Unplugged & Silent Alone Time Can Heal the Damage of a Tech-Addicted Life
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
“Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have.” - Robert Holden
The dating website/app industry in the U.S. reached $3 billion a year in 2019. The money that singles, and the acting-like-they’re-singles, spend each year in pursuit of romance is expected to continue to grow.
In pursuit of the ‘the one’, we can sometimes prioritize our relationships with others over developing the most-valuable one: the one we have with our self.
Modern technological society runs completely roughshod over the disconnection and silence required for the latter.
The average American spends between 5 and 6 hours a day glued to their phones. Morning to night, many people spending a full 12 hours – half of their life! – staring at their little screen.
In 2017, a Deloitte study found that Americans collectively checked their phones 8 billion times a day. The majority of that manic behavior comes from respondents aged 18-24, who checked their phones at more than twice the rate of the 35-44 age group.
Most phone usage comes in 30-second bursts. Added up, it’s over five hours each day and likely a growing inability to focus and gain traction on other things in life.
Researchers calculate that almost 8,000 days of the average person’s lifespan will evaporate by being fixated on screens big and small. For those doing the math, that’s nearly 22 years of one precious life on this planet.
Medical professionals and social scientists have been warning about how all this usage is contributing to the declining development of young brains, language and social skills for decades now.
Experts are concerned about the impact that screens are having on developing empathy in children. Important social skills like the ability to read faces and body language is on the decline.
Social media use has been found to harm teenagers’ mental health. It’s linked to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, lack of ability to focus, hyperactivity and poor sleep.
Fascinating yet depressing, is that everyone seems to see it but few seem to care. A Pew research study found that both parents and teens agreed that they spent too much time on their phones and that it was a serious issue; but few had any plans or ability to reign in their use.
Now that’s true love. Or crack.
Addiction is addiction is addiction
It is crack. It’s been proven. Social media use is addictive straight up, and engineered to be that way.
Addiction to social media affects the brain in the same way as other dopamine-fueled habits like cocaine, gambling, food and sex.
What’s being lost
This constant connection is contributing to the growing inability for men, women and children to unplug and spend even short periods of quiet time alone.
Alone is not the lack of another human but still staring at a screen. Alone means unplugged and less and less of us are spending time disconnected from the world around us.
Before social media and the Internet, the average person used to spend quiet time alone as part of a natural routine. With the proliferation of little screens, that is no longer happening.
In the midst of all of this, something significant is being lost.
“Valuing aloneness, solitude and quiet is not what most people see as a priority. As a culture, we extol American self-sufficiency but we really don’t want to be alone with ourselves.” – Arnie Kozak, PhD, University of Vermont College of Medicine
Americans today seem to see little value in true alone time.
Solitude has begun to take on a negative association - increasingly seen as useless and something to be avoided. Beyond being devalued, research shows that the mere thought of spending quiet time alone – even for a few minutes - ranges from the uncomfortable to downright fear and panic.
With little practice being alone, many people find themselves anxious and unsure of what to do in the absence of external stimuli and noise. There’s an immediate urge to grab the cell phone or turn on a radio or TV – anything but silence.
Research from the University of Virginia reviewed almost a dozen studies finding that people would rather do mundane tasks than spend less than 15 minutes in a room alone. Doing anything seemed preferable to sitting with their own thoughts and feelings.
But it gets better. Or sadder.
Researchers also found that about two-thirds of the men and a about 25% of the women studied were so fearful of even 15 minutes alone that they opted to give themselves electric shocks instead.
Yes, you just read that.
Being constantly connected doesn’t ward off loneliness
First off, the confusion between solitude and loneliness doesn’t help things. The difference between the two is enormous.
The sad irony is that for all the time and dependence on social media’s incessant feedback, it’s actually leading to higher levels of loneliness and depression, with the heaviest users feeling the most isolated.
A recent Cigna study found that 71% of the heaviest social media users reported feeling lonely vs. 51% of people who used social media less frequently. Still, 50% of the population is feeling isolated despite being online and accessible around the clock.
Relying on others for our identities
According to professor Matthew Bowker, today’s society has become more ‘groupish’, where people are increasingly dependent on the opinions of others for how they feel about themselves.
There’s a growing reliance on constant online feedback to help shape and influence identities, opinions and self-worth – rather than defining from something internal. Depending on the world to make you feel good about yourself is a precarious situation indeed.
For children and teens developing their identities, the stakes are higher. Beyond loneliness, research has causally linked social media use to a decline in well-being and mental health, especially in young people.
