A brief walk around campus is all one needs to realize we are facing an attention crisis, one that is rendering our generation seemingly helpless. It is all too evident that our individual attention is now at the mercy of a new reflex. Pull out your phone. The average American performs this inconspicuous act roughly 262 times per day, and it is time we seriously examine the consequences (reviews.org). Unpacking this dreadful statistic, it is important to understand that the individual “checks” of your cell phone are pseudo-satisfying a wide variety of needs that conflict with your biological best interest.
It is the only time in history that a five-inch screen can cure boredom, deliver constant social feedback and assist in escaping discomfort in the most innocuous of fashions. It is thus my argument that this all-powerful, multifaceted device that we know as the cell phone presents the most serious threat of diverting our attention away from what is most important in our life.
The woods of Concord, Massachusetts are the home to a wooden sign that marks the entrance to what was once the home of Henry David Thoreau. Inscribed with white paint, the sign reads, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” While the reasoning for Thoreau’s retreat is often misconstrued, and subject for another day, this adage pours the foundation for a pathway out of smartphone dystopia and into a meaningful life. Let’s first examine the word, “deliberate” and contrast it with our present use of the cell phone. We can think of this term as meaning “purposeful” and examine different methods for regaining a life “full of purpose.”
In his best-selling book titled, “Digital Minimalism,” Cal Newport references a study he conducted in which 1,600 individuals volunteered to resign from smartphone use for 30 days. Upon conclusion of the study, a common denominator within participant feedback was a lack of activities to fulfill their newfound, screen-free time. He reasons that immersive smartphone use has quietly replaced deliberate, meaningful hobbies, and thus, in turn, robbed us of our happiness. For example, what happened to the hobby of woodworking? Is there a shortage of wood or has a digital screen proved a worthy nemesis? The latter is most certainly true, and its consequences span from your résumé all the way to your mental health.
The WVEA reports that teenagers average about seven hours of screen time per day. Holding true to my subtitle, I now present the most glaring opportunity to outpace your competition: Begin by replacing half your current screen time with deliberate work or a meaningful hobby. Conveniently, I have subjected myself to this treatment and was so astounded with the results that I decided to write this article.
To start, I was averaging roughly four hours of iPhone screen time per day, so my prescription called for two hours each day dedicated to deliberate activity, in which I chose reading. On average, following this daily time allotment, it took me five days to complete a 300-page book.
Over the course of the first month, this scaled to me reading six books, and zooming out even further, about 18 books in one summer. With relative ease, I arrived this semester on campus with about 5,400 pages of new knowledge, all thanks to my replacement of digital numbing with purposeful hobbies. Thus, I invite you to consider the exponential positive effects of such behavior scaled over many months, years or decades. By the time your peers even decide to raise their heads from LED-despair, your results will be compounding and exuding the glow of earnest effort and a life well-lived.
Now that we have covered how a decrease in screen time will exponentiate creative output, let’s consider how it can mitigate the inevitable depression that lies within the abyss of social media. Ask yourself: How do I feel after scrolling Instagram for one hour? I’m making an educated guess that your response included one of the following phrases: inadequate, unproductive, self-conscious, disconnected, excluded, jealous and the list goes on. This is the nature of the beast, and it is all but fortuitous. A quick swipe down your handheld slot machine has refreshed your feed to the newest post of your ex-best friend. She has a boyfriend now, and he’s attractive. Unfortunately, your brain is not comfortable being exposed to this 24/7 digital showroom: A constant source for comparing the best in others with the worst in ourselves.
My condemnation of social media is not entirely directed at its users, as these apps are working around the clock to ensure you remain lost in the void. Despite their adverse effects, I can do nothing but applaud the designers who have successfully hacked into your brain chemistry in pursuit of beaucoup bucks. Evolution has designed the brain to be cognizant of one’s position within the social hierarchy, and these apps are aware of such a fact.
These mechanisms, of course, are beneficial to ensuring your survival and reproductive capabilities. However, they were never meant to be hyper stimulated, especially by a metal device in a pocket. We are now left pulling out our phones 262 times per day to monitor our statuses within the tribe. It is this very trap that induces depression, anxiety and worse and distracts us from pursuing the meaningful work that characterizes a happy and fulfilled life. Similar to previous advice, delete social media for one week and report back to me how you feel. You know where I am placing my money.