Offline

I am with three friends on a Saturday night, watching “Boyhood” in the living room — at least, sort of. It’s on the TV playing in the background.


The main character, a high school boy named Mason, attempts a futile discussion with his girlfriend, Sheena,  about the ill effects of social media on human interaction. For her part, Sheena continues to look at her phone and only half-listens to him.


“You have been, you know, checking your phone this whole time,” Mason says. “I mean, so what are you really doing? You don’t care what your friends are up to on Saturday afternoon, but you’re also obviously not fully experiencing my profound b—-ing. So, it’s like everyone’s just stuck in, like, an in-between state, not really experiencing anything.”


When this scene comes on, I am coincidentally also scrolling through my newsfeed, as are a few of my friends. I don’t really care what my Facebook “friends” are doing, as Mason says, but I’m still not paying attention to the movie.

I look up just long enough to catch this part, contemplate his words and check my phone one last time before finally putting it down.


Sheena responds, “It’s not an experience. It’s just information,” and the scene ends.


There’s a gray area between the two: experience and information. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the mere absorption and synthesis of information turns into an actual “experience.”


But I do think Sheena’s right for the most part. I personally believe that we can’t really experience anything while using our phones, computers or any other personal devices, for that matter. It’s just information that only serves to distract us from the greatest experience we will ever have: life.


I use my phone to an unhealthy extent, probably much more than the average U.S. citizen does. I can’t help it, though, or rather, I don’t want to help it. My phone is the ideal friend: It’s never busy, it never gets angry with me and I can bring it with me everywhere I go. Before beginning this experiment, I used the Moment app to track my phone use for a week right after AP testing. I found that I was spending an average of five to six hours each day using my phone, and that did not even account for the hours I spent on my laptop. Although the numbers didn’t accurately reflect my phone usage on a normal school day, I was still alarmed by the sheer number of hours I was spending staring at my screen.


For this story, I spent three full days offline. Initially, I agreed to do it as more of a rehabilitative exercise than as a social experiment. Although I found that unplugging myself did not change my daily life in any major way, I finally stopped observing my life — passively absorbing information — and started fully experiencing it.


I limited myself to phone calls as a necessary means of communication. Before this experiment, I rarely called my friends because it was easier to text them or message them online. I would normally multitask while entertaining multiple conversations on Facebook, with each response spaced apart by several minutes. I quickly realized how rusty my conversational skills were. In real life, there are no emojis to fill the awkward, static-filled silences, and over the phone you can’t just “see” the message and not respond when you don’t know what to say. However, having a conversation is so much more rewarding when you can hear a person’s voice for yourself. It took some effort, but I ended up having a better conversation with someone in 15 minutes on the phone than I had ever had with him over text. He was very confused at first and told me that it was because he “wasn’t used to this calling thing,” to which I promptly responded, “Me either.”


Not having access to a phone makes a huge difference outside of conversation, too. So many people, myself included, are guilty of constantly checking their phones while in the company of others. Thanks to modern technology, I can now use my phone to converse with four different acquaintances and simultaneously enjoy a meal with my family in complete silence. It doesn’t really make sense for us to seek that pseudo-companionship through a screen when it can easily be found if we would just put down our phones and look up. The quality of conversation substantially increases when you are involved in one instead of five at a time. Of course, putting down your phone is easier said than done.


I was also overwhelmed by the amount of free time suddenly on my hands. On the first day, after hanging out with a friend, I came home to find that I had hours left in the day with, fortunately, no homework but, unfortunately, nothing to do. I now had over a third of the day to do other things and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I spent three hours on the phone talking to reluctant, preoccupied friends and ended up going to sleep hours earlier than I normally would have. I slept better each night and was more efficient and alert during the daytime as a result.


As with the period of time that follows a breakup, my reliance on my phone faded with every day I spent without it. I was going out so often that I hardly thought about it. 


Still, as much as I wish there could be, there is no happy ending to this story.


All my friends were amazed that I was able to survive the three days, which isn’t really that long in the grand scheme of things, but their incredulity serves as further testimony of our society’s incredible need to be constantly connected and plugged in. And the day I started using my phone again, I went immediately back to my old habits. So here I am, stuck in a toxic relationship with my phone, losing sleep and valuable time that could be spent with real people. It doesn’t seem so bad in the now, but I know that I would be far better off without it.


I am fully immersed in the movie by the end. My phone lays untouched on the coffee table beside me.


Mason is now grown up and attending college. In the final scene, he is talking to a girl named Nicole.


“You know how everyone’s always saying ‘Seize the moment’?” Nicole says. “I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around, you know, like the moment seizes us.”


I think the reason we insist on holding on to these special moments is that we’re gradually losing our ability to do so. We push these moments aside like absentminded bystanders simply being informed instead of experiencing. You can’t appreciate something that you aren’t aware of. Don’t let the moment seize you, and as clichéd as it is to say so, carpe diem.