father and daught father and daught People are starting to explore a world unbounded by screens. (Photo: Ramona Heim/Shutterstock)

Why more people are going offline

In an age of constant connection, people are starting to see benefits from disconnecting.

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived on Planet Compupiter, where everyone is connected to screens, teachers are virtual and even museums are just websites.

At least, that’s the world of Planet Earth Kids Club, a children’s book designed to encourage kids to put down their phones and interact with the real world.

“Kids are born with iPads in their hands,” says Israeli entrepreneur Lior Frenkel, one of the book’s authors. This generation of children is digitally native, and they’re missing out on the real world as a result, he explains.

Planet Eath Kids ClubPlanet Earth Kids Club tells the story of Tom, a futuristic boy who visits Earth for the first time. (Photo: Planet Earth Kids Club)

As the 'net continues to suck us in, apprehension about our ever-increasing Internet use seems to rise. Canadian journalist Michael Harris, author of The End of Absence, has been writing about how we are the last generation to have lived without the Internet. Thanks to our constant connectedness, we're witnessing a revolution: a transition to never being alone.

“We give up our rich interior lives when we live in a state of constant distraction,” Harris tells From the Grapevine. “We allow the vacuum of solitude to constantly be filled with social media or digital distractions.”

Harris himself decided to spend a month without Internet, email or cell phones and found that he treasured his partner and friends more because he gave himself a chance to feel their absence.

“Today, we don’t allow ourselves to miss each other,” he says.

Scientific conclusions on the subject are varied, but some research suggests that social media can be harmful. One study from a university in Germany found that Facebook made users feel lonely and envious. “A friend’s change in the relationship status from ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’ might cause emotional havoc for someone undergoing a painful breakup,” writes one of the researchers.

With all these premonitions, some social media users are trying to break the habit.

Texas journalist Luis Lopez, 28, took down his Facebook account after reading an article about unplugging. He loved the change: it gave him more time and finally shut down his tendency to always reach for his phone. But his job as a journalist made a permanent move impossible.

“I could either [go back on Facebook], or I could wait for [my boss] to tell me to,” he tells From the Grapevine.

Still, he uses Facebook differently now than before. He’s less likely to spend hours on his newsfeed, for instance. Lopez wants to give it up for good one day, along with other social networks and apps.

“I would love to be J.D. Salinger, if I could afford it,” he said.

Twenty-three-year-old Chicago recruitment coordinator Jessica Kim unplugged and never came back. It was tough to kick the urge to check her constant updates at first, but she got used to it after a couple weeks.

Kim doesn’t always know what her far-flung acquaintances are up to anymore, and she and her close friends have to put in more effort to keep in touch. But she says that effort is what makes those friendships so meaningful.

“I feel like my relationships with people are more real,” Kim says.

Some businesses are actively trying to combat Internet-induced disconnectedness. One Iowa restaurant manager, Christy Wright, noticed that customers were often preoccupied with their phones, rather than with the conversations around them. She offered a 10% discount for customers who were willing to leave their phones in a box during their meal.

"We just wanted to see if we could stop for a little bit and have people enjoy each other's company more than their cell phones," said Wright. Almost all of the customers participated.

Phone Faced DownA photo from the "Phone Faced Down" campaign. (Photo: Undigitize.Me)

Frenkel himself started the Undigitize.Me movement, in which he met with like-minded social philosophers and organized a Day of Unplugging in Tel Aviv in which people around the world ease up on their Internet use. Frenkel also created a Phone Face Down campaign in which he encouraged people to send in photos of themselves going about their day with their screens out of sight. According to Frenkel, more people are coming to him to support de-digitizing now than ever before.

Believe it or not, technology companies are getting into the trend. Whatsapp, for instance, recently introduced an option to mute a conversation for a century. And they’re not the only ones; Frenkel has noticed that many of the apps on his phone have stopped sending out so many notifications. After all, it’s not good business to bother your customers.

“We give up our rich interior lives when we live in a state of constant distraction.” – Michael Harris

None of these users, activists or business owners is suggesting we completely give up the Internet or even social media. “We never say ‘throw away your phone,’ ” Frenkel explains. “We say, ‘you need a digital diet.’ ” As Frenkel sees it, technology is like food. Some of it’s good for you, some not so much.

Conveniently named video game Candy Crush, for instance, is like eating candy: it’s fun for the moment, but ultimately doesn’t do much for its users. Some programs, on the other hand, are undeniably useful. Frenkel himself uses an app for meditation, which he says is much more effective than reading a book and trying to remember its instructions as he’s meditating.

Harris thinks of social media like a kitchen knife: it’s dangerous, but can be incredibly handy when used right. The important thing to remember is that we can choose how we use the Internet. “The key thing is to not be passive about it,” explains Harris.

Digital natives – people who have grown up with the Internet – have often never tried being disconnected for even a week or two. As Harris point out, how can you know if this constant connectedness is good for you, if you’ve never tried to live life any other way?

Unlike the boy in Frenkel’s book, we don’t have to travel across galaxies to get to Earth. Or Compupiter, for that matter. It’s up to us which world we want to live in … or if we want to live somewhere in between.

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