Pulling the plug

[I]n a recent survey, by Boston Consulting Group, people around the world said that if forced to choose they would rather give up alcohol, chocolate, fast food, coffee and even sex, for this one thing.

The internet.

Is it possible that people crave the internet more than sex? Apparently so.

The average Canadian spends eight hours a day in front of at least one screen. We’re attached to it. And while our connectivity enables us to do amazing things, our dependence on it has started to take its toll on our emotional and psychological well-being. We depend on our connectivity to make us feel good.

Studies show that our deep emotional attachment to digital validation impacts us even more than we may realize. Much has been written about the sociology of technology. In her book Alone Together Sherry Turkle explores how technology is unsettling human relationships. She digs into how our emotional lives have been impacted by what she calls “relentless connection.” Ironically, the connections that are supposed to make us feel more social, are making us feel more alone, argues Turkle. It’s an interesting starting point for exploring how technology impacts our emotions and how we are responding.

We’ve developed deep emotional attachments to being connected. So much so that our dependence to connectivity is actually impacting how we feel- our moods, our emotions and even our self-esteem are at the mercy of our digital connections. Our connections serve as emotional validation and without them we feel alone. This emotional dependency has created a longing for the next message, the next tweet, the next like, all of which serve as comfort to those who have grown accustomed to the constant stream of emotional pick-me-ups digital connectivity provides. Constant connectivity makes that longing compulsive, feeding the habit. We are constantly longing for the next hit of digital attention and it’s hurting us.

Ironically, our obsession with not missing out, that which leaves us constantly checking our devices, means that we’re starting to miss out on what’s happening right in front of us. Simply put, it’s our fear of missing out that is causing us to miss out the most. We’re increasingly detached from what’s happening right in front of us because we’re distracted by the compulsion to check what’s happening somewhere else. Further, many of us can’t bear to be still and alone for a moment. Solitude has come to mean automatic loneliness and constant connection is our comfort. But it may not always be this way.

People are starting to sense that they are constantly distracted. There is a counter-cultural movement to unplug brewing. And it isn’t a revolt against connectivity. Instead, it’s a reclamation of control and we’re seeing this counterculture come to life in a few ways.

We have technology blocking technology. Apps, like Freedom, serve to lock you out of the internet for a period of time specified by you. Those seeking an extra barrier might find this $10 app all they need to remain focused, offline and on task, although it’s worth mentioning that all it takes is a reboot of your computer to reset the app and regain access to the interwebs.

Something else that’s emerging in response to over-connectivity is the phenomenon of disconnection as luxury. Luxury is a function of scarcity; basic economic and psychological principles dictate that we’ll pay more and covet things that are harder to acquire. What’s quickly become scarce is stillness; freedom from the internet. As a result, we’re starting to see the emergence of luxury analog experiences. The rise of so-called ‘black hole resorts’ is indicative of this demand for quiet. People are paying more for retreats and vacation rentals that come without wi-fi or TV in rooms. What was once a feature of a discount motel has now become a sought-after sign of luxury.

We’re also seeing a demand for social etiquette while dining. While some restaurants are offering patrons a discount if they surrender their phones to the maitre’d, friends have also taken distracted dining into their own hands. The rising popularity of the dinner game “Don’t be a dick during meals with friends” was designed to avoid the familiar scene of a group of people at a table, together, but all heads down on their devices. With phones stacked in the middle of the table, the challenge is to not touch your phone- to resist the urge to check on what else what be happening within your network. ensuring that that the first person to pick up their phone picks up the tab.

As Blaise Pascal so presciently put it nearly four centuries ago, “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” It is indeed. But perhaps with a little bit of self-control, it doesn’t always have to be. It’s something to think about next time we reach for our mobiles.

Kasi Burno is a director of strategy and cultural insight at Young & Rubicam. To keep herself busy, she also spends her time teaching consumer behaviour at Ryerson University. She is an avid collector of wisdom from the elderly, but still loves to stay plugged into youth culture.

Illustration by Taylor Barnes