Yesterday morning, the air was warm and the skies were a shade of blue they hadn’t been in weeks. I rode my bike to the park through the set of a Disney movie. Birds sang, squirrels skittered up tree trunks, and the grass was lush and green. Yet something felt…off. I looked around. Children were laughing on the playground, and a group of senior citizens peacefully practiced tai chi on the lawn. What was amiss?

Then it hit me. While the youngest and the oldest park-goers were enjoying the summer sunshine, everyone in between was eerily still. They were sitting on benches, walls, or frozen mid-step, lost in their own, digital worlds…not connected to people, but to phones. They weren’t absorbed in deep conversations, either. Moms, dads, teenagers walking to school, 20-somethings with worn out backpacks and brand-new iPhones, were all locked in the same, expressionless stare. I felt my phone buzz in my pocket and hastily put it on silent.

The rest of the day, I was hyper-aware of how smartphones have quietly pushed their way into our lives. At stoplights, bus stops, and coffee shops, people were staring blankly at their phones. A group of middle-schoolers waited in their pick-up line nearly motionless, their texting thumbs the only sign of life. Worst of all was a family of six out for dinner. Each family member, toddler included, was on a device. I waited for one of them to look up. They didn’t.

Phones have done more than push themselves into our lives; they’ve pushed people out.

man-holding-iphoneMany of the hour’s children used to spend outside with friends is now spent glued to an iPad. It’s no coincidence that US rates of ADHD and childhood obesity have steadily risen. The addiction to digital connection is not limited to children. Upon reflection, I faced some ugly truths about my own smartphone use. During a typical day, seldom does an hour go by without checking my phone. In order to avoid the temptation, I had to turn my phone off altogether. I felt anxious at first. What if I missed an important call? I left the phone at home and drove to the Strand.

When I got there, the sunset took my breath away. Knowing I would see it just this once, without a picture on my phone to remember it by, made it all the more beautiful. I roller skated along the Hermosa Beach pavement, aware of every small bump in the road and every person I passed. I stopped to appreciate the last sliver of sun with total strangers. I felt grounded again.

Many of us are so accustomed to life with smartphones that we don’t recognize when we need to turn them off.

One could argue that by turning off our phones, we might miss an important phone call or text…but what are we missing if we don’t? When we’re so connected to our phones, we’re missing out on connecting with the people right in front of us.

Our profound discomfort with stillness means that we’re filling the downtime in our lives with notifications instead of thoughts. Constant connection means we’re frequently living in the past or anticipating the future. We’ve forgotten how to be present.

I could easily report statistics on the detrimental effects of excessive smartphone use on our health, but we have all the evidence we need in our own lives. We’ve grown accustomed to the overstimulation of online entertainment, unrealistic Instagram feeds, and instant messaging, and it’s taking away from our appreciation and respect for our real lives.

Technology isn’t going anywhere so the key, as with most things, is balance. For example, try setting aside a few hours each day of screen-free time. Remind yourself that you don’t have to be available to everyone 24 hours a day. Every moment does not need to be filled with entertainment and busywork. This goes for kids, too. Despite their protests, being bored will NOT kill them. After they cease whining, they’ll be surprised to find themselves working a muscle they forgot they had: imagination.

Unplugging to reconnect

Regardless of age, disconnecting from screens allows us to become more mindful. When we unplug, we are more aware of our surroundings, our connection with others, and our connection with ourselves. Moments of nothingness provide a springboard for new ideas and personal growth. We remember how to actually enjoy life.

This summer, turn off your phone and go to the beach. Watch the waves tugging at the sand with long fingers of white foam. Breathe in the salty, sea breeze. Watch the last rays of sunlight paint the clouds brilliant shades of pink, orange, and red. Revel that in an entire lifetime, you will only experience this moment once.

And when you have that moment…live it.