The expertly made anti-social media screed released to theaters today carries its recommendation in its title: "Disconnect."
The movie follows a trio of interweaving plot lines, a la the Oscar-winning "Crash": Tragedy strikes two families when an over-trusting teenager falls into a cyberbully’s trap; a grieving couple find themselves victims of identity theft, after divulgeing personal information online; and a news reporter who uncovers a sex chat site recruiting underaged kids discovers she’s in too deep.
Through these narratives, Disconnect effectively examines three major modern societal issues: The perils of being too naive and trusting online; our ever-increasing addiction to digital life; and how the compulsion to share our lives can lead us down the rabbit hole. What may first appear to be a Wonderland is actually a hellish alternative reality. While some people have been affected by the first, it is likely that more will identify with the latter.
Let's face it: We have become a society of digital addicts. We walk around with our cellphones in our hands. We read emails and tweets while we wait in line, avoiding conversations with those around us. Families, instead of conversing at the dinner table, are scrolling through their news feeds on various mobile devices. Even people at the gym, sweating and panting, can’t bring themselves to disconnect from their social network long enough to work out. All of the above are depicted in "Disconnect."
A recent study conducted by The Miriam Hospital’s Center for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine found that college freshmen women spend nearly 12 hours a day engaged in some form of media use, like texting, emailing or social networking. That’s half a day, the equivalent of 3.5 days per week, roughly 182 days per year that the average 18 year-old is at least partially wasting in digital.
If that’s not bad enough, a survey conducted by CreditDonkey found that 52% of U.S. social media users reported using Facebook while going to the bathroom. Yep, that’s right—we can’t even disconnect while on the toilet.
What is it about digital that keeps us on 24/7? (well, 12/7 apparently). Last year, the theory was FOMO (fear of missing out). More recently, researchers are saying our enormous egos are to blame for our addiction to social sharing. We use the information we post around the Web to elevate our status among our friends. In the film, online flattery certainly plays a part in the seduction of innocents and the exploitation of innocence.
But I don’t think that’s the core of it. Those are just periphery factors. There seems to be something much deeper driving our need to constantly be in the know. After talking to a few co-workers about this, a common theme arose—it wasn’t narcissism or egotism that compelled them to pull out their phones, it was boredom. More than that, it was the compulsion to not be bored. It was born as a habit and repeated into an addiction.
As Brian S. Hall puts it, playing on our smartphones, checking our social media networks or browsing the Internet has become our short-term fix to downtime. It’s a habit we picked up and perpetuated, and now we as a society reach for our phones almost unconsciously. John F. Schumaker describes boredom as a paradoxical affliction: The more we fight to fend off boredom, the higher the threshold for satisfaction becomes--thus we become even more easily bored. It is a vicious cycle, that somehow always ends (and begins) with a phone in our hands.
If our younger population is already losing half a year to digital, the outcome for future generations looks pretty bleak.
What’s the answer? It’s probably unlikely, but we need to learn how to embrace boredom and turn it into something else. Disconnect and interact with the world around us, rather than the one trapped in our mobile devices. We need to be present and be affected.
We should challenge ourselves and those around us to pay attention to each other, especially when face to face. Put the cellphone away, look someone in the eye, and have a real conversation, without hashtags or likes. It’s time our society starts investing more time in “real life” again. It’s not going to be easy, and I won’t pretend that I know how we’ll do it, but we’ve reached the tipping point. It’s time to disconnect. A new movie suggesting exactly that could well be a harbinger.