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Is virtual reality taking over your real life?

Did you see J-Lo's video?

Are you following the latest on Kim K?


What about those photos from last night's rager?


These days, it's nearly impossible to go off the grid. We use technology for school, work, and everyday life. On any given vessel of mass transportation, university student lounge, or public park, you'll see a vast sea of heads buried in devices, tuned in and tuned out. We carry around with us these portals to a virtual life – one in which we can design the rules. Social media is a virtual diary where you can create an avatar of yourself to display to the world. Dating sites shuffle you through hundreds of two-dimensional matches. Technology has certainly opened many doors on the progression of humankind. We can locate almost anything in the world, we can purchase items or deposit checks in a snap, and we can store thousands of photos and songs in our pocket. But how much is too much? Should we fear a robo-pocalypse? It's important to remember that what makes us special is that we are human. We are emotional decision-makers, artists and leaders. That's something that technology can (hopefully) never replace. How can you tell if your virtual life is taking over? Ask yourself these questions to find out!


1. How often do you use your phone?

This might be a hard question to pin down when you really think about it. Barring all of the traditional phone usage, (calling and texting) most of us also check the weather, our email, our apps and social media accounts on our phones. We might also check the news occasionally. Think about the duration of your phone use. Do you spend more than five minutes scrolling through your feeds? Time yourself. Each phone usage should have a specific goal in mind. For example, "I'm expecting a call from Winnie the Pooh at 3:00PM today," or "I want to check if the Mets beat the Yankees." Think about this goal. Can it wait? Is it urgent? Try to come up with three main check-in points with your phone a day. Anything extra should be specific and short.

Also think about what times a day you use your phone. It should be divided by mealtime (but not simultaneously while eating – food should be appreciated without the distraction of the screen!). Once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening. If you can help it, turn your phone off (or hide it!) after 9:00pm. Using your phone late at night will disrupt your calm brain waves and inhibit deep sleep. Also, (ironically enough) there are apps to help you monitor how much you check your phone, if you really feel you need that...


2. What kinds of things do you use your phone for?

Gone are the days where a phone was just a simple device used to contact one another. Now our phones have become our own personal assistants, matchmakers, DJs, and psychotherapists. Sometimes we wonder what our phones can't do. How many apps do you have? How useful are they? You should narrow down your apps to 3 to 5 max. Pick those that are most productive and scrap those that waste time. You might be more willing to keep your Uber app more than your variety of $3.99 games. (Not to discount games, because they can be great ways to boost cerebral functioning! Try apps such as Peak, which give you fun brain games for only five minutes every day.) You can experiment. Try taking a trip without your GPS. Instead of using your various dating apps, go to a MeetUp event. Rather than getting a restaurant recommendation on Yelp, ask your friends! While apps are often fun and useful, too many of them clutter your life and interfere with your own human capabilities. You don't need to ask Siri for advice, you have a whole world of people around you!


3. How many people are you texting per day?

We all want to be those people who are "so popular" that their phones are constantly pinging and ponging all day long. Studies show, we actually get a little burst of dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter, every time we hear a buzz or a beep. We're basically Pavlovian in nature, trained to respond to a conditioned stimulus. But numbers are misleading. What matters is content. Are you having long philosophical debates over text, or are you simply writing transitory messages such as "Stuck on train" or "Be there in 5"? You should actually stick to the latter. Texting not only wearies those poor thumbs but can also disguise a lot of meaning. Emojis make an effort to get across human emotion via text, but things are inevitably still lost in translation and can be misinterpreted. Also think about the kinds of people you're texting. Are they friends that live far away? Or are they your family members that are sitting in the next room? Are they randos that you met on the Internet? Whenever you can, try to replace a "textversation" with a conversation. You'll get more meaning across in less time, and you'll feel the comforts of the human voice. Texting is the modern day equivalent of passing notes in class. While sometimes fun, it can get tedious, time consuming, and you'll almost always get caught!


