This past summer I stepped away from social media for the month of August. I continued to use digital tools and spaces. Still watched YouTube. Still held meetings. Still taught classes online. Still sat in front of my computer for hours on end meeting, talking, writing, reading, and thinking.
But, no Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIN, Mastodon, etc. I didn’t post anything for the month and tried to not look at my notifications. I didn’t post anything to this blog. I stopped writing my newsletter.
I usually disconnect for two weeks in the summer as I reboot for the upcoming academic year. For a variety of reasons, I decided that I needed a full month away.
Gradually I’m making sense of lessons learned from this time away.
One of the flashing red lights is that I should have known this would happen. I should have known because I said this was going to happen about three years prior.
The Future & Well-Being
The structure of the internet and the pace of digital change invite ever-‐evolving threats to human interaction, security, democracy, jobs, privacy, and more.
In light of these mounting concerns, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center queried technology experts, scholars, and health specialists on one question. Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?
This canvassing of technology experts found that a third of them (32%) believe digital life will produce more harm than help when it comes to people’s well-being in the coming decade. However, nearly half of those in this canvassing (47%) say it will produce more help than harm. The vast majority (92%) of both the hopeful and the worried recommend that government policies, technology company practices, and user norms need to change to mitigate the harms and accentuate the benefits of digital tech.
The themes from the report are all available here.
Understanding May Come Later
As I’ve been reading and researching the impacts of digital detox, I came across the results from the Pew Report. I shared this information in my newsletter that week.
I opened up the full report and did a search for all instances of my name. I found two long quotes from the past.
For me, this answer is both a yes and a no. I never thought I’d say this, but I think it might be based on the age of the individual. I think you’re seeing a growing contingent of people who are actively examining or problematizing their use of technology. Possible interventions may include a growing focus on meditation and mindfulness practices. This may also include designating off time, ‘screen-free Saturdays,’ or making your displays grayscale. This may also include more reading of texts, including philosophy and Stoic-based texts. For some people, there is a desire to find balance in these relationships with technology. In many ways, it is like the discussions addicts have about their relationships with vices. I also believe that we (if I can lump adults into one box) don’t entirely know what the best uses of these tools and platforms may entail.
We also don’t entirely know what is best for the children and future generations. As we’ve learned from work by danah boyd and the HOMAGO [Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out] group, and, as recent anecdotal research suggests, we do not know exactly what the future generations will want or need from these spaces. There is already anecdotal evidence that they do not see much value in the social media that monopolizes the lives of adults. We need to see what impact there is for the individuals that fully grow up in the soup that is this digitally connected space.
As an educator and researcher who studies these digital places and tools, I’m in front of screens a lot. I experiment and play in these spaces. I’m also writing and researching the impact of these screens and their impact on the well-being of others as it relates to children and adolescents. The problem with this is that one of the other hats that I wear is as a parent and husband. I am not only critical of my engagement and use of these digital technologies, but I’m also cautious/cognizant of their role as a mediator in my relationships with my children and significant other. These screens and digital tools play a strong role in our lives and interactions in and out of our home. In our home, we have screens and devices all over the place. We have a video server that is ready to serve content to any one of these screens on demand. We have voice-assistive devices listening and waiting for our commands.
I believe it is important as an educator and researcher to play with and examine how these devices are playing a role in our lives, so I can bring this work to others. Even with these opportunities, I’m still struck by times when technology seems too intrusive. This is plainly evident when I’m sitting with my family and watching a television show together, and I’m gazing off into my device reading my RSS feed for the day. Previously I would enjoy watching the funniest home videos and laughing together. Now, I am distant. The first thing in the morning when I’m driving my kids into school and stop at a red light, previously I would enjoy the time to stop, listen to the radio, look at the clouds or bumper stickers on cars around me. Now, I pull out the phone to see if I received a notification in the last 20 minutes. When I call out for the voice-activated device in my home to play some music or ask a question, my request is quickly echoed by my 2-year-old who is just learning to talk. She is echoing these conversations I’m having with artificial intelligence. I’m trying to weigh this all out in my mind and figure what it means for us personally.
Professional understanding may come later.
In the Pew Report, some of the respondents who said digital life will stay the same noted that every technology has always had its positive and negative effects and that, on balance, things will probably stay about the same.
A good number of the results suggest people will become more immersed in their digital lives and suffer the negative health and psychological consequences of a sedentary life disconnected from physical reality.
There is the hope that people will wake up and recognize they have been wasting too much of their time on an imagined digital life. This will cause them to reinvest their time and efforts into positive physical activities and face-to-face human relationships and interactions. A need to find a balance or equilibrium where digital use declines to a more healthy and helpful level.
My question is whether or not we’ll wake up from these connections to strive for balance. I didn’t listen to my own advice and guidance. If it weren’t for a confluence of events, I wouldn’t have taken a longer digital detox. I should have known better.
I’m supposed to be the expert.