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Jun 6, 2019

The Radically Simple Digital Diet We All Need

Time for a detox. (Photo: Rialto Images/Stocksy)
Time for a detox.

These days our smartphone addiction has gotten so intense that many of us now habitually use the devices even when we’re supposedly unplugging. We listen to podcasts on our trail runs and endlessly document our weekend adventures for Instagram. All this has author Cal Newport deeply concerned. Newport has made a name for himself as a sort of canary in the digital coal mine, writing about the perils of our screen-dependent modern lifestyles. Last winter he published Digital Minimalism, a manifesto that proposes a reimagining of our relationship with technology that begins with a 30-day digital diet. In this first episode of a four-part series we're calling the Nature Cure, Outside editor Christopher Keyes talks with Newport about his radical—but very simple—approach to technology and how it can work for everyone.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are Dispatches: stories from our writers in the field.

Peter Frick-Wright (host): Just this past week, the New York Times ran a story about the latest technology scare, and it wasn't about Huawei and government espionage, or the latest privacy breach. It was about you and your phone and how your kids think you're addicted. The study, by Common Sense Media, found that about 4 in 10 teenagers worry that their parents spend too much time on their phone. Over half of those same parents admitted they spend too much time on their phone; but the fact that your kids are noticing your phone addiction isn't the scary part of the study. What's scary is that while both teens and parents reported noticing greater use of the other group’s smartphones, both groups reported less arguing about using their devices. We’re becoming more distracted and that distraction is becoming more normalized. That's a problem, not just one of values, but health as well. Even as our smartphones consume more and more of our time, over the past few years we've begun to notice that there's some very real world consequences to neurotically checking your Instagram feed every five minutes. 

It almost feels like we've lost control. We need a fix, and it shouldn't surprise you that we hear it Outside have a suggestion: go outside. What might surprise you, however, is that Outside only began reporting on the health benefits of spending time outdoors relatively recently. it wasn't until 2011 that we ran an article called “This is Your Brain on Nature,” and, as it happens, that cover concept was a late substitution after another plan had fallen apart. But it was a home run. When we saw the newsstand sales numbers, we immediately did what every media company does when they have a hit: we started working on the sequel. We've kept going ever since, assigning one story after the next that explores how nature can help us find balance and at least some semblance of calm in this new age of screens. 

And now, on the Outside podcast, we're bringing you a new four part series called the Nature Cure, exploring not only the problems with our hyper-connected digital lives, but how and why getting out in nature can help. We've got stories about forest bathing in Japan; doctors actually prescribing time outside of their patients; and a scientist who says the feeling we get out there, he calls it awe, has lasting benefits that you can't get any other way. But today we're talking with author Cal Newport about phones, and why it's so hard to put them down, and why the concept of digital minimalism is catching on. Of course, that does put us in the perhaps slightly hypocritical position of asking you to keep your phone on you just a little bit longer, but it'll be worth it in the long run. 

Here's Outside editor Chris Keyes interviewing writer Cal Newport about why our smart phones ought to all be sent to Vegas 

Chris Keyes: A few months ago, at an Outside story idea meeting, our Director of Audience Development, Jenny Earnest, pitched the idea of covering the writer Cal Newport. Newport has been in the news a lot lately, making a name for himself as a sort of canary in the digital coal mine, writing books and blogging about the perils of our constantly plugged in modern lifestyles. Last winter he published Digital Minimalism, the manifesto that proposes a radical re-imagining of our relationship with technology. To do so he prescribes the spartan 30 day digital diet, and in our story meeting, Jenny announced that she had started to challenge herself. Now a lot of people have already produced viral stories about ditching their phones, but her idea still intrigued me mainly because, well, Jenny runs all our social media channels. It's literally her job to stay on top of things digital, and, as she puts it, she's basically a child of the internet. 

Jenny Earnest: Outside of also working with social media, so I manage the social media department here, I pretty much grew up on the internet. So since first or second grade had an iPod, and then got onto Neopets and was on Myspace, learned how to code through that. So it's always been a huge integral part of my life. 

