Just before I set out to hike the Long Trail this summer, I happened upon two articles that blew my mind a little bit. The first, a cover story in Newsweek reported on studies about how the Internet and phones are causing psychological problems associated with addiction. The other, from a magazine I tend to avoid like the plague, talked about research linking wilderness time to increased mental efficiency.
It’s pretty obvious that people use computers too much, but the numbers in the first article were shocking– the average teen sends/receives 3,700 texts a month, a third of smartphone users get online before getting out of bed in the morning, and brains subjected to lots of internet use “look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.” University studies on the effects of students deprived of web and phone connections for one day couldn’t get started “for lack of participants.” There are all kinds of reports of Internet-fueled psychoses, deteriorating mental conditions, addictions to web connections. Egads!
Not to worry, though. Backpacker to the rescue! Under almost the polar opposite title (“Is the Internet Making Us Crazy? vs. “Hiking Makes You Smarter”), a writer for Backpacker followed a University of Utah psychology professor studying the effects of wilderness trips on mental health. It won’t surprise any hikers or outdoors people what the findings are. (If, like me, you don’t like the tabloid-rag style of Backpacker’s article, here’s an older and more professionally written article on the same researcher).
|Resetting the relax-o-meter|
After the first reading, the Newsweek article scared the hell out of me– I know I’m addicted to computers and connections (look at me– I’m writing this blog, and making iPhone apps specifically for people who go hiking). On the other hand, it made me feel a little better about myself– hey, I’m behind the curve! My daily screen time is quite a bit less than the national average, and I only send a handful of texts per week. Best of all, I can voluntarily go several days without the phone or computer just in order to be in the wilderness.
Still, I figured I would test myself. I’d been away from computers of all sorts at the NOLS Instructor Course in June– a total of 35 days without a text, email, phone call, whatever– and I didn’t miss any of it for a second. On the Long Trail, though, I wouldn’t have the structured course to say “don’t bring that thing!” So when I got to North Troy, I turned off my phone and waited to see how long it would be before I had the urge to check my messages, email, whatever.
Anybody want to take bets?
The first four days, I had no desire whatsoever to check in with the rest of the world. It felt great. While at NOLS, I didn’t consciously think about how I wasn’t using the phone, but I thought about it frequently on the Long Trail. Not in a “I need to hold back the urge!” kind of way, but more like “huh… neat… I have no urge”.
But cell phones can be especially useful as a tool for long-distance hikers. On day four, I realized I would soon be near a friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while, so I turned on the phone and sent a message to arrange a meeting. Four days was my record. I thought nothing of ending that streak. I just wanted to see a friend, and the phone was the tool to accomplish the goal. In the following weeks on the trail, I used the phone every few days to arrange meetings with friends, send an occasional note to Yvonne, or listen to Prairie Home Companion clips when camping alone.
That’s the level of my addiction, I guess. Did I need to use the phone? No. Of course not. Was it useful? A little. Was it a cop-out to use it rather than immersing myself in the trail culture? Sure. Would I do it differently next time? Probably not.
But the experiment got me thinking, anyway. Since moving back to Keene, I’ve been doing things differently than last year. I’ve cut down drastically on my Internet usage, mostly by cutting out all of my use of forums and web communities. I used to kill hours browsing through discussions on Backpackinglight.com, but I realized I was getting nothing from that community except more and more frustration at the tone of many conversations. I read fewer blogs now, I avoid most news sites, I don’t much care what news I’m missing. I feel more relaxed in general, and I now have drastically more time to read books, enjoy the home life, and work on my other projects.
One of those other projects, of course, is my iPhone programming, which is explicitly for use by hikers. That puts me in a strange place, since I’m enabling the use of gadgets in the wilderness. I’ve thought of that a lot since I started creating the apps, and it’s not something I take lightly.
So how do I reconcile my desire to keep the wilderness wild with my business of putting more gadgets onto the trail? The way I look at this is influenced by one of my fellow NOLS students I met in 2005. Some of you may remember this bygone time when cell phone use hadn’t exploded yet, and there was a big backlash against them. That fellow student, in response to an annoyed comment I made about cell phones at the time, responded with something to the effect of: “the phone is just a tool. The tool isn’t the problem, it’s the people who let themselves be owned by it.”
That about sums it up for me. Responsible use of a tool, and being able to resist the urge to overuse it, is more important than just getting away from it entirely. But getting entirely away from the technology is certainly good practice. It’s good to know that you have that ability, and to know how relaxing that can be.
Throughout the rest of this year, and into the next several years, I can see a long-term battle in my brain between needing to be connected (the blog, the apps, and friends spread over the country) and the need to be isolated in the wilderness. I’m just glad I have the latter option available in order to keep me sane. Apparently that’s not normal for most people. I’m always happy to be unusual.