It’s become commonplace to shame people for spending too much time on their cellphones. “You’re missing out on the real world!” people say. But I wonder.. is the real world enough?


Photocredit: BabycakesRomero


People don’t watch TV anymore. They multiscreen, one eye on the televised game, another on Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a dating app.

I’ve been in real-life conversations and felt the vibration of a text come through on my cellphone. And I want nothing more than to look at the screen of text on my device, instead of the real, breathing human right in front of me. Why isn’t a real human as interesting as a potential text?

And now, sitting in a cafe in NYC, I see groups of friends hanging out.. together, but on their cellphones.

With the near endless supply of instant stimulation on a mobile device, can the real world compete?

Photocredit: BabycakesRomero


At the same time of this digital addiction, we have a worldwide sugar addiction. Simple sugars, empty calories – you know the drill. I’ve engaged both my sugar addition and my digital stimulation addiction at the same time. They say if you watch tv while eating you will tend to eat more. I can attest to that. You will also tend to eat less healthy items:

A study just published in the journal Psychological Science finds people eating or drinking while mentally distracted require greater concentrations of sweetness, sourness, or saltiness to feel satisfied. (Salon)

I find this counter-intuitive. I would assume that if you have stimulation coming at you both digitally (say, a tv show) and food-ly (say, potato chips), that each thing could afford to be less stimulating to add up to a fully stimulated brain.

TV stimulation + Food stimulation = super stimulation ?

But it seems these stimulants aren’t additive. What really happens is that your attention gets diluted, and the food has to be stronger to compete:

“When people’s attention is burdened by a demanding activity, they will need to consume more of a certain food to obtain an optimal taste experience.” (Salon)

Food stimulation = (Food I am focused on eating) – (Attention I am paying to TV)

You’ll stuff your face with salty chips just to feel a fraction of what they would taste like if you weren’t watching TV. But if you were to eat the chips without the TV on, you would taste them more deeply. And subsequently, you would eat fewer chips and enjoy them more. Which is why diet gurus tell you not to watch tv and eat at the same time.

I wonder if could this be applied to digital addiction as well. Ie, would you consume healthier digital content (and maybe even some real-life content) if you stop multi-tasking?

I think it’s possible. When I am watching TV and I go on twitter, I do not have the mental capacity to read a long NYTimes article or to think deeply about a conversation. Instead, I go for the unhealthy snacks of digital content: listicles, Instagram, mindless swiping..

Net: Avoid multitasking (or multi-screening) and gain the capacity to pay attention to better content (or maybe even real life!).


But what if I just don’t crave this ‘better’ content?

Let’s go back to sugar addiction. Sugar is a tough drug to get off of. When a sugar craving takes hold, it compels you to the pantry. But when you exercise some self control and actually begin to wane off simple sugars and adopt healthier habits (say for a couple of weeks), you start to feel this natural goodness.

Strength returns to your body. A feeling of control. And you want those empty sugar calories less. You start appreciating real food more. A bowl of vegetables becomes downright appealing. And an apple delivers a rush that used to take multiple cookies to feel.

Will work for digital stimulation, too?

ie, if I cut out empty digital calories (looking at my instagram, chatting on dating apps with little intent of actually meeting anyone, reading celebrity gossip) and pay more attention to the surrounding world, will I eventually start to get more stimulated by real experiences?

It sounds awesome. I could return to the real world, and get off of my cellphone. The issue is, screens are everywhere. Trying to wane off digital addiction today is like trying to get off of sugar when you live in a cotton candy factory.



So what can you do?

Well, do what you do when you’re on a diet.

Think of the real world as a big, leafy salad. It can be one of those tasty ones from Sweetgreen if you like. But your phone is a cookie. A freshly baked, warm, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside cookie from City Bakery. “Just a bite,” it says. “The salad will still be there when you’re done,” it says.


But will you still feel good after you eat the cookie?

The salad might not taste as good now. And you’ll have to really pay attention to the salad as you’re eating it to appreciate the full taste profile. But afterwards, when you look back at what you just ate, you’re gonna feel good. You won’t feel like you just wasted meaningless calories reading a dumb article that added nothing to your life. Wait, are we talking about food or digital content here?

Next time you have a choice between a salad and a cookie, between looking at your phone or the person in front of you, choose the salad. Listen to what the person has to say. Get off your couch, put the phone down, and go for a walk. Take in the world. Most importantly, don’t dilute your attention across person, device, and other device.

As you do this more, you’ll begin to appreciate the real world more, too. Obviously, we need our phones during the day, and it’s OK to use them! But concentrating some effort on appreciating the physical world will result in just that. And bite-sized digital content will begin to taste more like candy that’s too sweet.