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April 18, 2011
Meredith Whitmore
Weighing in on Tech's Weight

Weighing in on Tech's Weight

I thought finding volunteers to go on a temporary technology diet would be easy.

After all, who doesn't want a little more peace and quiet accompanied by a good dose of personal growth and insight? But I was as wrong in my hopefulness as polka dots worn with plaid. "What, are you out of your mind? Why would anyone want to do that?" I heard in response to my query put to a few friends. And I kid you not, before I was done begging and pleading my case in front of several social groups, I had also heard: "Don't humor her, she's just trying to prove a silly point," and, "She's being puritanical. Doesn't she realize that we can't escape technology—and why would we want to?"

I Get It. Really.
People's misunderstanding of the media/tech fast experiment I'd hoped they would undertake was reasonable, actually. Very few of us can look at "going analog" in a positive light. Instead of thinking about being digitally unconnected for a period of time as an opportunity, the tendency is to view it as bitter retribution. People nervously wonder if unplugging the television set or Xbox is doing hard penance for watching too many Grey's Anatomy episodes or playing too much Call of Duty. "What?!" they wail with the anxiety of a child who loses a favorite toy as punishment, "You're going to take away my, my iPod? Why would you want to do such a thing?"

But deprivation wasn't the point I had in mind. Punishment wasn't either. Far from it. Instead, taking a break from tech toys and media mania is about temporarily filling your life with something else—something less distracting and isolating. It's about seeing how your world could be different or … better. Just as physical fasting can bring greater discipline and focus, digital fasting can cleanse the mind of clutter and open the door to deeper spiritual awareness, a more stable emotional platform and even a better understanding of the culture that surrounds us.

But we want no part of that, it seems. And I can't help but ask why.

Nowadays, as author Marc Prensky puts it, most people are either "digital immigrants" (those who did not grow up with digital technology, but developed the skills for using it later in life) or "digital natives" (those who've grown up in the 21st century, who started swimming in media before they could even walk). A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that the "native" 8- to 18-year-olds, for example, spend 7 hours, 38 minutes per day in front of some sort of screen. In other words, for almost the same amount of time that they sleep each day, they are interacting with media. And because they spend so much of that time using more than one technological medium, in reality they actually cram a total of 10 hours, 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7.5.

It's no wonder, then, why college students who abstained from using media for 24 hours in a recent study from the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda described their digital separation anxiety feelings in addiction terms, including, "withdrawal," "frantically craving," "very anxious," "extremely antsy," "miserable," "jittery," "crazy." Even 8% of older "immigrants" are, according to an AdAge/Ipsos Observer study, more willing to give up food than the Internet.

When Plugged In recently posted a poll on its website asking, "Has your family ever tried unplugging from tech devices (smartphones, iPods, TVs, game consoles, the Internet, etc.)?" nearly half of respondents (46%) said, "No, how could we?" Only 12% claimed to have cut the cables and repelled the Wi-Fi signals for a month or more.

Inhabiting Media
Relationally, many of us have become as journalist Susan Maushart, author of The Winter of Our Disconnect, says she and her three teenagers were like before their six-month media fast: "It got to the point where we would inhabit the same room, but we weren't connecting."

Maushart continues:

"There were lots of reasons why we pulled the plug on my family's electronic media for six months … or, I should say, why I did, because heaven knows my children would have sooner volunteered to go without food, water or hair products. At ages fourteen, fifteen and eighteen, my daughters and my son don't use media. They inhabit media. And they do so exactly as a fish inhabits a pond. Gracefully. Unblinkingly. And utterly without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there. Over a period of years, I watched and worried as our media began to function as a force field separating my children from what my son, only half-ironically, called RL (Real Life). But to be honest, the teenagers weren't the only ones with dependency issues. Although a recent arrival to the global village, I'd been known to abuse information too."

Many, many, many parents are increasingly feeling the same way about their family's digital life (and even their marriages) but don't know how to fix it. Sharon Gilchrest O'Neill, a marriage and family therapist in New York, told The Wall Street Journal, "Technology should be on the list of the top reasons why people divorce, along with money, sex and parenting. There has to be some time in the week when you are all together and you shut off the technology."

In Maushart's case, during her family's fast, her son learned to play the saxophone. Her daughters' grades improved greatly, and they took up new hobbies such as cooking and writing—far more important and useful activities than the Twittering and Facebooking that had once consumed them. The family also spent more time connecting personally, without a screen coming between them.

The Light at the End of the Flat Screen
Fortunately, some people are catching on. Most of the congregation of Hope Church in Springfield, Mo., for example, recently underwent a 21-day media fast: No newspapers, television, radio, email, social media or video games. Pastor Gary Hay told, "We've noticed a huge difference just in the atmosphere at services since this started. People have been more responsive. There have been answers to prayer. Dramatic things have happened in many, many lives." As one staff member put it, "If God has a still, small voice, it can be hard to hear it over the TV."

And that is an example of what I had hoped for anyone who would take on my media fast challenge.

I did, by the way, finally beg, cajole and pressure enough people to find a family ready and willing to take the challenge. Read Weeks of Whittling Down Tech, my interview with the Weeks family after they took a break from media for the better part of a month.