Let’s preface this article: phones are fine and good and well most of the time. There’s a reason most of us panic when our phones die when we’re out and about. Technology gives us access to many conveniences: live-tracking (looking at you, AT HOP), Google maps, Ubers/Olas, capturing fire fit pics, and real-time communication. That last one is super handy for finding your friend at the gig, or making sure your Hinge date hasn’t stood you up. But it’s a different story when that real-time communication turns into an expectation.
Imagine you’re in bed, 10:30 p.m., reading a nice book. You’ve finished your daily workload, you’ve got the blankets tucked up to your chin, and you can feel your eyelids drooping. Absolute bliss. But then your phone buzzes. It’s an email from your lecturer, evidently doing some late night marking. You try to ignore it, but the little icon keeps popping up at the top of your screen, there’s a red circle on your email app, and there’s a push notification. You think: I’ll just quickly reply to this. And while you’re on your phone you might as well reply to the other unread emails. And maybe check your messages.
Half an hour later and you’re in full work mode. Either that, or you’re doom-scrolling. Sometimes, inexplicably… both? And it might not be your lecturer. It might be your boss, or your colleague, your friends, or your Mum. Sure, it’d be fine if this was just one night of the week, but for a lot of us, this is a recurring scenario. Some people might have no issues ignoring the call to plug in. But for others (myself included) phones can become a nightmarish symbol—and conduit—of the dreaded burnout. And in the digital world, all the different forms of exhaustion seem to coalesce and merge into one awful conglomerate mess. You might feel burned out from work, uni, or even your social life. In the digital era, it seems like absolutely everything is screaming for your attention all the time. And it begs the question: why is it so hard to switch off?
“The first thing I would say is that people need to rid themselves of the idea of always being available. It’s not a reasonable expectation.”
Dr. Ethan Plaut is a lecturer of Communications at the University of Auckland. Somewhat counterintuitively, Dr. Plaut is an expert in non-communication, or “disconnection and communication avoidance”. In other words, getting off your goddamn phone.
“I think people feel more pressure to be online all the time than is actually there,” Dr. Plaut points out. He gently reminds me that “you’re not actually that important”. The world isn’t going to end if you don’t reply “haha” to your friend’s recycled TikTok right away, he notes. Most importantly, being available all the time isn’t actually what people want of you. Dr. Plaut gives the example of friendships: “maybe the better friend is someone that is really present for you when you’re with them,” rather than the one who responds to your Instagram story immediately.
But Dr. Plaut emphasises that “everyone has to find their own balance with this stuff”. He recommends being “explicit with setting norms” around response times. “If you’re online all the time, and you always respond instantly, you set bad expectations.” Now that’s a call-out and a half if I’ve ever heard one.
That’s not to say you’re somehow a failure if you’re more online than others. It’s easy to stay online. In fact, most of us know by now that it’s designed that way. “Silicon Valley platforms are designed for stickiness,” says Dr. Plaut. “They want to hold your attention as long as possible because your attention is valuable.
“Ultimately the marketplace of attention doesn’t have your best interests at heart. The marketplace of attention sees your time as a resource to be collected and sold.”
Then there’s changing social expectations. Online study and online work demands that people stay online and are accessible all the time. Got COVID? Work from home. Especially for certain industries, creating an environment where people are chronically online is profitable in more ways than one.
Dr. Plaut points out that setting boundaries around online activity is an important aspect of “self care”. Dr. Plaut emphasises that “screen time isn’t [inherently] bad”, but he asks us to question “are you using [technology] in the way that’s most beneficial for you in that moment, or are you better off doing something else?
“Sometimes the phone is a magical tool, sometimes it’s greatly entertaining and that’s all fine. That doesn’t mean it needs to consume everything.”
And Dr. Plaut is right. I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve disassociated on TikTok (or whatever your doom-scroll of choice is) only to snap out of it an hour later and think: where did my time go? We’ve all had friends who’ve gone on social media detoxes, or brought brick phones, and I’m sure we’ve all thought: good for you, monarch.
But there’s also an inherent privilege in “switching off”. Who gets to take a break from the online world without repercussions? In an article published by Arts Insider in 2019, the University of Auckland Faculty of Arts magazine, Dr. Plaut notes that social media and the online landscape is “like infrastructure… any individual can refuse to use social media, but it’s like boycotting the public transportation system or the water system… if you’re not online, it’s just harder to move through the world”.
For most of us, going off the grid isn’t a viable long-term solution to the issue of the all-consuming digital landscape. But the good news is that there are still many little and effective ways to switch off. We’ve heard this advice before, but it bears repeating. And there’s nothing wrong with continually re-evaluating which of these may or may not work for you. Dr. Plaut suggests sleeping with phones in a different room and buying an analogue alarm. He personally believes the first half hour of anyone’s day is important, so it’s “kind of cooked [to plug in immediately]… don’t doom-scroll before breakfast”. We all know about turning notifications off, but there are also batch notification options, says Dr. Plaut, where notifications come all at once at certain times rather than in a “trickle all the time”. There are also customisable offline modes, which was news to me, where you can block everything except for certain people, or notifications. For laptops too, there are browser plug-ins that can block websites at certain times.
“Maybe it’s like, after 6 p.m. everything at the University of Auckland is blocked, because I’m not trying to do work at that time.”
Switching off can be hard, but it’s also undoubtedly important, albeit to different extents for different people.
“Going into finals week is probably an especially important time to [unplug],” says Dr. Plaut. “People feel really stressed out and really pressed to work, work, work. But in those moments when you feel like you don’t have any time, that might be the most important time to do nothing.”
“It’s counterintuitive, but if you feel like you don’t have five minutes, that’s a good indication that you should turn everything off.”