We’ve had so many “new normals” to adjust to over the past few years. But the most important thing about the new “new normal” we’re transitioning to now is to make sure we leave behind the pre-pandemic ways of working and living that really weren’t working for us and build the habits and relationships that truly help us thrive. And a big part of that should be recalibrating our relationship with technology, including discontinuing activities and habits we picked up during the pandemic that leave us feeling drained and depleted.
Like living our entire lives online. Even before the pandemic, our relationship with technology was a constant battle — one that had to be fought every day. But once the pandemic hit, that relationship became even more out of balance. According to one study, by the summer of 2020, the average American adult was spending over 16 hours a day with digital media, up from over 12 hours a day before the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2020, Netflix added nearly 16 million subscribers. And this while Google searches for “how to get your brain to focus” increased 300% in the months after the pandemic hit.
Of course, much of the porting over of our lives to the digital world was necessary. It allowed millions of people all over the world, including me, to work at home. It allowed us to stay connected with family and loved ones. It allowed students to not lose an entire year of instruction. And for most of us, it was also an escape.
But as welcome as it was to be able to connect, at least in some form, during a year of isolation, that dependence came at a high cost. The word “doomscrolling” was added to our lexicon. As was the word “coronasomnia.” According to a recent study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, over half of Americans have had trouble sleeping during the pandemic, leading Dr. Ronald Chervin, director of the Sleep Disorders Centers at the University of Michigan, to declare that “we’re now in an epidemic of sleep deprivation.” At the same time, a recent study in the journal Sleep found that there was a “strong relationship” between using devices at night and sleep disturbances during the pandemic-driven lockdowns. And the lessons are obviously relevant for the post-pandemic future. As one of the study authors put it, “our findings certainly can be generalized to the future, as technologies will find more and more space in our daily routine.”
“Brains Change When You’re Spending Time Online”
Our screen saturation has been even more troubling for our children. According to a survey by ParentsTogether, during the pandemic, time spent online by children shot up nearly 500%. Obesity rates among children also went up, which one study attributed to, among other factors, increased screen time and reduced physical activity. It didn’t help that nearly 20 million kids skipped camp in the summer of 2020. As one mother told The Washington Post, “I feel like they’ve all forgotten how to go outside and play, or how to entertain themselves without devices.”
And as Kim Hart recently wrote in Axios, putting that digital genie back in the bottle is not going to be easy. “Like many parents, I’m embarrassed to admit how much screen time my kids have become accustomed to over the past year,” she writes. “Getting them to shut off the tablets ends up in an epic power struggle.” It’s not just a matter of creating new habits, but changing the neurological architecture that’s shaped by our habits. “Brains change when you’re spending time online,” says Robyn Mehlenbeck from George Mason University. “We’re going to see some social skill deficits across the board as people are emerging from the pandemic.”
Mehlenbeck was talking specifically about adolescents, but her conclusions apply to all of us. A recent study presented at the World Microbe Forum found that increases in using screen time for entertainment was associated with increased levels of anxiety. A global study by Asana found that not only did 71% of respondents say they’d experienced burnout over the past year, but there was also a correlation between being dependent on devices and being burned out. Researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas found that while phone calls during the pandemic were associated with decreased levels of stress, video chats actually increased stress levels. And social media was the form of communication most strongly connected with stress.
“A Great Offlining”
What’s clear is that as we emerge from the pandemic, we need to also shed many of our digital habits. In The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany wonders about whether what she calls a “Great Offlining” is in the offing: “It’s getting easier to imagine that we’re on the brink of something big: a coordinated withdrawal from swiping and streaming, a new consensus that staying home to watch Netflix is no longer a chill Friday-night plan, but an affront,” she writes.