Keyes: Jenny's office is right next to mine and I've often seen her emerge from it, looking at her phone as she exits her doorway, just seconds after leaving her computer screen. Clearly going on a digital diet required some rigorous ground rules. 

Earnest: I was pretty strict. I actually wrote out all of my rules. Outside of a work context, there was no personal use of social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest == and those are all the mediums that I'm active on. 

Keyes: Eventually Jenny completed the 30 day experiment and I asked her what she'd learned. 

Earnest: So I think the main thing was just how much I would pick up my phone, not really have an intention for what I was doing, open something, immediately close it. That first week, especially the first three or four days I would say, I was opening apps that I wasn't supposed to use, had to close them immediately after realizing --  but also things like drafting posts in my head. Anything that I would be doing, I would get up in the morning, something would happen while I'm washing the dishes, something so mundane, and my first instinct would be, I need to post about this. So instantly I'm drafting a tweet in my mind. 

Keyes: That last part was what really intrigued me. The fact that so many of us experience life on this odd secondary level, constantly thinking about how we'll document everything we're experiencing in real time, so we can eventually share it on Instagram or Facebook. 

At Outside, we've written a lot recently about the power of nature to cure our over anxious, stressed-out lives. Research shows the time spent outside is immensely therapeutic, but to get the most out of nature, we should probably start by rethinking our digital lives. These days, our phone habits are intruding even into our wild spaces. Listening to podcasts over trail runs, endlessly photographing our backcountry ski tours and imagining pithy captions for Instagram. Scrolling through Twitter while sitting around a campfire. Unfortunately, I'm guilty of all of those things, and hearing Jenny talk about her 30 day diet, gave me serious FOMO. I was ready to give it a shot. 

But first I wanted to talk to the guru himself, Cal Newport.  I was curious about how he designed his detox protocols. Why 30 days? What about texting? Email?  I was even more curious how he managed to avoid all the pitfalls and phone addiction that everyone else's to come to. The guy is in his mid thirties and has never had a social media account, not even Facebook, and I should add, it hasn't exactly hurt him. He's already written five books and is a tenured Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University. So I started by asking him what did he see that none of us had? 

Cal Newport: Well, it's not that I saw anything direm because the original social media experience was not in itself something that was a particularly large source of time or anxiety or issues for people. It was essentially a novelty. When The Facebook came to campus in 2004 people thought, Hey, I can see the relationship status of my roommate's boyfriend or something like this. I mean it was something that people occasionally looked at. So the fact that I didn't sign up for it was not then a big issue or something that was seen as being all that unusual. But because I randomly, for whatever happenstance purposes, ended up not signing up, I was able to observe from afar as over time that relationship shifted, and social media changed from this novelty that people occasionally looked at just, to something that was dominating a lot of their free time. The key thing I noticed was how much our relationship has changed and how much we've forgotten about this. Thefacebook.com really was in the early days, or Instagram in its early days, was something that was much more of a novelty, that you occasionally logged onto because it was fun. And that really shifted. 

Keyes: There's a reason Newport's new book is called Digital Minimalism. In his view, most of us are all digital maximalists. And the title is there to present an idea that there's this simple alternative paradigm we should all be considering it. So it was pretty arbitrary. So what is a digital maximalist? 

Newport: Well, it means that if an app or service or site offers you anything of value, then you should probably use it. And so the maximalist sees missing out on something that could be valuable almost the same as someone taking that value from them. And so just like a maximalist in sight of household items will end up a hoarder because they want every single item -- maybe I'll need this one day, or maybe I'll give this as a gift one day, or I don't want to throw out that old newspaper because that was a good week -- so just as a maximalist in terms of items becomes a hoarder, a maximalist in the digital world ends up with this incredibly cluttered and haphazard collection of things pulling out their attention, each of which was added because there's maybe some small value it could bring or some small inconvenience that might arise from not having it. 

