The growing movement to break technology addiction

If you’ve felt overwhelmed by the constant flow of information and the expectation to be online every day all the time, you are not alone.

A growing number of people are pushing back and dropping out of social media and other technological forms of communication. At the University of Washington Information School, we examined this trend. We even gave it a name: “pushback.” As researchers, we believe this phenomenon is here to stay.

Building on the work of UW colleagues David Levy and Kirsten Foot, we examined 75 sources. We learned that a growing number of avid technology users who are adept at social media, smartphone apps and texting are intentionally limiting their usage. It’s a purposeful personal decision to limit or even remove oneself from technology usage.

This is not an anti-technology nor an anti-social behavior. It’s about technology users seeking balance in their lives, regaining control over their use of technology and wanting to re-establish more authentic connections with others. Constant connectivity is consistently resisted when it undermines a meaningful life and deeper human connections.

There is little academic research on this topic. Out of the sources we studied, we found that firsthand reports, particularly blogs, offered some of the best insights about pushback. What an irony: People used technology to describe their pushback on technology.

People who push back fell into three categories: tech addicts, tech discontents and tech hipsters.

Tech addicts could not stay away from a phone or screen for more than a few minutes at a time. They wanted to regain control of their lives rather than lose themselves in distraction. They weaned themselves off technology by establishing simple limits, such as no screens at the dinner table or in bed, no email on weekends, or no Facebook or Twitter until a certain time of day.

Occasionally, addicts resorted to more radical measures, such as reverting to basic mobile phones and giving up smartphones. In a post called “I got rid of my smartphone,” blogger Casey Friday wrote, “A lot of people have asked, ‘Why don’t you just use it less?’ I think that’s sort of like asking a crack addict, ‘Why don’t you just put the crack in the closet and do less blow?’ I don’t even want the option of using a smartphone, because if I have one, I will check it obsessively. It’s a simple fact.”

Tech discontents felt disconnected from genuine relations with others despite constant online contact. They yearned for more intimate connections with friends and family, finding that faster and easier contact did not necessarily lead to better or deeper relationships.

Discontents might limit tech use, but were more likely to drop out of one form of social media or another altogether — for example, dropping Twitter but staying on Facebook. They sometimes make social agreements with others about limiting technology use: taking tech-free vacations, hosting phone-free parties or dinners, or participating in events like the National Day of Unplugging (the next one is March 7-8, 2014).

After a weeklong digital fast, Brandon Vogt wrote on his personal blog, “My Internet fast revealed the sobering reality that I rarely do what I love. Instead of sitting in a comfy chair at night to read a book for an hour, I scan through a hundred irrelevant blog posts ... Instead of playing with my kids, I send text messages and watch YouTube videos. If nothing else, the digital fast realigned my priorities.”

Tech hipsters felt that the mainstream worship of social media was vastly overrated. They wanted to make a statement of independence and counterculture that values retro technologies or a complete disengagement from some technology.

Hipsters are most likely to drop out of social media altogether. They liked to boast about their lifestyle choices: reading physical books instead of e-books, sending postcards instead of email and listening to vinyl records instead of MP3s.

James Poulos recently reported on The Daily Beast: “Our anti-tech hipsters are playing with fire. But they give voice to a secret longing that burns deep within us all.” Essentially, they resist the status quo, suspicious that technology-laden lives are full of mindless entertainment and shallow connections.”

Pushback is getting stronger, and more diverse. Ultimately, it is about choice: If we fail to make our own informed choices about use of technology, technology will make the decisions for us.

Pushbackers recognize this and are reaffirming their humanity, mindfully limiting technology for valuable reasons. It seems clear that, deep down, people want meaning in their lives more than they want distraction or entertainment.

We can each take a stance. There’s no need to go cold turkey and drop out entirely, just as there’s no need to embrace everything technology throws at us. But we can all do a better job at managing our use of technology to reclaim control over our time, our relationships and our daily lives.

The next time you feel the urge to push back on technology, know that you are not alone. There is a whole movement out there that whispers with the wind, “Slow down, push back.”

By Ricardo Gomez and Stacey Morrison, published as an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, Sunday, November 24, 2013