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Life is easier with technology. But is it happier?

by Gary Stern

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Steve Josephs is a 74-year-old tennis pro from Woodstock, N.Y. who—in the parlance of Malcolm Gladwell, author of “David and Goliath” and “The Tipping Point”—is an outlier. A 2015 study reported that 68 percent of all Americans have smartphones. But not Josephs. In fact, Josephs not only doesn’t have a smartphone, he doesn’t own or use a computer of any kind.

But is Josephs missing something because he can’t obtain online travel deals and post on Instagram, or is he—and the other outliers like him—happier avoiding the internet?

A New York University graduate, Josephs prefers a simpler life. He has never ventured online or ever engaged in social media. A bachelor with no children, he doesn’t need to worry about sending smiling digital photos to grandkids.

At the outset of his resistance, Josephs acknowledges he was “technologically afraid”. But then that fear turned into taking an independent stance that avoided tangling with all the digital problems weighing people down. “Their computers have been hacked, scammed and swiped, and I have no interest in sharing things on Facebook. I’m much more private than that,” he says.

Nor does he miss the massive movement to buying products online. “If I want to buy something, I go to the store and buy it. If I want to send a message, I don’t mind dropping a letter in the mail,” he adds.

In Josephs’ view, most people’s over-reliance on their smartphones and consistently checking messages is a way to “avoid contact with the outside world.” Instead, he stays in touch with a host of people through an old-fashioned mechanism: the landline phone. It works effectively, conversations are more in depth and more private than posting one’s innermost thoughts for all to feast on via social media.

John Suler, author of “Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric”, says the pros and cons of opting out of the digital age revolve around the four basic uses of the digital age—information, shopping, communicating with friends, and engaging in social media.

Therefore, people who don’t participate online are “being cut off from a lot of information, missing out on opportunities to shop, and having fewer ways to communicate with family, friends, and co-workers,” Suler explains. Hence people that reject computers often end up feeling “left out of the loop. They know less about what their significant others are doing and miss out on activities that are planned via the internet.”

Despite those limitations, Suler also notes a host of benefits that computer avoiders reap.

“Cognitive overload is a big problem with internet use,” cites Suler. “There is so much going on in cyberspace that our mind tends to go numb. We lose the ability to think critically, to examine things carefully, to notice subtlety, and to focus our attention.”

Moreover, smartphone users are invariably overcome by distraction. “They don’t pay careful attention to what’s happening around them or the people around them. They lose their ability to carry on conversations face-to-face,” Suler says.

“Abstaining from device use helps revive that awareness of and ability to effectively interact with people and the environment around us in the here and now,” he notes.

But Suler also says that over-dependence on smartphones and apps can be reduced by “phone control and self-control.” Turning off notifications or only activating them at certain times of the day can limit smartphone usage. Regarding self-control, he advises not taking your phone to bed (and don’t use the phone as an alarm clock; instead get an actual alarm clock), setting aside times during the day to turn your phone off, don’t bring devices to any meals and lastly, cultivate hobbies that don’t involve phones.

Suler describes the people constantly tuned into their mobile devices as “disassociated physically.” The dependence on devices is a “physically passive activity,” which isn’t good for people’s health and contributes to people being disconnected from their bodies and physical surroundings.

In fact, Suler says that people like Josephs may be in the vanguard of establishing a new subculture, rejecting mobile devices and social media. An increasing minority are fed up with “listening to people rant in social media. They are tired of the competition to get likes, the relentless wave of advertisements forced upon us, and the superficiality of what they see in social media,” declares Suler.

The true outliers are the people rejecting smartphones, opting not to be distracted, saying no to Facebook and Twitter. “Being in social media is the new form of social conformity,” says Suler. Some people want to feel different and unique by not participating in it.”

Gary Stern

Gary M. Stern is a widely-published New York freelancer. He’s contributed to Fortune.com, CNN/Money, Reuters, Investor’s Business Daily and New York Observer, to name a few. He’s collaborated on two books: "Minority Rules: Turn Your Ethnicity into a Competitive Edge" (Harper Collins) and "The Trouble with HR" (Amacom Press).

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