Do We Need An Internet Sabbath?

As a professional web developer and social media strategist, I spend a huge amount of time online. Whether blogging, connecting on social media, developing websites or conducting research, the internet is an integral part of my daily life. Thanks to my smartphone, I am connected pretty much anywhere I go.

In general, I like things this way. I marvel continually at the power of electronic media to bridge time and geography, allowing me to communicate and maintain relationships with people throughout the world. Never, since the invention of the printing press, has our ability to share information been so dramatically amplified. We are living in a moment of great opportunity.

But these advances in communications have a shadow side. Social media can empower and extend real-life social interactions, but they can just as easily result in a world where most of our life is mediated by glowing screens, our conversations limited to 140 characters or less. At worst, electronic communication can objectify our relationships, cheapening our friendships and fostering one-dimensional conversations. There is a real risk that web and social media, improperly used, can increase alienation rather than deepening connection.

There is a balance to be struck between cyberspace and in-person relationships. For me, it feels important to heavily weight real-life interactions over the connections I build and maintain via electronic media. As important as web and social media is to both my personal and professional life, I view the social web as a supplement to my in-person relationships, not as a substitute for them.

My experience is that spending too much time online actually distances me from reality. When I have someone over to my home for dinner, or spend time walking around downtown with a co-worker, there is a rich mix of dynamics at play: Body language, tone, subtle pauses in the conversation and the felt sense of connection with another living presence. Contrast that with an email. I have nothing to go on but text on a screen.

There is a tipping point beyond which I can easily lose my grip on the real world. After sitting in front of the screen for long enough, it is easy to forget the colorful, complicated, surprising world that I live in. Without fully realizing what is happening, I can become disconnected from my surroundings, from my own body, and from my awareness of God’s presence within me. I risk “losing myself” in the screen.

Particularly because I spend so much time digitally connected for my work, it is important for me to create boundaries for my use of electronic media. For example, I exclude screens from my morning routine. I do not engage with email, social media – anything screened – until after I am through with breakfast and morning devotions. That means the first hour and half of my day is screen-free.

I have also thought about having a cut-off time in the evenings; say, no web after 10:00pm. I have not had as much success implementing this boundary. I am usually on my computer in the hours before bed. Ideally, though, I think it would probably be best if I had at least an hour un-plugged before bed.

One new practice that I have been experimenting with is the idea of internet sabbath – blocking out entire days where I intentionally unplug. Think of it as a “digital detox.” These sabbaths tend to happen organically when I am away at spiritual retreats (usually in a Quaker context). I always notice how much clearer my mind and body feel after a day or two away from the land of constant status updates – and constant work.

Recently, I have been attempting to set aside Sundays as a day of rest from my internet labors. Most Sundays, I have actually pulled it off – not turning on my computer or tablet, and not using my smartphone for anything except unavoidable phone calls and texts. This seems to have a positive effect. Even being able to take one day off each week, to truly disconnect from cyberspace in all its forms, feels healing for me. It gives me the strength to re-engage in a healthy way the other six days of the week.

What do you think about this? Is your relationship with the web a healthy one? How do you maintain balance between the internet and the rest of your life? What role does your professional work play in keeping you plugged in, and where are the places that you might choose to disconnect? Are you in need of an internet sabbath?