Opinion

This year, we'll probably need a little space from our smartphones

The rose-coloured glasses are coming off. We need some time apart

APPLE-IPHONE/AUSTRALIA

There comes a time in all romances — even those with technology — when we need to start having conversations about what’s working and what's not. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

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Do you find yourself looking at your smartphone a little differently these days? Thinking that maybe it's time for a little break? If you are, you're not alone.

From hacking to fake news, to filter bubbles and work emails after hours, the stress caused by smartphones and social media last year started to feel overwhelming.

There's no doubt we have an intimate relationship with technology: many of us can't leave home without our smartphones.

With all relationships, it starts with a courtship phase, where everything seems just rosy. For much of the last decade, that's been our relationship with tech. There have been line-ups around the block whenever Apple launched a new phone — or watch, or tablet — and we can't get enough of talking about Facebook and Twitter; even when we're complaining about them, we're still using them.

Constant connections

We have opted in to features like push notifications and geolocation because they make our lives more convenient; instead of needing to seek out information, it comes to us. But it has all started to become overwhelming, and it has changed our relationship to time. In fact, it's a big part of why we seem to feel so busy all the time: we're always receiving birthday notifications, email alerts and headlines pushed in front of us, regardless of where we are or what else we might be trying to focus on.

We've seen how always being connected can cause stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, and because of that, there is a growing desire to regain control — control over our time and our attention — and to have more say and more choice over when and how we connect.

So there comes a time in all romances when we need to start having conversations about what's working, what's not and where the relationship is headed. That's where we're at now. It's not that we want to break up and give it all up for good, but we need to reassess if we're getting what we want out of the relationship.

First and foremost, that means choosing where we direct our attention. One starting point is choosing to turn off push notifications so that we don't jump every time there is a tweet or message to us.

But it goes beyond just a digital quick fix: regaining control over our attention also requires that we make conscious decisions about when we leave our phones in our purses or pockets when we're at dinner, in meetings or when we're just socializing. Distraction became normalized for a while — with people constantly multitasking — but now we're going to see some pushback against that.

Losing the filter bubbles

As for social media, with a billion users across the globe, it's hard to imagine a worldwide walkout of a site like Facebook. But the site's glossy allure has nevertheless been tarnished in a new arena of fake news. It began with customization, which has been a buzzword for designers for a decade simply because companies realized that if they gave us exactly what we wanted, we'd use or buy more. But when it comes to social media, it hasn't worked exactly as planned; an obsessive approach to customization resulted in filter bubbles and timelines full of fake news.

The appeal is understandable: on one hand, it feels good to surround yourself with people and information that confirm your worldview. This has largely fuelled social media's massive growth. But the tipping point came when we saw the repercussions of not having an accurate or balanced worldview, which can leave us susceptible to false information and influence.

None of this means we should be breaking up with technology. We fell in love with the ways our smartphones and social media feeds connect us to the world for good reason. But before we take our romance to the next level, we need to reassess where this relationship is headed — even if that means spending a little more time apart.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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