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Feighan: Taking a ‘digital Sabbath’ for clarity’s sake

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

We were minutes from sitting down to dinner a few days ago when my husband had something pressing to do. He needed to clear one more level of Candy Crush Saga on his cellphone. The shepherd’s pie would have to wait.

Smartphones – and our ever-growing obsession with them – were designed to make our lives easier. With a tap of the screen, we can access phone numbers, email addresses, the internet, even the closest movie theater along with reviews for each movie.

My phone has become like a portable filing cabinet and calendar all in one. I track doctor’s appointments, PTO meetings and speech therapy sessions. It’s my alarm clock and phone book.

But that immediate access comes with a price: dependency.

I was midway to work recently when I realized I’d left my phone at home. I immediately felt unnerved. What if my childrens’ schools called? What if I got in an accident?

And driving around with my children without a phone – which has happened – I felt even worse. I felt like an irresponsible parent.

But are we too tech-dependent? A Texas day care posted a letter last week, scolding parents to put away their phones and pay attention when they pick up their kids. By Thursday, it had been shared 1.2 million times.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat Pray Love” fame has advocated taking a digital Sabbath. Inspired by her friend Rob Bell, who has done podcasts about unplugging from the digital world for one day a week, Gilbert gave it a try. It was uncomfortable at first, she said, but she found time to read, get outside and spend time with loved ones.

“Now I look forward to my weekly digital Sabbath as a way of lifting my face from my multiple screens (glorious as they are!) and drawing breath — and as a way of finding creative off-line ways to spend my time,” wrote Gilbert on Facebook.

And maybe if people don’t disconnect completely, perhaps just taking a break from social media may be respite enough. As much as social media connects us in amazing ways, it also highlights our differences. That crazy alt-right cousin you never knew you had is blaring his views front and center on your news feed.

Josh Pasek, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, has studied how social media influences the political information environment. He says as fewer people turn to traditional media outlets for their news and other outlets crop up that have “a much weaker grounding in the facts,” it allows people to only read news that reflect their views – all of which social media feeds into.

“If you don’t encounter people who disagree with you, it’s a heck of lot easier to reinforce your views and vilify the other side,” says Pasek, also a Center for Political Studies faculty associate.

My husband and I attempted our own version of a digital Sabbath a few weeks ago. We agreed that we would try to stay off our phones altogether on a Sunday – no texting or social media. Then my sister, who I hadn’t chatted with in awhile, texted me. By mid-morning, the Sabbath was off. At the end of the day, my husband and I were both on our phones side by side. Operation Digital Sabbath was a failure.

But there’s reason to try again. MRI research has shown that the brains of internet users who are constantly online have exhibited changes similar to those seen in people addicted to drugs and alcohol. Another study has shown that social media activity can affect our dopamine levels. With every “like” to a status update, we get a little surge.

Still, as the nation adjusts to a president whose transition into power has been anything but smooth, now may be the time to consciously unplug. As one friend of mine put it, he was taking a Facebreak.

Maybe we could all use a Facebreak.

Twitter: @mfeighan