My personal mode of self-restraint is to always carry my phone when I’m not with my kids and always leave it in another room when I am. The kids themselves don’t get phones at all. When my 12-year-old daughter walks home from school without one, I intentionally have no idea where she is, just like nobody knew where kids were when I was growing up. How rare it is these days not to be able to know something.
Though we are a forward-looking people, Americans are also quite good at nostalgia. We understand that the economy, the technology, the culture, the media are relentlessly pushing forward (“The March of Time!”), yet a streak of Luddite backwardness persists. This tendency is aided and abetted by an ancient technology, the book. Each season seems to have its stop-the-world best seller. In the mid-1990s it was Elaine St. James’s “Simplify Your Life.” In the mid-aughts, “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.” At the end of the last decade, it was the sweaty toolbox of “Shop Class as Soulcraft.” Most recently, it was the minimalist Marie Kondo’s book about tidying and the sensibly titled “Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” a book I may one day have time to read.
Why this yearning? In recent years, a number of studies have documented the effects of techno-stress — the psychological and physical impact of spending countless hours staring at a screen. According to the 2017 A.P.A. study, on a typical workday, 85 percent of people are constantly or often digitally connected (by email, text and social media). On their days “off”? It’s nearly the same: 81 percent.
This turns out not to be soothing. According to the A.P.A. study, nearly half of millennials worry about the negative effects of social media on their physical and mental health. Often for good reason. A 2017 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 66 percent of Americans have witnessed online harassment and 41 percent have experienced it themselves.
When I watch kids giggling at their phones rather than at one another or families in the local diner silently sitting together in front of their respective devices, I can’t help thinking of Pixar’s post-apocalyptic “WALL-E,” a nightmare vision in which earthlings, stripped of their musculature and humanity, recline blobbily in automated loungers, affixed to portable screens whose animated features are all they know of human interaction.
And so, I resist. I downgrade, I discard, I decline to upgrade. More than a decade ago, I got rid of cable TV, then network TV. I cut out personal phone calls (unless the person is a continent away), then anything other than businesslike emails. If I want to catch up with a good friend or a family member, I wait until we actually see each other.
When the pop-up window on my computer asks if I’d like to install the latest version of this or that, unless it’s for security reasons, my response is, “No, thank you.” Nor do I want that “amazing” new app. My mother — yes, my mother — knew about Lyft before I did. I’ve never tried whatever Spotify is, preferring the radio and ye olde compact discs. I’m sure I’d still be using a CD Walkman if I’d ever gotten one to begin with.
Never got a Nook, a Kindle, an iPad, don’t want them. Until quite recently, I thought Alexa was a joke, a wild, hypothetical Orwellian item that might one day be foisted upon the world, not something that anyone might actually desire, pay for and willingly allow into her home.
Forced to buy a laptop in order to work on the train, I had to consider the latest models, so swift, so dynamic, they might leap into your backpack lest you accidentally forget to tuck one in yourself. In the end, I let my husband pick out the sleekest, most enlightened version for himself, while I took his four-year-old model, one his own mother had rejected as a relic from another geological age.
Do I slip up? Do I email unnecessarily? Have I found myself frantically texting something inconsequential from a beautiful outdoor setting surrounded by impatient children and adults making the same judgy how-could-you-be-doing-that face I so often make myself? I have. But I feel bad about it.