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Smart Discipline for Smart Phones

Most blessings in life bring particular challenges, often in the form of implicitly required discipline—other times in the form of added responsibility and/or reliance from others. Think fame, wealth, or parenting. Most of us are familiar with the inverse Buddhist principle, that every challenge brings particular blessings, in the form of greater wisdom or opportunity for growth. Think… parenting again? I beg your pardon for my present tunnel vision.

Smart phones, technology, and even social media, in my opinion, have been enormous blessings in many ways. We no longer need to write down geographic directions or suffer the inconvenience and frustration of getting lost on unknown roads. We no longer need to get into unnecessary arguments with loved ones over “what year that album came out,” since every such debate can be easily and definitively resolved within seconds. As for social media, I’ve personally used it to reconnect and mend old friendships, as well as to further my Chinese Medical studies in groups online.

On the other hand, most of us are familiar with the troubles caused by modern technology, whether directly or indirectly, neurologically, psychologically, and/or socially. First, from a Chinese Medical perspective, staring at a screen for the better part of everyday depletes the body’s blood and healthy body fluids. From a neurological perspective, we know that frequently checking any device is a form of constant, miniature gratification, and that our brain’s neurotransmitters do not operate as well under constant stimulation. Not to mention the potential psychological and intellectual drawbacks of viewing the world largely through this particular filter, as opposed to good old-fashioned, interactive reality.

I’ve observed my own relative addiction to social media in the past, never spending much time scrolling, growing easily bored, nevertheless checking the apps quite often through each day. On my commute, on any elevator, upon waking up, even while watching sports on TV (I mean, how sad is it that it has become normalized to multi-task technological distractions? We are truly in the future); obviously it doesn’t sit well with my goals for self-discipline.

In many cases complete abstinence is a form of non-discipline and/or an emotionally induced over-compensatory response to a pathology. Moderation is often not only more logical, but more difficult. To that end, for some time now I’ve made it a point to turn off email notifications only on weekends, which doesn’t mean I don’t check my email at all, but my brain gets spared a couple of days of unnecessary constant dings.

Second, I make it a point while watching TV in the evenings, to not keep my phone within arms’ reach, but instead on the other side of the room with the ringer turned on. My rule is not orthodox, in that I might still occasionally bring it over to read or search something, but once finished I return it to its “station,” instead of mindlessly using it as another distraction.

I almost never text while walking (down the street), which I think is as irresponsible to our own neurology as drinking and driving is to the safety of others. With obvious exceptions, I try to keep my text and email responses to three times out of each day. My opinion and observation is, if you reply to everyone/everything as it comes in you’ll slowly lose your mind.

Finally, I’ve taken to abstinence from social media on Friday through Monday every week. This ensures that I look at it less than half the days in the week, but on those days I don’t restrict myself from popping on as much as is organic (although since self-implementing this restriction I genuinely think the urge or idea to check them comes up less frequently). There have been many times in these days that I note the proverbial light go off in my mind—“time to check Facebook”—reminiscent of when I once quit smoking—and much like my once nicotine victory I simply ignore the light until it perpetually pops up less and less. My wife’s taken a different approach, by requesting her phone limit the amount of time spent on certain apps in each day. You can do this under Settings – Screen Time – App Limits. Either approach makes sense.

I think smart phones and social media are or can be very positive things, but much like automobiles and animal protein, they should be used mindfully, cautiously, with the understanding that just as in medicine, anything that has the power to help also has the power to harm.


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