• "Parents worry about plugged-in teens and screen-addicted toddlers; workers complain of being chained to their emails and slaves to their smart phones." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The rushing pace of technology has made it increasingly difficult to switch off but it is probably more important now than it ever was to stop and rest. You don’t have to be a luddite – or religious – to value a bit of peace and quiet on the Sabbath. In fact, building regular switching-off into your life can make embracing technology the rest of the time more rewarding and productive.
By
Elizabeth Sutherland

29 Jul 2016 - 1:10 PM  UPDATED 29 Jul 2016 - 1:10 PM

Do you ever worry that you might be addicted to your smart phone? You’re not alone.

Accompanying the exponential rise of social media use and the infiltration of every aspect of life with technology is rising anxiety about what it means for us to be switched on 24/7.

Parents worry about plugged-in teens and screen-addicted toddlers; workers complain of being chained to their emails and slaves to their smart phones. So for every article spruiking a new device or app, there’s one warning of the dangers of too much technology. And the solution offered? Often, it’s a digital detox.

I think the use of the word ‘detox’ is telling: it implies that there is something toxic to us as humans in the digital world. It evokes imagery of poisons seeping into our skin and harmful rays creeping through screens and into our eyeballs. But, aside from a few agitators on the pseudo-scientific fringe, people don’t actually think that computers and smartphones literally poison us. Instead, behind all this anxiety is concern that social media and the internet have the capacity to change how humans think. There is no doubt that digital life has been impacting on the brains of humans for some time, and the jury is out on whether this is bad news for our wellbeing.

"So for every article spruiking a new device or app, there’s one warning of the dangers of too much technology. And the solution offered? Often, it’s a digital detox." 

Without worrying about neural paths or concentration spans, it’s easy to see how the internet can be ‘toxic’ in simpler, social ways, too. Cyberbullying is consistently one of the biggest concerns for Australian teenagers, and it’s not just young people who suffer from online trolling. Recently, outgoing Senator Nova Peris was the target of vitriolic racist and misogynist hate speech: this is but one of many examples to have hit the headlines in recent years. If the internet is populated by trolls and haters, and our smart phones mean we’re plugged into an endless feed of nastiness, then it’s easy to form another definition of digital toxin. For people who already experience minority stress, the effects of constant exposure to negative content have been likened to PTSD – a reason to be doubly concerned about the potential impact of constantly being online.

Some people have dealt with these issues by promoting ‘digital detox’ as either a short or medium-term practice. Writer Susan Maushart took her whole family offline for six months which was such a radical idea that she wrote a successful book about it, ‘The Winter of our Disconnect’. Even Maushart suggests that going without the internet is not a ‘way of life’, but a useful periodic practice to ensure other parts of your life get the attention they deserve. Each March, there is an International Day of Unplugging (3-4 March) for those who’d like to start a bit smaller.

For my family, digital detox is a weekly practice, and one we’ve come to look forward to.

Like many thousands of Jews all over the world, we observe the Sabbath day – or Shabbat – beginning at sundown on Friday and ending at sundown Saturday. As progressive (reform) Jews, we don’t observe all of the laws and traditions of the Sabbath (many Orthodox Jews don’t drive or use any electricity on Shabbat, for example, but we do).

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It might seem we take a relaxed approach to religious observance, but we take seriously the notion that regular rest and time spent in contemplation of something more important than Instagram makes for stronger family connections and greater personal wellbeing. So we tend to switch off phones, computers and the TV before our family Friday night meal and try to spend time together on Saturday reading or going to the park instead of Facebooking, shopping, or crashing out in front of a screen. It doesn’t always work out: life is messy and busy and sometimes there’s a deadline to meet or my daughter has the flu and just wants her favourite cartoon. For us, the details aren’t important: what matters is that we try our best to make space for offline life on at least a weekly basis.

The rushing pace of technology has made it increasingly unpopular to switch off for religious reasons (some Orthodox teens find it so hard to go without smart phones for 24 hours that they observe half Shabbat, using their phones in private) but it is probably more important now than it ever was to stop and rest. That’s why groups like the Sabbath Manifesto have sprung up, promoting a secular Sabbath day as a way for people of any faith or no faith to reap the benefits of regular unplugging. There is even an App that enables you to let your smartphone ease itself into a day of being switched off! What these distinctly digital responses to ‘digital detoxing’ suggest is that you don’t have to be a luddite – or an observant Orthodox Jew – to value a bit of peace and quiet. In fact, building regular switching-off into your life can make embracing technology the rest of the time more rewarding and productive.

"The rushing pace of technology has made it increasingly unpopular to switch off for religious reasons..but it is probably more important now than it ever was to stop and rest."

Of course, it isn’t only our smart phones that we might need down time from. Finding work/life balance is often about juggling the competing demands of paid work and unpaid caring work with the attempt at finding time to exercise, cook healthy meals, and maintain friendships. Rest, relaxation and even sleep can take a back seat to all of these other demands, to the point where it can feel like zoning out in front of a screen is the only calm point of the day. If unplugging is only going to cause more anxiety, it’s hardly promoting wellbeing.

But it certainly pays to try being a little less connected to the net and a bit more connected to your surroundings. And who knows, maybe a screen-free family dinner, an evening without arguing with anyone on Twitter or feeling envious of your colleague Instagramming their holiday, followed by an early night, might be just the thing to make you feel more plugged in – to yourself.

Elizabeth Sutherland is a writer, teacher and mother based in Melbourne. Her hobbies include feminist snark and waiting impatiently for marriage equality. Follow her on Twitter @MsElizabethEDU

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