The anxiety of unplugging and why we should disconnect to connect

Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, studies why it's so hard for us to disregard the digital disruptions around us. Tanya Schevitz, spokesperson for Reboot's National Day of Unplugging, talked to Steiner-Adair about our aversion to disconnecting and the power of real presence.

My husband was at a party last week and got frustrated when all those around him had their noses buried in the glow of their smartphones while they talked to him and each other. He finally just walked out. It is a time of technological wonder, when our devices can go with us anywhere and we can constantly be reached and reach others. But the connections right in front of us become a secondary (or tertiary, etc.) priority. Somehow it now seems OK to be having a face-to-face conversation with one person while having a text conversation with someone else and simultaneously scrolling through Facebook to see what others are doing. Emily Post would have been disgusted.

I recently read The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair with Teresa H. Barker and was horrified by how much I saw of myself and my family and friends in the authors' case studies. Steiner-Adair is a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate psychologist at McLean Hospital. I reached out to Steiner-Adair because I wanted to better understand how to take control of our technology instead of letting it control us. The conversation was good timing for me as Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging begins this Friday night and I'm the spokesperson. But this was the chance for me to listen to someone else urging us to pause and consider the benefits and risks of technology.

Schevitz: You and other experts have said that children today feel second in importance to their parents’ digital devices.

Steiner-Adair: Kids talk about their parents’ screens with the same language and feelings of frustration and jealousy as when they talk about sibling rivalry. “You like your phone better than you like me.” Part of growing up is learning that you aren’t the center of the universe every minute of every day, but children need to know they matter to us, and the message we give our kids when we’re constantly taking any call from anybody about anything is that everybody else is more interesting than you, anybody else is more interesting than you.

You talk about “mini moments of disruption.” What does that mean?

A mini-moment of disconnect is when, at the sound of the “ping!” or ringtone, at any moment we abandon the people we are in conversation with, engaged with, dining with, and remove ourselves to the land of elsewhere. We all do this, and our kids are doing it, too. We’ve gotten so accustomed to turning away in these mini-moments of disconnection that they have changed the nature of being together.

The implications are potentially quite profound. When we don't expect to be fully present to the other person and we don't expect the other person to be fully present to us, we don't connect with the same kind of vulnerability, openness and depth. In the same way that when you’re talking to somebody at a party and you watch their eyes look over your head, you watch them scan the crowd and you know they’re not with you, they’re not as interested in you, and then the conversation stays at a very superficial level. Your connection with one another has just changed.

Families are facing the struggle of balancing the benefits of technology with the problems that come along with constant connection. How do you advise families to disconnect together (to connect)?

The question I hear most on the road is, “How do we begin to reboot how we use tech so we don't have so many mini-moments of disruption?” Based on research, what we know about child development, and what kids tell me matters most to them, you can start by creating some screen-free zones in your home and family life. I offer specific tips on my website, but for starters think: mealtime, bedtime, and personal talk times.

The first reaction of many parents to a fussy child, even babies and toddlers, is to hand over the phone or iPad. What are we doing to our children?

Of course the distraction works brilliantly, but there’s a huge problem in that solution, which is that you’re stimulating the child rather than calming them down. You teach them that the way to get through difficult moments in life, when you're tired or cranky or bored, is to have pings and whistles and stimulation coming at you. Children may come to prefer that and it gets in the way of doing what they need to do which is learn to calm themselves down, relate to others face-to-face and play in real life. Just because something’s easy doesn't mean it’s safe or developmentally appropriate.

We’re all so dependent and glued to our phones, and they can become such an extension of who we are, that we’re in denial about the impact of giving children under the age of two the smartphone, games and apps.

For children under two, the limits are clear and simple: Kids that age should not be on screens, period. Infants and toddlers need to engage with people, need to learn to self-soothe. The American Academy of Pediatrics has gathered all the science. We should be listening to it.

Beyond even the basic problem of the amount of time people spend online and on their digital devices, we see that most people don’t use their phones to call anymore, they mostly text others. How is that impacting interpersonal skills?

This is the first generation of tweens, teens and young adults, who are losing out on developing and strengthening their capacity for one of most essential forms of human connection: the capacity to listen to one another’s tone of voice; to be moved by the affect that we hear—the feeling we hear in tone of voice. As one high school girl described the paradox to me: we’re the most connected generation in history, “but we suck at intimacy.” Kids can text to each other 24/7 but do they know how to be vulnerable? Do they know how to express sadness or even love and other deep emotions? The capacity to be vulnerable, to be open, to be honest, to show that you care, to have dinner conversation. It’s having a big impact on interpersonal skills for some people. There’s a real range.

When people shut off their tech devices, they often feel anxious about what they are missing. I feel it myself. How do you suggest people deal with this?

When people shut off their tech devices and feel anxious, it’s a fear of missing something. We’ve all developed a weird psychological dependence on our smartphones. Just like the toddler who has to learn eventually how to transition off the blankie to go to school and know that they’re OK in the in the world without it, we, too, often have to calm ourselves down and reassure ourselves that we’re OK if we don’t have our phones; our kids are OK if we don't have our phones. God forbid, if something happens, people will find us. So often when you hear the little ping, it engages that part of us that feels needed, or worries about an emergency. We have to reclaim some balance that takes us off chronic high alert. We have to learn how to outsmart that aspect of our smartphone that makes us feel anxious if we go out the door without it. Or if we’re on a vacation and we’re not constantly checking emails. You want to talk back to your anxious self. Remind yourself that it’s a mindset.

If your mindset is that you always need to be online or you’re missing something, the opposite way to think about it is: I’m giving myself the freedom to be full engaged in whatever it is I’m doing and everything else can wait. I’m choosing to be fully present at this dinner party, at this movie, at this lunch, this walk with my friend. It can wait. It can wait.

Published 10:20 am Thu, Mar 6, 2014

About the Author

Tanya Schevitz is a former newspaper reporter and now occasional freelancer. Her last piece for Boing Boing was about "the anxiety of unplugging and why we should disconnect to connect."

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