The Joy of Missing Out

Why it’s important to leave some space for being alone—and how our tech gadgets get in the way.
By Christopher Willard

April 7, 2016

I was flying to a mindfulness conference recently when I looked down to my tray table. My Macbook formed the base of a neat pyramid of trendy technologies, with my iPad on top of the laptop, and my iPhone resting on the iPad. It took a moment before I realized the absurdity: I’m off to talk about the importance of staying in the moment and have no less than three gleaming Apple products sitting in front of me just to get through one cross-country flight? Sure, it was funny, but my next impulse was to take a picture and share the moment online.

There’s nothing inherently bad or good about technology. Technology just is. How we relate to it and what we do with it are what matters. But our phones are not designed to be neutral, they are created to keep us hooked with texting, shopping, and sharing data with marketers, corporations, and even government agencies…oh, and our friends and family, too.

I’ve heard it said that a thinking mind can be our most powerful servant or our most terrible master. The same could well be said of our technology, which more often disconnects us from others and ourselves that connects us. And, our phones and devices are addictive, in a very literal sense. Our beeps and alerts arrive on what behaviorists call a “variable rate reinforcement schedule.” The term essentially means that our phone’s random buzzing throughout the day acts as a little reward for the brain, which is rewired to crave more. Video games, slot machines, and even our phones are often designed by psychologists to maximize their addictive qualities. This explains why we see kids (or catch ourselves) mindlessly refreshing email and social media feeds.

Our devices hold out the false promise that there is something more important, more urgent, more interesting than our present-moment experience. Unfortunately, while that statement makes rational sense, it is not going to hold much water with a nine-year-old clutching an iPad, or a tween on snapchat.

We can tell kids that they need healthy boundaries around screen time, or we can show them with our own actions, which is far harder but far more effective. I’m as guilty as anyone else; I love my gadgets and my social media. Ask yourself, how long do you spend in the morning checking in with yourself and your loved ones in person before you tap the glowing screen of your phone? Where is your phone right now? How do you feel when you don’t know where it is? Do you usually keep it in your pocket, your bag, your desk, another room?

When we teach children to disconnect from their experience with digital distractions, by modeling that behavior ourselves, it is no wonder they never learn basic emotional fluency, attachment, and social cues. They don’t learn that emotions and urges arise and pass, and that human beings actually can tolerate discomfort.

Sherry Turkle, who writes about technology says “If we don’t teach our kids to be alone, we will teach them to be lonely.” Explicitly and implicitly, the way we live and the media we consume are teaching all of us to be lonely, to be too busy to attend to our needs, and to deal with emotions through looking outside of ourselves, rather than looking inside at the first twinge of discomfort.

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