Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
This week US senators are faced with an unexpected – and not especially welcome – digital detox. As the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump progresses, they have been required to comply with a set of trial rules that include no coffee (no kidding!), no talking, and no cellphones or other electronic devices in the Senate chamber.
So far, they’ve been pretty good about this, stealing away at breaks to check phones and talk to the press. Back in the chamber, they sit-and-stay, phone free, but some fidget in their seats, yawning, passing notes to colleagues – not unlike school children. And, one hopes, also focusing on the cases being presented by House managers and Trump’s defense team into the small hours of the night.
Some of them say it’s no problem, and the time away from electronics is welcome (“Beautifully old fashion,” said Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski).
But others began the week not so optimistically about the deprivation, digital and otherwise: Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas predicted that “frustration will build.” And of the no-talking rule, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida simply suggested, “That’s going to suck.” They’re right: for people used to constant communication – particularly those tethered to the dopamine-delivery that can come with texts and Twitter – withdrawal is indeed a big deal.
(We’ll pause in our sympathies here to note that the impeachment trial is likely one of the more important moments of these politicians’ – and their constituents’ – lives; one might hope they would at least pretend to want to pay attention, free from the distractions of news alerts, text messages and perhaps Candy Crush.)
The fact that some senators are instead experiencing what appears for many to be minor panic at the thought of losing access to their devices should not be surprising. The average American spends nearly three hours a day on their phone, though of course many spend more than that. Clearly, it’s too much, and most of us could use a detox just like these senators.
Many of us are trying hard to get one: a report from the market research company Global Web Index found that 7 out of 10 people recognize their dependence and are trying to moderate their digital consumption in some way.
In fact cutting the smartphone cord as an adult makes good sense: Although the negative impact of screen time is typically discussed in the context of kids, a report from the Pew Research Center found that when it comes to device-related distraction, parents are no better off at managing their phone usage.
Why is that a problem? Fifteen percent of parents reported losing focus because they’re distracted by their phones, compared with 8% of kids. Additional deleterious effects of digital dependence include reduced cognitive function, weight gain, sleeplessness and damaged relationships. And a 2017 study found a link between depression and screen time among American adults.
As unpleasant as all of those things are, a sudden withdrawal from addiction to anything – including electronic devices – also has its serious problems.
One study published in the Journal of Travel Research found that the early days of a digital detox can produce feelings of anxiety, frustration and withdrawal, with symptoms like insomnia, depression and something called “inattentive blindness” caused when users who’ve become so accustomed to digital assistance in keeping track of appointments, navigating from place to place and retrieving phone numbers put their prefrontal cortex into overdrive to compensate.
This can result in missing crucial – and potentially life-threatening – details of daily life.
Which is why a gradual withdrawal – or at the very least the presence of a robust support system in place (family, friends, professional help) to manage the symptoms of detoxing – would be most ideal.
Of course, the best impeachment trial would be one attended by clear-headed, well-rested senators, sans phones and with the ability to pay attention to detail. Whether they have these things or not, they just may have to sweat it out – and practice their deep breathing – until the eventual feelings of acceptance, enjoyment and liberation set in.
At which point, who knows? The senators may opt to cut back on their digital time for good. One study of 35 professionals left without devices in the Moroccan desert found that after three days without technology they had better posture, greater eye contact, better sleep and improved memory.
Could it happen? Could a benefit of the unfortunate impeachment process be that at least some senators break the cycle of dependency? Modify their behavior? Perhaps.
But let’s check back with them in a few days – and hope they can hold it together enough to do their jobs: take the impeachment process seriously, honor the US Constitution and work in the best interest of the country and the citizens who sent them to Washington. Without distractions.