4. Are you using your phone when you should be doing something else?

Admit it, your phone is a distracting creature. And you'll probably find yourself using it when you really should be doing something else. Our phones are infinitely more appealing to us when we have a nasty assignment or deadline looming. That's why you need to plan ahead. Designate work hours where your phone is on a "Do Not Disturb" setting. Eliminate all temptation. Bury it in a file cabinet or put it in a shoebox if need be. Because every time you check that phone is time you should spend focusing on your assignment. When you look at your phone screen, you are instantly unfocused. It's like being awoken from a deep sleep, and it's hard to settle back down. A lot of people end up using their phones as rewards. Like, "If I finish this report, I can check Facebook for 10 minutes." But is this really a reward? How about instead, when you finish the report, you can take a walk outside for 10 minutes. You can shut your eyes for 10 minutes. There are many alternative rewards that end up being more satisfying.


5. Are you using your phone when you are with other people?

This is a HUGE NO-NO. Using your phone in front of other people is basically like saying, "Hold on, whatever you're saying is so much less important than what I'm tweeting right now." Would you ever say that to someone? (We hope not.) When you're around company – either at a party, at brunch with friends, or at a professional event, your phone must be silenced. Think of it like a performance, and any ping will interrupt the actors and disrupt the magic.


6. Are you using your phone when you're supposed to be walking or driving?

NO. Just No.


7. Are you using your phone to look up things you already know (or should know)?

So we've all had that moment when we blank on that Jeopardy! clue or the last answer to the Times crossword and we're just so tempted to look it up on our phones. In the olden days, seeking knowledge was a valiant struggle. You had to observe and record facts of nature, spend hours researching in libraries, and interact with primary sources. Now, we have answers so quickly that the spirit of discovery fades away into obsolescence. Our phones don't have to replace our natural curiosities, but they can enhance them. Kind of like your experiment to get somewhere without a GPS, try to eliminate the Googling epidemic. Sometimes it's better not to know, to take a look in a real-live book instead.


8. Are you using your phone when you should be sleeping?

We've already discussed the harms of using your phone late at night, but what about after you've gone to sleep? Many people leave their phones to alight and ding all night long on their bedside tables (or worse, in their beds…) just so they don't miss a beat. But this can cause multiple problems. Not only is the science nebulous on cell phones' potential radiation harm, but you can even set your pillow aflame! Bedtime should be bedtime, not phone time. Your friends should respect your sleep, and if they're in the habit of texting you in the wee hours, tell them it's better for their health (and yours) to give it a rest. People only text at night because there are other people texting them back. But if you recruit everyone to power down at a certain hour, you'll never be missing out.


9. How many pictures do you post?

It's rare to find a phone these days without a camera capability, which makes documenting our everyday lives a breeze. Who needs a journal when you can have pictures of everything you've ever eaten, every celebrity selfie and every vacation? How many pictures are too many? We all love seeing the notification, "Jenny just uploaded 187 pictures to Facebook. Tag yourself!" We can spend hours on end going through them, tagging, commenting, judging, when we hardly remember the event in question anyway. When you go to a party, don't focus on taking pictures. Someone else will do that (who's having a worse time than you are). Focus on the conversations you have instead. If you feel compelled, take one or two really nice pictures. That's enough. You don't need to capture every moment like a mall security camera. This is a party, not the FBI. And if you're worried about remembering that great party with only two pictures, you should probably stay away from the Absolut.


10. When was the last time you went out with friends and nobody had their phones out?

Maybe this was when you were a carefree child, tottling along across the monkey bars with your classmates. Maybe this was when you were soaking your feet in the sand in Bali and had no Internet connection. These days, the phones are always close by, like little firecrackers ready to explode at any moment. They are there to alleviate an awkward moment, to fill a silence. You're not going to be a kill-joy if you tell your friends to put the phones away before girls night. Don't worry about being an old soul. Phones shouldn't be a mask we can hide behind, but a tool to help us communicate better. It seems that we've never had a harder time communicating. Encourage your friends to take a technology cleanse and go do an outdoor activity together. Go to the spa, take a hike, be around nature. (Try one of these Retreats!) Nature is a "natural" stress-neutralizer, and can be an easy detox to overstimulation.

Don't Check That!

How many times did you check your phone while reading this article?

We hope, none!

Your phone should be a supplement to your life, not a replacement for it. Just because we have access to these amazing, hand-held super-computers, we don't have to let them take over our real lives. Sometimes it's best to unplug and return that email tomorrow, after a full night's rest. Technology will keep moving ahead faster than the speed of light, but we should take our time. Virtual reality is a lot less satisfying than real life!

For more on phone safety for kids, read this!

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