And, as Shannon Keating writes in Buzzfeed, people are reconsidering how much of themselves they expose to social media. “We’re so used to putting our entire lives online, but what if we just… didn’t?” she asks. For example, there’s Lydia, a 28-year-old from Providence: “After the pandemic, some personal health revelations, and 2020’s political violence, I regretted sharing so much of myself — my traumas, details about my mental health, my explorations of gender, my location, my political views and ideas.”
But creating a healthy relationship with technology — one of the best things we can do to protect our mental health — is not easy. The online world hits us like a drug that can produce a high and many lows — one that we become addicted to. But it doesn’t truly meet our deep-seated, hard-wired need for connection.
It’s safe to say that most of us take a lot less for granted now than we did before the pandemic. Like real, in-person social connection. And also having the time and space in our daily lives to connect with ourselves, which is a form of connection that’s just as essential for our well-being. Now that we’re all rediscovering the profound joys of reuniting with the people we love — in person, across a real table, and without having to click “join” and remember to turn on our video, it’s hard to imagine going back to a world in which restaurants were full of people sitting across from each other and all staring down at their phones, instead of being in the moment.
Never Going Back
There’s a collective longing to not go back to living in our pre-pandemic shallows. We’ve learned some hard-won lessons about what really matters to us, and what was just noise, feeding us a junk food version of connection, but one that doesn’t meet the requirements to keep us healthy. And not just mentally healthy. As Susan Pinker, the author of The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters, writes, the strength of our social connections actually “affects the biological pathways that skew the genetic expression of a disease.” For example, women with breast cancer are four times more likely to survive if they have active, face-to-face social connections. Stroke victims get more protection from serious complications by face-to-face social networks than they are with medication. “Just as we all require food, water and sleep to survive, we all need genuine human contact,” she writes. “Digital devices are great for sharing information, but not great for deepening human connections and a sense of belonging.”
I love technology. I’ve started two very tech-centric companies. But ultimately, technology is just a tool, one which can add to our lives, or deplete and diminish them. Much like a hammer — a very useful tool, but not if you hit yourself in the head with it, which produces roughly the same cognitive effect as doomscrolling.
And yet, technology and our digital devices have a way of filling a vacuum. And if, in our eagerness to “get back to normal,” we’re not mindful and intentional with our time, that’s exactly what will happen.
This is something we need to do collectively, as well. In a new paper in the journal PNAS entitled “Stewardship of global collective behavior,” 17 researchers in disciplines ranging from philosophy and biology to neuroscience and AI argue that social media and our information ecosystem should be treated at a “crisis discipline” — one in which scientists from all related fields quickly work together to solve urgent global problems, like climate change. “In humans, information flows were initially shaped by natural selection yet are increasingly structured by emerging communication technologies,” the authors write. “The digital age and the rise of social media have accelerated changes to our social systems, with poorly understood functional consequences.” For example, the authors cite what happened during the pandemic: “Lacking a developed framework, tech companies have fumbled their way through the ongoing pandemic, unable to stem the ‘infodemic’ of misinformation.”
Co-author Carl Bergstrom, biology professor at the University of Washington, told Recode that taking a hands-off approach won’t work. “There tends to be this general trust that everything will work out, that people will eventually learn to screen sources of information, that the market will take care of it,” he says. But “there’s no reason why good information will rise to the top of any ecosystem we’ve designed.” And that’s why, he warns, we have to act. “We don’t have time to wait.”
The problem is just as urgent in our individual lives. There’s no reason to think that taking a hands-off approach to our hand-held devices will work out in our favor. As the biologist E.O. Wilson once said, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”
It’s up to us to use the technology in our lives to augment our humanity, not diminish it. Of course, the pandemic isn’t over yet. Our lives are still being disrupted and there is huge uncertainty about what the next year will look like. But that’s also why this is the perfect moment to take some time to audit our relationship with technology. Is it serving us? Are the ways in which we were using it, however necessary they may have been at the time, still necessary? The relationship we had with technology before the pandemic, or during the pandemic, doesn’t have to be the one we emerge with. So let the Great Recalibration begin.
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