Keyes: Once I understood the concept of digital maximalism, the world we live in started to make a little more sense. It explains why Apple can generate lines around the block with every new product launch. It explains why we buy expensive smartwatches when a $10 pedometer might suffice. And it explains why your phone's probably littered with apps you downloaded, but rarely use -- if it's new, we have have it. But as Newport explains with each digital tool we're offered, we take the promise of its utility at face value and we never ask questions like, do I need this? Will it make my life fundamentally better? The result is that we've become so overwhelmed with technology that we're collectively starting to push back. 

Newport: Well, there's a shift happening now --people are starting to move away from maximalism, which I think tells us something about its source, which in my opinion is just the exuberance that comes along with any technological innovation. So smartphones were exciting. I mean this is a really interesting piece of technology. Web 2.0 that was exciting, right? This is a new piece of technology. Whenever we have new technology enter the scene, there tends to be a period of exuberance about 10 years long or so, in which people just embrace lots of different things. It's a period of experimentation, let me try this out, this seems valuable, what about this? It says our culture tries to renegotiate its relationship with its tools and I think it's telling that we're about 10 years out from the introduction of the iPhone. So as we hit this sort of magic 10 year period, the exuberance begins to wear off and we begin to become more wary about the consequences of that maximalism. 

I don't think there was anything particularly negative or surprising about the fact that we all went through this period of maximalism. I think that's sort of a healthy response to trying to figure out what should we do with these new technologies in our culture. But I also think it's equally healthy that as time wears on, we move past that sort of initial naive response and start thinking more critically, because people are beginning to see the trade off. Like wait a second, you know, all of these things which are sort of vaguely promising to maybe be important in high tech are very concretely keeping me away from things that I know for sure are very important for my career, very important for my life. 

Keyes: In Newport's view, smartphones themselves aren't to blame. Last January he wrote an op ed in the New York Times titled, “Steve Jobs Never Wanted Us to Use Our iPhones Like This.” “Like this” means like the constant companion models, the idea that we need to take our phone on every trail run or check it as soon as we wake up with all these tools. Okay. But how does he know what Steve Jobs intended? 

Newport: Well, I mean I went back and talked to his head designer, so that's one way. You can also go back and watch the keynote address or just rack your memory for what your digital life was like back in let's say 2007 or 2008. All of the strands of evidence point towards the same conclusion, which was the iPhone as originally promoted was a much more minimalist tool. I mean, Steve Jobs saw this as a way to be a better phone than had ever existed before; to be a better music player than a better existed before; and to combine them into one object because it seemed to him quite inelegant that you would carry, an iPod next to your Nokia, both in the same pocket. So it was really a tool that was meant to do a couple things that we already did and already loved to do those things better. 

There was no app store, there were apps on it, but these weren't things meant to dominate your time. It was like a calculator, which is useful, or Maps. We already used Maps. This is a better map experience. This was classic Steve Jobs: figure out what's important to people, make the experience even better. Nothing about that implied that you should look at your phone all the time, and people didn't look at their phone all the time, and it wasn't something that was in the air. That actually came later, even though we forgot that that's not the way it used to be. 

Keyes: You want to blame somebody through your phone addiction, Newport says, don't blame Apple. Blame social media. Well, social media and capitalism. As Newport points out, it wasn't until big companies like Facebook and Twitter began approaching their massive IPOs, they also began a massive psychological experiment making their services more enticing on mobile devices. 

Newport: So core to this shift from user acquisition to IPO mode was figuring out how can we get people to massively increase their engagement with our services. What they figured out once they started looking at this problem seriously is that we need to shift all of our attention to mobile, we need to get these things onto the phone, and then we got to get people to keep checking it on their phone, which, I want to remind us, was something that was very unusual in the context of social media in an earlier age. But the great shift that they did, and this was a brilliant business move, is that they transformed the social media experience so that it was no longer about you post things, your friends post things, and you read each other's posts --they shifted it from that to there is a constant incoming stream of social approval indicators, right? 

