Opinion, Staff Editorial

Changing technology tides signal time for a shift in how we think about our devices

From New Year’s fireworks to the opening crawl of “Star Wars,” why do we so often experience life from behind a 3-by-6 screen? As helpful as technology can be in bringing us together, it can also thwart our efforts to actually be present together.

The disconnect happens when you miss out on dinner conversation to scroll through Twitter before the bread comes, or half-listen as your friend tells a story, looking down at your lap every time you hear that familiar ding.

Technology is not the actual cause of these hampered interactions, but an accomplice. After all, rudeness with a phone in your hand is still plain old rudeness. But the ubiquity of smartphones and other personal devices makes it that much easier to indulge in the instant gratification of a text, snap or tweet.

In the classroom, technology can be equally intrusive. There are those lecture classes in which you look around and everyone is either on Facebook or shopping online. Even when students use computers to take notes, there seems to be more of a focus on documenting the lesson rather than participating, really asking questions and picking up nuances along the way.

And though many students use laptops to better their grades, their devices might be doing just the opposite. In 2016, researchers from Westminster College and the United States Military Academy found a causal relationship between laptop-required and laptop-optional classes with lower GPAs and, conversely, laptop-prohibited classes with higher ones.

Despite evidence of its pitfalls, a tech-happy habit is hard to quit. We’re conditioned to want the instant gratification of a notification, and to reply as soon as we see it.

So how do you break that habit? In classes requiring laptops, turn off desktop notifications and your computer’s messaging tools. You can even set up separate desktop spaces for school and downtime – and if you’re ever working on tasks that do not require the internet, like writing or photo editing, switch on airplane mode to avoid the temptation to browse. There are also programs you can install to help monitor how often you browse certain sites, like social media, and to remind you to get back to work.

When it comes to note taking, even less-than-perfect handwritten notes might serve you better than neat digital ones. A 2014 study from Princeton and UCLA revealed that students who write out their notes by hand gain a more thorough conceptual understanding of the material, even if they don’t get every word down.

In your personal life, a move toward mindfulness can discourage distracting phone use. At family dinners, it’s all too easy to pick up your phone – as if by muscle memory – when the conversation dies down for a minute. Fight the urge and keep your phone in your bag or pocket or stacked with other devices at the center of the table. You’ll be able to enjoy things you might otherwise miss, like the ambiance of music and clinking glasses or your dad’s goofy table jokes. Over time, the normal parts of human interaction which we’ve grown uncomfortable with, such as extended periods of silence, will become normal again.

When you see something special and you want to document it, take a photo to share with friends later, then put your phone away. You will feel more immersed in the action at hand, and besides, how often do you really re-watch your videos of fireworks or grainy concert shots? When you need a break or some serious study time, embrace your phone’s do-not-disturb function.

Nix the idea that you owe others your availability, so disable those read receipts and prioritize messages as they come in, eliminating a sense of unfounded urgency for every single tweet, text and email.

Explain to others that your lack of a quick response is not an indicator of your safety (or lack thereof), nor is it a rebuff – just a much-needed timeout. When it comes to focusing, use the Pomodoro technique: set a 25-minute timer and work straight through without distractions, then take a break. Repeat as needed.

Your phone can sometimes feel like a third hand – but it doesn’t have to. Whether you’re taking a nap or walking to class, leave your phone behind sometimes and enjoy the simple pleasure of rediscovering your surroundings.

When using technology, do so with awareness. Gather around friends to watch your favorite shows live, instead of leaving programs on your DVR like chores to check off your to-do list. And when you are all together to catch the newest episode of “The Walking Dead,” keep the phone or laptop away for that hour. Forcing your eyes to dart between two screens will diminish the overall experience.

Also try keeping a log of your tech use for a week or so. Those brief five-minute breaks you take to check Twitter or Instagram can really add up – and seeing them on paper can encourage lasting change. Start small. If one of your goals is to read more, try putting your phone to bed an hour or 30 minutes before you hit the hay and pick up a book instead. Trust us, you’re not missing much.

If you feel like reducing your device usage will take you out of the loop, consider switching to time-saving ways of staying up-to-date, like signing up for information-packed newsletters delivered straight to your inbox (we have one, and you can sign up for it here). Turn on breaking news alerts or set a couple times each day to check and answer emails. The important part is setting a sustainable pace for your intake and output of information and communication, and then sticking to it.

Above all, pair your new tech outlook with an equally fresh approach to communication. When you want to catch up with loved ones far away, give them a call. Not only will it brighten their day, but it offers a chance to enjoy long, meaningful conversations with pauses, rants, belly laughs and “remember when” moments that texting alone just can’t deliver.

We can’t be stuck in the technology boom forever, gazing in amazement and listening to whatever Steve Jobs’ empire demands of us. We get to set the rules and use technology in a way that is smarter and adds value to our lives.

Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.

January 21, 2018

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