I Miss When Life Was Lived Outside of Screens

By De Elizabeth

As an older millennial, I’m part of the last “unplugged” generation.

Growing up in the ’90s, I didn’t have internet until late in elementary school, and even then, it was extremely limited: email, chat rooms, search engines for school projects and reports. In middle and high school, we used AIM regularly to finish conversations started in the hallways, and I recorded my emotions and daily events in my LiveJournal throughout college. But when I closed my laptop, walked out the front door, and got into a car with my friends, the digital world stayed at home. The real world remained untouched, uninterrupted. Separate.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve picked up my iPhone just today. It was the first thing I touched this morning, to turn off my alarm. I scrolled through Twitter and Instagram before getting out of bed. While making my morning coffee, I glanced through news posts and emails. I responded to text messages throughout the morning, tweeted a few times, added a boomerang or two to my Instagram story. I’m home with my toddler today, and usually leave my phone on the kitchen island while I play with her on the living room floor, but every time I pass it — on the way to fill up my water bottle, to throw something in the trash — I’ll tap it, the screen lighting up, often displaying a new email, a new text, some other colorful notification.

In some ways, I’m appreciative of our modern-day technology; there’s value in being able to reach out to your best friends or family members — all of whom are scattered across the country — anytime in a matter of seconds. There’s value in being able to access information instantaneously, being able to take a photo, capture a moment in time.

But  for every notification, every scroll, every email I decide to answer, there’s a sliver of time removed from my day. It adds up; the Screen Time app can tell me just how much, and I don’t like to look at it, because I’m afraid it will make me feel ashamed, or sad, or some combination of the two. It’s not so much an addiction as it is a habit; it’s muscle memory, a mechanical routine. A moment of spare time? Scroll. Waiting in line at the store? Tap. Rinse and repeat.

So while it’s great to be connected, I miss the days when being unplugged wasn’t some aspirational goal, but it was the norm. We were unplugged by default; going online was a specific act that required an internet connection, a desktop computer, and a certain amount of time. It wasn’t the baseline, it was the exception. Life was lived outside of screens, and sometimes, we returned to the screens later on to document our lives — a photo album on Facebook, a blog post, an email to a relative — but more often, we didn’t. More often, we just lived, without sharing, without posting, without the blue light in the background.

As my daughter gets bigger, I want to try and give her more of that kind of life. Social media and technology is a huge part of our world — there’s no escaping it — but that doesn’t mean that she needs to experience life side by side with screens, the way we all do, the way I definitely do. Maybe that means letting go of the compelling pressure to document everything, to keep a visual record of our days; maybe it means forcing myself to put my phone in another room for an entire morning or afternoon. Because ultimately, the notifications, the emails, the texts can wait. The moment, as it is right now, only exists once.

Photo by Marie-Michèle Bouchard on Unsplash