Learning to Log Off

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Friday, January 10, 2014

Learning to Log Off

“On a good day,” says writer James Brown in The Telegraph, “my internet use involves some practical assistance, some funny and interesting social interaction, some great analytics action for my work website, maybe a fans' football report. And ideally some time spent doing things in the real world.”

Then he goes on, “On a bad day I spend more time on it than off, am stuck in a fog of aimless social media scrolling, poring over boring Facebook posts from people I don’t know, distracted by email links from mailing lists I never signed up for and rotating between sports pages, newspapers, NewsNow, card games, social interaction notifications, six Twitter accounts (for personal and work) and five email accounts. I’m chained to the digital world.”

As a writer, I know the feeling. The Internet can be very useful and can also be a mind-numbing time suck. Yet like Brown and, I suspect, most of you, for communication, information, and entertainment, “I’m chained to the digital world.”

Or at least we think we’re chained to the digital world.

Brown in his article “Could you survive a week with no internet?” describes an experiment: an entire workweek—Monday through Friday—off-line.

His editor took away his smart phone and supplied an internet-free dumb phone in its place. With promises not to cheat embarked on a week without “email, maps, Wikipedia, googling things you need to find out.” Here are a few of the things he discovered.

Because he had his girlfriend checking his emails for him, he discovered “how few were actually of any importance.”

He found he had lots of extra time to chop wood, read, and even watch TV. Better yet, he had conversations with actual people. “Not taking my phone into the bedroom with me was giving me at least two hours extra a day.”

He learned, “how much ‘dead time’ I spent looking at my phone for stimulation. And how ‘dead time’ had become ‘all the time.’” Looking at his phone “in bed, at both ends of the day, in cabs, on toilets, during meetings, during meals, whilst watching TV” created a situation in which all activities had become “background to me using my phone.” Without his smart phone, the activities of life became “things in their own right” to be enjoyed in their own right.

He was shocked at his increased productivity. That’s right: increased productivity. “I could do something that would normally take me a whole day in an hour of uninterrupted focus.”

Most of all, he realized that the reasons he gave himself for needing to be online, “were just gateway excuses for me to leap into the dull cycle of Internet use.”

“By the end,” he writes, “I didn’t want to log back on; I genuinely wanted to break the chain.”

For Brown and most of us, not logging back on isn’t an option—at least not while we’re at work.

That being said, Brown’s article prompted me to reconsider when, where, and why I pull out my iPhone or jump onto the Internet or check my four email accounts. There are times and places for the digital world and other times and places to log off. And, most important, even though we typically don’t think so, we are free to set limits for ourselves and others.

Near the end of this last fall term, the new chaplain at a Christian college made a startling announcement at chapel. From now on, he told the students, there will be no cell phone or laptop computer use during chapel. No texting, no emails, no Facebook, no Twitter.

After a stunned silence, one student stood up and began to applaud soon the entire student body was on its feet with a standing ovation. Someone finally told them they didn’t have to be on line 24/7.

Some schools have restrictive Internet policies and no cell phones. They’ve found that students love it. Erin Milligan, junior at Wyoming Catholic College, one such school, told Yahoo News, “It’s a release, really, not having a cell phone. When you are no longer captivated by technology, you find your true and real self. We are so tech savvy these days, but something that is really prevalent is our inability to genuinely communicate at a human-to-human, face-to-face level.”

Not convinced? This video says it beautifully.

The digital tools at our fingertips are enormously useful. At the same time, like most tools, they can also do us harm. The solution is wise stewardship and sometime a wise steward logs off.

Publication date: January 10, 2014