This is where we got the like button; this where we've got photo auto tags; that's where we got favorites in Instagram, retweets on Twitter. Now every time you tap the app, there's going to be some collection of indicators that other people are thinking about you and sometimes when you click on the app there will be a lot -- people are really happy and thinking about you a lot. Sometimes there'll be very little, so it's very intermittent, which hijacks our dopamine system; it makes it almost impossible not to keep checking and that experience completely transformed us from, ‘Oh, I go to this website sometimes to see, you know what my friends are up to,’ into ‘I have to check this thing all the time because at any moment there might be new social approval indicators waiting for me,’ and this was incredibly, massively profitable for these companies. It made them incredibly, massively profitable. But the side effect was that it completely changed our relationships from our phone. They went from being these Steve jobs style tools that we occasionally put the work for some very specific uses, like I want to listen to a song or look up directions, and made them into constant companions that we check all the time like air traffic controllers. 

Keyes: Newport wasn't the first to report on this. A few years ago, a gifted former Google engineer named Tristan Harris made headlines as a Silicon Valley whistleblower. At Stanford, Harris had trained in the university's renowned Persuasive Technology Lab, essentially learning the latest methods for using technology to influence human behavior. When his own startup was acquired by Google, he went to work for the company and began to see how they and others were using psychology to capture user's attention, and he didn't like it. He wrote a Jerry Maguire-style manifesto that was even circulated around the offices, but when company leaders largely sideline him, he left Google and started going public with his concerns. He made his biggest splash on 60 Minutes. 

Newport: Anderson Cooper was the host. Anderson Cooper pulled out his smartphone and said, so are you saying this is like a slot machine in my pocket? And Tristan said, Yes, that's exactly right. 

Tristan Harris: (audio from 60 Minutes interview) This thing is a slot machine. 

Anderson Cooper: (audio from 60 Minutes interview) How's that a slot machine? 

Harris: Well, every time I check my phone, I'm playing the slot machine to see what did I get? This is one way to hijack people's mindset, to form a habit. 

Newport: He knew that there's even research that made its way to Silicon Valley from Las Vegas where they had found out the optimal reinforcement schedules for electronic slot machines, and that research had made its way to the social media companies in Silicon Valley where they're trying to figure out this reinforcement model. He famously called it a slot machine and confirmed it was a slot machine in your pocket and made it clear that that metaphor is actually somewhat literal -- that it is designed in some sense to be a slot machine in your pocket. So he was really one of the first whistleblowers to come out of Silicon Valley and say, you're not using your phone so much because you're lazy or because you're easily distractible. We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to make sure that that's the inevitable outcome. 

Keyes: And is there anyone at any of the particular social media sites that pushed back against this and say, Oh, that's not what we're doing? Or what's the counter argument that they make about the value of their platforms despite these issues?

Newport: They don't like to talk about this issue, which is interesting. I've been noticing -- I've become an expert in social media PR strategy. And what I can tell, especially in Facebook's case, what they've decided is they really don't want to play in the playground of addiction, compulsive use, over use, the idea that people are on Facebook so much that it's keeping them away from things in their life that's more valuable, more important, because that's a place where they can't really improve things. The more you use it, the more money they make. So that's, that's a dangerous territory for them to argue. So what they've done, I think very effectively, and the national media has definitely followed their lead here, is they've tried to keep the focus on other issues with social media that they can address without hitting the bottom line of the more minutes the better. 

This is why you see Mark Zuckerberg, for example, talk a lot about data privacy, end to end encryption, data portability, or you see a lot of talk now about content: misinformation, the definition of hate speech, what’s censorship, what's not censorship. These types of topics, they're willing to engage in them because you know, they can make moves, they can try to make those better. They can have fixes, they can discuss them and none of it gets to the bottom line. But when I'm on the road talking to real people, why are you uneasy about social media? No one ever says, because Cambridge Analytica; no one ever says, because I think the data portability standards of Facebook are subpar. They'd say, because I'm looking at this when I'm with my kids and I know I shouldn’t and I can't help myself. 

