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Psychology of Technology: Can You Disconnect from the ‘Matrix’?

Yes, you heard me right. I asked whether you are capable of disconnecting…from your smartphone, PC, laptop, tablet, or mp3 player! I realize that is a shocking and perhaps heretical suggestion in a time when most people are connected 24/7. I’m not saying that you have to be thoroughly disconnected; that’s not realistic in today’s digital world.

My basic premise is this: Are you a master of technology in which you use it as a tool to enhance the quality of your life? Or are you addicted to your technology such that it actually hurts the quality of your life?

And when I say ‘addicted,’ I don’t just mean psychologically. There is a growing body of evidence indicating that overuse of technology has the same neurochemical effects—a shot of dopamine, our bodies’ way of rewarding us—as do addictions to alcohol, drugs, sex, and gambling.

Here’s a simple test:

  • Do you check your phone before you get out of bed in the morning?
  • Do you compulsively check your phone during the day?
  • Are you in front of a screen or do you wear an earbud or headphones more often than not?
  • Do you send and receive emails and text messages during meals, while socializing, or during exercise?
  • Do you get anxious or depressed when you are disconnected?
  • Do you panic if you can’t find your phone?
  • Is your technology always within arm’s reach every moment of the day?
  • Is checking your phone the last thing you do before you go to bed at night?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most or all these questions, you are probably addicted to your technology. And this addiction is probably not doing you any favors in your emotional, social, physical, or professional lives.

The question is: What are you going to do about it? As with any addiction, the longer you are connected, the more difficult it is to break the habit. You can either succumb to your technology addiction and do your best to minimize the harm it may cause you. Or you can take the first step toward recovery and say, “My name is so-and-so and I’m a technology addict.”. But that statement is pretty easy to make because talk is cheap and easy, but action isn’t.

Consider the many benefits that you would accrue by disconnecting from the ‘Matrix.’ You would have more free time that would be otherwise spent in front of a screen or wired to a gadget. You would spend more quality time with your family and friends, which, in the hectic life you probably lead, everyone would welcome. You would be able to have more experiences that are enriching and just plain fun. Your family and friends would also be less frustrated and angry with you because you wouldn’t be checking your email, text messages, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, or the latest news while they were trying to have a conversation with you. The cumulative effect would be closer and stronger relationships with the people you care about most and deeper engagement in the activities that you enjoy most.

You would be less stressed because you would have more time to devote to your work or studies. You would be more active, which would give you more energy, you’d be in better shape, and you’d feel more physically attractive. You would sleep better because you wouldn’t be staying up late checking your Facebook pages, tweeting banalities, or playing online games.

A friend of mine who decided to break his addiction on technology told me that the benefits were immediate and substantial. He was much more creative because he was liberated from the technological box he was imprisoned in. He found other more rewarding ways to entertain himself. He was able to immerse himself deeply in tasks, whether working out, reading, or having a conversation with others. He also noticed his attention span grew longer as he limited his use of technology. The big thing was that, much to his surprise, he was just plain happier.

A mother I know decided to go cold turkey with her family’s technology because of the lack of real daily connection she had with her children. They established a six-month moratorium on technology in their home; no television, no computers, no mobile phones, no video-game consoles, no Internet (although her children were allowed access to screens at friends’ houses and at school). She was prepared for a rebellion from her children, but, surprisingly, there wasn’t one. After a short period of some complaining, her children actually embraced their family’s non-tech lifestyle.

Their family had meals together more frequently, talked more than ever before, and shared many wonderful activities together. Her children were faced with boredom and found ways to overcome it without the crutch of technology. They rediscovered things that they had once enjoyed doing, including reading, cooking, and playing a musical instrument. Even after the six-month vacation from technology ended, their family maintained many of the habits they had developed during the break. The older siblings rarely visit their Facebook pages, the son actually sold his video-game console so he could buy a saxophone, and the youngest continues to study in the library, where social networking isn’t allowed.

If cold turkey isn’t your cup of tea, you could gradually wean yourself off of technology. You can start with small limits, such as no technology at the dinner table or not bringing your phone with you when you exercise. As you become accustomed to the limits that you’ve set, you can slowly increase those boundaries. For example, you can progress to no Internet after 9 pm. You can then move to establishing no-tech days, such as on Saturdays, and no-tech socializing in which you turn off your phone’s ringer and notifications. Your goal is to have unnecessary technology (remember it can still be used as a tool for work, school, and daily functioning) be the exception rather than the rule in your life, something that is used but not needed and, ultimately, something that has no real influence over your lives.

Disconnecting may not be easy for you, depending on the extent to which technology is currently present in your lives. You’ve gotten accustomed to that shot of dopamine when your phone pings or vibrates. The idea of having to entertain yourself may seem pretty daunting. It’s likely that you will be tempted to sneak a peak at your phone or open you laptop even when there is really no compelling reason. That’s okay as you’re human and you’ll have relapses as you break your technology addiction. But, if you’re stay committed, after a short period of adjustment, I believe that you will find that the benefits that you gain from disconnecting regularly will far outweigh any costs that you may incur.