellphones, texting, interacting with mobile apps and browsing the Internet. Unfortunately, our brains aren't wired for multitasking, and the switching back and forth exhausts the frontal lobe and decreases overall performance. Our quest to become robots is rewiring our brains in dangerous ways. When's the last time you remembered someone's phone number? This is not an accident. We have no need to do so but on the other side, our memory is being affected by the fact that we haven't asked it to retain simple facts.
It is with this knowledge and a focus to continue disconnecting that I embarked on a new quest, an expedition two hours north of Napa, California, to the Shambhala Ranch for the Digital Detox Retreat.
I had met the co-founder of the retreat, Levi Felix, over the Internet a year before. I had sought him out in an attempt to organize a panel on the digital detox movement at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas. While the panel didn't come to fruition, I set the intention of meeting him and heading to one of his retreats, an intention that I failed to actualize for a year, being too busy with work. Sound familiar? Given a break in work, a particularly dark mood and horrible digestive issues caused by stress, I could think of no better time to try this detox than the present.
I set out for the detox retreat Aug. 23 at 6 a.m. from Los Angeles -- Kind bars and sugar-free Red Bull armed in my Fiat coffee cup artillery. Eight hours of driving later, I arrived at the ranch, strung out on caffeine and anxiety-ridden at the prospect of being late.
I was soon introduced to 11 other individuals, signing a release with crayon, and dropping my cellphone in a brown paper bag with my name on it. While I had expected the anxiety of leaving my cellphone behind to be great, the only emotion I actually experienced was freedom.
By the end of that first night, I was introduced to guided meditation in the midst of a forest and was sharing my deepest, darkest secrets with a group of strangers. For someone with a fear of vulnerability, this was intense. Is this what happens when we don't have cellphones? Over the next three days, we hiked in the Redwoods, shared meals, laughed, practiced yoga, supported each other, participated in a few hours of silence, drank fresh juice and meditated.
I was mindful of each revelation as they came but particularly struck by the space that the cellphone-free life provides. Felix had formerly introduced me to a book by William Powers called "Hamlet's Blackberry."
Powers speaks about how our incessant reliance on social media and digital devices has depleted us of the quality of space, moments where nothing else exists but daydreaming. It is in those moments of space that the most incredible things can happen. After the advent of smartphones, we began filling those moments of space with what I like to call, "cellphone checkery." Checking our cellphones began innocently enough, with a mission for checking an important text or seeking out information. However, our incessant checking has devolved into a solution for fear of awkwardness or being alone.
In the elevator with a stranger and don't know where to look? Cellphone checkery. In line at the coffee shop with time to kill? Cellphone checkery. Your significant other leaves you at the restaurant table for a quick trip to the bathroom? Cellphone checkery. What did we do before all this cellphone checkery? We engaged with the world around us, interacting with new people and discovering what lies to our left and right. We have effectively destroyed the spark plug of happenstance.
It turns out, the awkward moments or pauses aren't as bad as we think and in fact open us to a whole world of opportunity. We can't see this when our faces are buried behind bright screens. The Digital Detox retreat helped uncover these moments and in three days, the merry band of 11 strangers, who would have never found themselves in a social occasion together, found themselves inextricably linked.
I would never dare to say that social media and digital device usage is destructive -- my entire career has been built upon them. Balance and boundary setting are critical. In creating status updates and connecting with 1,000 people you barely know on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter you may be ignoring the loved one who sits right before you. That is nothing short of a travesty.
The road back from a digital addiction has been a three-year journey for me but one that has reconnected me to my family, my friends and the world and set in motion a personal renaissance. I may not see your Facebook message or event invite but that's because I'm out there living. I'm out there loving and being awkward in brief moments of silence. I'm out there "daring greatly," as Brene Brown, author and TED speaker, advises.
Leave a message at the sound of the tone and I'll get back you. BEEP.
Readers, what do you think? Are people suffering from their addictions to technology? Do you feel like you or someone else in your life would benefit from a digital detox? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.