Frick-Wright: We'll be right back after this word from a company that isn't trying to get you to stare at a screen. 

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Keyes: One of Newport's boldest predictions is that one day we'll look back on the idea of giving teenagers smartphones as being as misguided and potentially dangerous as giving them cigarettes. Research conclusions on the mental health side effects of heavy social media use have been mixed. There've been four recent major studies: two of them say social media is negative for your psychological well being; two of them concluded it was positive. So which one's got it right? Newport says to start by looking at who is behind you. 

Newport: Well, one of the things you notice is that the two that says that it’s positive, both have a Facebook data science scientist as a coauthor, and part of what's going on out here is that if you're working as a partner with Facebook as researcher, what you get is access to their data. That's the whole ball game. When you're trying to do research, especially research on let's say the effect of various online behavior, if you can actually get access to the Facebook user logs, it's a treasure trove. You can do stuff that no one else can do. But if you have access to the treasure troves, if you have one of their data scientists as a coauthor, coincidentally those papers tend to come out with pretty positive findings. I don't want to be too conspiratorial -- now if you actually look at their papers, it's not that the papers are wrong, it's what the positive papers tend to do is because they have the data logs, they can focus in on particular activities. 

And so when you dive deeper on these papers that say, well, there's positive effects of social media, what they're really doing is diving in deeply and looking at the specific things people do on social media and finding things like, when you are posting comments or sending notes to close family or friends, you feel better. Whereas the papers that say social media is negative, they tend to look at social media use as a whole. And so you use social media more, you tend to be less happy, you tend to be more isolated. And so what they're really capturing in the negative papers is the idea that the social media use is displacing from your life a lot of things that would be more positive. You feel better sending a note to your mom than doing nothing, but you feel much better calling your mom than sending her the note on social media. And so that seems to be what explains that dichotomy. 

Keyes: What’s more while notifications in the social approval aspects of social media overstimulate one part of your brain, conducting most of your social life through digital interaction starves another part. 

Newport:Well, the social processing centers of our brain have evolved to expect very particular circumstances surrounding these interactions. The social processing computer that is our brain expects a very rich analog flow of information when it's talking to someone so it can actually hear the timbre of someone's voice, their intonation, their pauses. If you're in person,facial expressions, body language; it's a very rich complex dance that our brain does when we're interacting with someone else. And this brain, which larged was formed in the paleolithic, really doesn't understand that a emoji bitmap diagram on this glowing screen is someone interacting with you, or it doesn't really understand that ASCII characters projected on a screen is really the same thing as sitting across from someone in your tribe and talking with them. And so as far as we can tell, we get much less satisfaction because our brain craves sociality, we're very social beings, and the digital sort of low bandwidth interaction doesn't satisfy that craving because it's not what the brain expects from social interactions, which is why we get these effects where increased social media use can increase loneliness. It's not that being online makes you lonely, it's that if you're online instead of actually doing the type of interaction that we crave, that's what makes you end up worse off. 

Keyes: And what about the anxiety component? What's the trigger of that? What's causing high anxiety among heavy users? 

Newport: One of the hypotheses that I tend to think is probably true -- it sort of also matches what I've observed -- is that our brains are not meant to constantly be processing input that was generated by other people. Now, this is something that we can do now with smartphones, ubiquitous wireless internet, and social media, is that at any moment of downtime, even a briefest moment of downtime, we can feed ourselves information that was generated by another mind: a post on social media, an article, a tweet, a comment on something we did, a text message, an email. We can constantly be feeding ourselves information from other people, but this exhausts the brain; the brain does not expect to constantly be in this input processing mode, which is a very high energy, high maintenance mode. It's something that uses a lot of energy. It's not something that we're supposed to be doing all the time. 

If you put yourself into this state artificially, basically during all of your waking hours, this is potentially a major source of this low grade anxiety that everyone feels -- that our brain is not wired to be constantly connected. And if you put it into that state, problems occur. 