If anxiety, depression, lack of focus and low self-esteem aren’t your thing – or what you dreamed of for your offspring – there’s a simple solution.
“Your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Healthy vs. harmful alone-time
There are however a few necessary conditions that help us stay on the healthy side of time alone.
Tapping into the real benefits of solitude is not as simple as merely turning off your phone and being alone. Like anything, the quality of the time alone and what an individual does with it is important.
University of Maryland psychologist, Kenneth Rubin has outlined a few qualifications of solitude that draws the distinction between healthy vs. harmful.
He indicates that time alone is effective only when we do it voluntarily; if we are able to deal effectively with our own emotions; and if we can still maintain constructive relationships and return to social groups outside of our times of solitude.
Learning to spend time alone brings many benefits
Despite the negative PR that solitude has been saddled with, research shows a much different view: that silent, unplugged time is critical for our emotional and mental health.
If one is able to fight through the initial discomfort and develop the ability to be alone, there is a tremendous amount to be gained. Silence and solitude are the antidote to the damage caused by a tech-addicted life.
“Silence and solitude, the soul’s best friends.” – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The list of benefits that come with prioritizing you-time are impressive:
Mental & emotional strength
Coined by developmental psychologist D.W. Winnicott, our capacity to be alone goes beyond simply tolerating the absence of another. Solitude has shown to help boost mental strength, allowing us to better manage our thoughts and emotions; and direct our actions in ways that can serve us.
Developing the capacity for solitude also reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation. Studies also confirm less depression among people who enjoy time alone.
What Winnicott describes as a “most precious possession”, the ability to spend quiet time alone is linked to increased life satisfaction and levels of happiness. Perhaps it’s because of one of a fundamental benefit: the opportunity it offers to understand ourselves separately from the world around us.
The constant bombardment of everyone else’s agendas, opinions and preferences, make it difficult to truly understand where they stop and we start. Unless we spent time alone, it is hard to know ourselves.
Solitude nourishes self-awareness and ironically, social awareness. It helps us become more comfortable with and accepting of ourselves. In solitude we can be honest and gentle with ourselves. It is in our time alone where we can make decisions about our life outside of expectations and influences of others.
Life and goal planning
It’s hard to gauge where we are in our life in the midst of the daily firestorm. While our thoughts try hard at keeping up with the frenetic pace; our heart needs quiet to communicate.
Solitude plays an important role in allowing us to step back, evaluate our progress in life and make necessary readjustments. Time alone helps us clarify our thoughts, our plans, our goals and our dreams. Here we can reorganize and redirect.
Productivity, problem-solving & creativity
Solitude helps our productivity. Research has shown that being around others can inhibit our ability to get stuff done. A little privacy helps performance.
Being alone also improves problem-solving. Solitude and reflection time help in unraveling problems and sparking creative solutions. Our fragile ideas and hopes are free from a society and its often-harsh opinions.
Energy & stress reduction
Life can be exhausting and stressful. With hectic schedules and busy lives, it is disconnected solitude that helps replenish our much-needed spring. It prepares us to jump back in and re-engage.
Beyond renewing our energy, solitude helps reduce anxiety and helps manage stress.
Empathy, connections & relationships
While it may seem counter-intuitive, the capacity to spend time alone is linked to the ability to love and connect with those around us.
Our relationships benefit from the time we invest in ourselves. It is in solitude that we grow our empathy and compassion. It’s when we’re alone that we recognize and appreciate our important relationships.
The more we take time to know ourselves, the more authentic relationships we can have with others.
“While we are social creatures, our relationship to self is foundational to all other relationships, including that with the natural world, and a solid relationship to self is grounded in solitude — the capacity to be alone.” – Arnie Kozak, PhD, University of Vermont College of Medicine
Adding nature to the mix
When you add a little nature with your alone time, research shows that the benefit continues to grow.
Spending time alone in natural settings reduces stress, restores our concentration and has a calming, therapeutic effect.
Taking it to the next level is the Solo: a wilderness experience of intentional solitude and silence – generally lasting 24-72 hours. Within the silence are the added challenges, and immense pay-offs, that come with self-sufficiency and survival.
Quiet, unplugged alone time bestows many proven benefits. Considering the hours spent staring at screens, grabbing back even 10-20 minutes alone in quiet can help.
The key is to be intentional in making time and space, away from others and from the noise and bombardment. Once you work alone time into your life and feel the power and clarity it can generate, it can become non-negotiable.
Give your cramped fingers a break. Look up and focus your eyes on something larger, something beyond that small screen: real life.
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