Modern Life

Get real: Finding balance in our digital lives

As more of our lives happen on screen and online, we can also make time for authentic, meaningful experiences.

By Travis Marshall — October 24, 2019

Smartphones, social media, video games, and myriad other digital distractions have become the love-hate locus of our modern era. Simultaneously indispensable and hopelessly hard to put down, digital devices and online experiences occupy about nine hours of the average teenager’s day, according to a survey by Common Sense. Think grown-ups log less screen time? Nope — adults average nearly 9.5 hours, more than 80% of which is on personal screen media, not work.

But a correction may be on the horizon. In a recent HP survey exploring how people feel about their relationships with their screens, 63% of respondents said they think their digital lives and their real lives are out of balance, while 60% said they wish they could return to a time before social media. Many people, including tech evangelists, are recognizing the need to balance the positive benefits of technology while curbing digital distraction to make time for real-world experiences with friends and family. There’s also growing interest and desire to reintroduce analog, tactile, real-world experiences into our lives, from printed books and vinyl records to phone-free dinner parties and “digital detox” retreats.

“I see it in my own life — I can't get through five minutes of a Netflix show before I pause to check Twitter,” says Deepak Masand, global head of print marketing at HP. “Then, when I have a real moment, like a dinner with no phones and real conversations, I think, 'Wow. That's what real feels like.' And it feels really good."

Reinforcing connections with friends and family doesn’t mean giving up on technology altogether. It’s about being more mindful of the impact technology is having in your daily life and relationships, and how you can take steps to avoid losing touch with what’s real.

“Technology is an ally of humans, our experiences, our potential, and sometimes just sheer joy,” says Masand. “But there’s no way technology can replicate the richness of reality. Real is just so much more magical.”

Garage Island Crew

People can balance the positive benefits of technology with making time for real-world experiences with friends and family.

The power of “real”

Introducing real, tangible experiences into your day doesn’t have to completely upend your digital life. It can be as simple as reading with your kids instead of watching YouTube, or printing photos for a family scrapbook rather than posting them on Instagram.

Take Gina Hamadey, a journalist in New York City, who found herself endlessly scrolling through social media feeds day after day during her long train commute. She challenged herself to put that time to better use by writing pen-and-paper thank-you notes to people in her life.

“Thanks to social media, we know what our friends are up to, but a smiley face doesn't exactly count as a meaningful exchange,” Hamadey says. “Thanking people in my life in this vulnerably earnest way opened a door for them to be vulnerable and open with me, and that forged closer connections.”

After writing daily thank-you cards for a month, she decided to keep going for the rest of the year. Her Thank You Year project struck a chord with others online and she turned it into a book, I Want to Thank You, slated for release in 2021. In addition to spreading kindness to the people in her life, Hamadey says the analog act of expressing her gratitude with pen and paper also had therapeutic, meditative benefits.

 “Developing an active gratitude practice has helped me get back in touch with estranged friends and smooth out complicated relationships with family members,” she says. “After I write a batch of cards, I feel less frayed and frazzled and more focused, which allows me to be more present with my husband, kids, and friends.”

Alicia Steels

What the Mona Lisa sees: Tourists engaged with capturing her visage for social media posterity.

Kids, interrupted

Today’s “digital natives” — those who’ve grown up with smartphones and the internet — may serve as bellwethers for researchers examining the long-term effects of living much of our lives through a screen. Some believe that replacing real-world interactions with digital ones interrupts important aspects of social development, like the ability to read non-verbal cues in face-to-face conversations.

“Our nervous system evolved to quickly and efficiently integrate complex social cues to make interpersonal communication easier and more fluent,” says Anna Lomanowska, director of the Digital Well-Being Lab at the University of Toronto Mississauga, part of the Digital Wellness Collective. “Online, however, it is much more difficult to take advantage of these cues, which can leave us feeling socially disconnected and misunderstood.”

With studies showing upticks in loneliness and anxiety among young people that parallel the rise of social media, it’s no wonder that 61% of today’s parents worry about how their child’s social skills will develop in a digitally focused world, according to HP’s survey.  

Another growing concern is the impact that constant digital distraction can have on both mental well-being and focus at school or work. Psychologist Larry Rosen, co-author of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, studies the phenomenon he calls technological anxiety, resulting from the neverending stream of notifications that compete for our attention.

“When people have anxiety about not being able to access communications or feeling like they’re missing out on something, they actually end up spending more time on social media,” Rosen says. “We often see that this affects their quality of sleep and their grades in school.”

One strategy he recommends for getting technological anxiety under control is to walk away from your devices every 90 minutes to do something in the real world that clears your mind.

“Some of the best ways to calm your brain are taking walks in nature, exercising, or talking to other people face to face,” he says. “It’s like having a reset button behind your ear — you also learn that nothing bad happens if you don’t respond immediately.”

Laika One

Getting hands-on with a creative activity can help reintroduce analog, tactile fun into our lives.

Focus on what’s real to find balance

For all the worries people have about technology, there’s no question that these devices have also had positive impacts on our lives, from increased productivity and global connectivity to more accessible education.

“Technology is helping to democratize education and engage families who were previously hard to reach,” says Liz Kline, vice president of education programs for Common Sense. “We just have to be proactive about finding digital balance.”

Most people recognize that balance is the ideal, rather than reverting to a completely tech-free lifestyle. HP’s survey found that while 58% of parents worry that an imbalance between virtual and hands-on learning will prohibit their children from learning critical skills, 76% agree that it’s important for their children to grow up with both digital and real-life experiences.

 “We're realizing the ripple effects that technology and social media are having through our personal and social lives. We don't need a full reset, but we should pause and take a look at what's happening,” says HP’s Masand. “It's not about taking the screen away, it's about embedding value into it so you can do more in the real world.”

 This need for tech-life balance was a topic of conversation during a pre-panel of a live episode of Recode’s Pivot podcast with Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, during which Common Sense's Kline joined a panel discussion with Vikrant Batra, HP’s chief marketing officer, moderated by Katrina Barlow, vice president of Chorus Business at Vox Media. The event was sponsored by HP as part of the company’s “Get Real” campaign encouraging families to reconnect through real, in-person experiences.

HP’s campaign was inspired by survey insights that show how today’s connected world can leave people feel more disconnected than ever. It’s not a coincidence that 2019 is the year that the word “techlash” joined the lexicon among the growing consumer appetite for figuring out how to balance the demands of our digital lives with the slower pace of our “real” ones.

“It’s not easy,” Batra acknowledged during the discussion. “Everything’s on your phone, and everyone needs an answer now.” But, he says, even small steps can deliver a much-needed reality check. “If you let go a little bit, [you realize] the sky doesn’t come crashing down. Once you discover that and take another step, it starts to work.”

To ease the transition, try installing an app like Moment or Space to limit access to social media. Set a goal to print the photos you love instead of leaving them buried among the thousands stored on your phone. Mail letters and cards to friends and family. Get crafty this holiday season and make your own gifts and decorations instead of shopping online. Or simply get books from your local library and read together as a family rather than retreating to your devices.

And remember to treat the people around you the way you’d want them to treat you. “One thing anyone can do is observe the ‘pause for people rule,’” Kline says. “Privilege the face-to-face interaction with the human standing in front of you over what's happening on your device. Most of the time, the moments we have on our devices can wait, but you might miss something really important when you're looking down.”