Keyes: There's an easy fix to all of this -- well pretty easy-- digital detox. If Newport had his way, we'd all take a 30 day break to reset our digital relationships.

Newport: I mean it seems simple but this is actually incredibly restorative for a lot of people. To use the terminology of conservation, which is maybe appropriate for Outside listeners, it's essentially an effort to re-wild the brain, to bring the brain back towards a sort of more natural state, the state that it’s sort of more used to being into. 

If you leave behind the constant companion model of the phone, this very new invention that was really pushed by the social media companies that you always have to have your phone with you, you always need to be looking at it -- if you replace that with the old model, which is my phone is a tool that I use for specific things, but there's also a lot of time when I don't have it with me. You go back to that model, you are in effect re-wilding your brain. You're getting it back to sort of downtime, being free from input, just observing it, surroundings thinking its own thoughts and the impact can actually be profound. You do this for a few days -- I'm not talking about leave your phone behind all the time for days and days on end -- I'm just talking about four or five times a day, you go and do something, run an errand, do your laundry, go to the store, or something without your phone, or you commute to work with the phone in your bag, like simple things -- but you do that enough, it can have a profound effect on your anxiety levels, the sense of tenseness, because your brain is finally getting back to that natural state that it actually expects to be in for much more of its day. 

The sort of digital minimalist, you're much more careful about their phones. They spend a lot of time outside, they spend a lot of time walking. They're often among nature. They'll often talk about things as simple as just hearing birds, which seems like it's trivial, but there's actually something about that -- that I'm outside and I'm hearing the birds and I've noticed how the birds are different today than they were two weeks ago, maybe spring is coming. This type of observant background processing of nature is something that we're really wired for and it really makes us feel a lot better, and the foundation of this type of shift is saying, okay, my tool, my phone is no longer my constant companion. That's a nonsense model that's making us all less happy. 

I want the phone to be one of many tools I have in my life that I deploy for specific things. I have this particular pair of trail running shoes; they're great for what I want to go trail running. I have this cast iron skillet like it's great when I'm trying to cook certain types of meals; it cooks it really well. I don't bring the trail range shoes with me all the time. I don't go everywhere with my cast iron skillet. Let's start thinking about your phone the same way, which is, Hey, when I want to go listen to a song on a workout, my phone is great. Or when I want to look up directions when I'm in a new city, it's great. I can do it really easily and I can stretch it and, it'll show me different routes. It's great for that. But when I'm not doing something specific, I don't need it with me. It can go back on the shelf near the running shoes and the iron skillet. 

That's the minimalist mindset. And I think it's something that makes a lot of sense to people who are much more already pretty intentional about their life, but it really makes a big difference.

Keyes: And so why the 30 days? Why can't we just, I dunno, quit for a week? 

Newport: The minor reason is there is a bit of a detox effect that you get in about the first 10 days or so. In about 10 to 14 days, you lose the compulsive need to look at your phone. And it seems to me that you really want to diminish that compulsion before you try to make intelligent decisions about what you should use. Because if you're still feeling this compulsion to look at your phone, you're going to be hard pressed to make rational decisions about what you want on your phone or not. 

But more important to me is you need 30 days to figure out -- at least most people do -- to figure out their answer to the question of well, what am I really about? What do I actually want to do with my time? And I've just found, especially with young people who have had phones their whole life, that takes some time. I mean you have to go into the woods, you have to think, and you have to try out some hobbies and you have to spend time with people and you have to read and you have to be bored. It actually takes most people a nontrivial amount of time to actually figure out what do I want to really do with my life if I don't just have this glowing screen in front of me at all times? 

You know, one of the things I've noticed is the people who fail versus the people who succeed -- a big differentiating factor is whether they actually took advantage of this 30 day break to think seriously about the question of what they care about and what they really want to do with their time. So the people who took the 30 days to actually do the reflection and experimentation to try to figure out what really matters so that after 30 days are over, they could rebuild their tech life around these things they care about, they are much more likely to succeed and have sustainable results. Those who instead just treated it like a detox -- and I carefully don't call it a detox, I call it a declutter, because to me the goal is to sort of get all the clutter of your digital life, not just to take a break. Those who just treat it as a detox and try to white knuckle it. Those who thought, Oh I just look at my screen too much, it'll be nice to take a 30 day break; they rarely succeeded cause it's really hard and you have to have a reason that's better than just “a break sounds nice” or “I think I do this too much.” You have to have, this is the positive thing that I am replacing this with. This is what I really want to do. This is what's important to me. If you really believe in that, then it's much easier to just sort of reconfigure digital life around these things you care about. But just a desire to get away or take a break is not enough to actually drive sustainable changes for most people. 

Keyes: When most of us talk about digital addiction, we tend to imagine that as a concern mainly for teenagers. You know, those Snapchat obsessives who are all pathetically staring at their phones at a school dance. But the reality is, the constant companion model of smart phones is something that affects all of us.  Not only that, Newport says it may be teens who end up pushing back the hardest and changing the paradigm for good. 

Newport: The teenagers themselves are starting to revolt. I mean, they don't like this idea, they have to sit there in their room like slaves in a data factory, working on their Snapchat streaks, and carefully monitoring all these online presences and trying to figure out what social snubbing is happening. It's exhausting and they don't like it and it's making them anxious. No one's happy about it. And there's this sort of growing movement of revolt from the bottom up where it's now become counter-cultural if you're 16 to say, I don't use social media. That's the new punk rock in some sense. That's something that's making me happy. And the other thing is making me happy is parents talking about reading parts of my book with their kids, especially the parts about how these companies are just exploiting them and exploiting their attention. And this sort of natural healthy anti-authoritarianism streak in teenagers often comes into play and there's been a lot of teenagers who would then essentially come out of this conversation saying, well great, I'm not gonna use this anymore. Those types of shifts make me optimistic. 

I'm very negative about the impacts, especially with teenage girls when they have access or ubiquitous access to social media on a mobile device. For boys, there's other problems, in particular video game playing has sort of huge consequences, especially on sleep and health and other types of activities. But I am very concerned about the potential psychological harm of these tools for that particular subset of our population. 

Keyes: That's some scary stuff. After talking to Cal and reading his new book, I was convinced to try the 30 day digital diet myself. I even recruited my wife to join me. We wrote out our ground rules and posted them on our fridge. No phones in our bedroom, no social media. I deleted Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook from my phone. We limit ourselves to three shows a week on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon and keep my phone on do not disturb all times, allowing only calls and texts from my wife and my kids' school to come through. I gave myself 30 minutes a day of free news scrolling. The hardest part for me was podcasts. They are my true addiction, my constant companion on my daily runs and walks -- but re-immersing myself in nature, hearing the birds chirp, the sound of the wind, letting my mind wander without additional inputs, that was my main goal. So I left the earbuds behind. 

I'm now just a few days from the finish line. So what have I learned? I have way more time to read books, I read four this month, and I've even noticed my attention span increasing. I'm also less anxious after not constantly scrolling through the outrage on Twitter. I notice this, especially on weekends. I can't avoid screens at work, but after essentially discarding them for all of Saturday and Sunday, on Monday morning I almost feel the same way I do when I return from vacation. Maybe it's slightly less fatigued at the end of the day. So those are all the good parts. The downside, I really, really miss my podcasts. 

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OUTRO

Frick-Wright: That was Outside Editor Chris Keyes talking with Cal Newport. This episode was produced by Michael Roberts and Robbie Carver. The Nature Cure series is brought to you by Adidas and their radical new tool for getting away from your phone and out into nature: the Terrex free hiker. To find out more, go to adidas.com/terrex 

To learn more about the nature cure and why you really should put your phone down and go outside, visit outside online.com/naturecure and then seriously put away your phone. 

We'll be back next week with another Science of Survival.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.