Photo by Tracy Le Blanc
Technology / Generation Z

A Cliched (but Urgent) Millennial Problem

Partway through my semester abroad, I came to a classic millennial (or Generation Z) conclusion: I was forsaking real, fascinating experiences in order to scroll mindlessly through my Instagram feed or look at memes on Facebook. I realized that when I needed to translate words into Russian for homework, I would forget why I opened my phone in the first place, only to find myself mindlessly staring at the same Instagram post that I had already seen five times that day. 

In situations that required deep linguistic engagement, or if I felt tired or intimidated, I would retreat into my phone to avoid the challenge. I bought a few Russian and English language novels to read in my free time, but instead found myself losing hours to screen time without even recalling a decision to pick up my phone in the first place. If I had a few minutes to spare between events or classes, or even on the metro, I would pull out my phone to pass the time. Without realizing it, and while simultaneously making frequent jokes about millennials, I had become reliant on my phone for a number of reasons.

Even in the United States, how frequently had I plugged a familiar address into Google Maps for the sake of efficiency, even if there was time to spare? How many hours had I spent looking at images or posts that truly added nothing to my life, and in fact prevented me from engaging with the present? How many unique experiences had I forgone by sitting in my cozy Soviet-built apartment, completely sheltered from the language immersion I had signed up for? If nearly every waking moment was filled with some sort of task, whether intentional or not (in the case of screen time), was there any time left for the type of calm, unobstructed reflection that comes with simply sitting and living? Perhaps this is a bit overblown, but, needless to say, I had arrived at an important, and somewhat shameful realization about the ways technology has come to dominate younger generations’ lives. 

After sharing these fears with a friend who had come to a similar realization on her semester abroad, she pointed me in the direction of the viral Burnout Generation article. In it, the author describes a sort of “errand paralysis” in which one creates lists upon lists of small tasks but never seems to complete any of them. She concludes that burnout is “the millennial condition,” and that the desire to be efficient and to optimize as many small or large tasks in life as possible is simply unsustainable. This was music to my often-overworked and exhausted college student ears. All joking aside, I felt uneasy about the many ways that my technology use mirrored those patterns and behaviors that the article condemned. 

Technology addiction and burnout is a pressing concern for people of every generation. Many parents worry that their children spend too much time interacting with friends or acquaintances virtually, instead of spending time face-to-face. Some studies have found that excessive technology usage can have drastic negative effects on young brains. Others take a more conservative stance and argue that screen time, within reason, is not detrimental to childhood development. Experts and consumers are divided as to whether technology breeds creativity or inhibits it. There are convincing arguments to be made on both sides.

Researchers have determined that prolonged screen time before bed can wreak havoc on one’s sleep schedule and the quality of sleep enjoyed. Scientists report that the blue light emitted from gadgets inhibits the natural production of melatonin. This hormone is part of the circadian rhythm and signals to our bodies that it is time for bed. Apart from increasing alertness, the blue light in screens can delay the precious REM cycle and shorten it, thereby decreasing the overall quality of rest that one gets.

For working adults, constant virtual contact through smartphones and other gadgets often means an ever-increasing responsibility to be reachable at all hours. The term “work-life balance” has become a buzzword for many working adults, especially for millennials when weighing new job opportunities. Many American professionals lament this lack of work-life balance, or at least the challenges associated with striking a balance. It appears that they have cause for concern; the OECD ranked the United States 30 out of 38 countries when it comes to work-life balance. At the top of the chart stand the Netherlands, Denmark and France.

Key search terms like “burnout,” “technology addiction,” and “smartphone generation” yield countless Google results that offer tips and tricks for “kicking” an unhealthy screen habit or “breaking up with your phone.” One of the results even reveals that Americans pick up their phones an average of 52 times a day, and notably, 63% of smartphone consumers are actively trying to limit their usage. 

Like many smartphone consumers that have come to realize their excessive reliance on technology, I turned to an app (oh, the irony!) to monitor my usage and (hopefully) provide the extra motivation needed to cut down my screen time for good. Apart from the pre-programmed “Screen Time” settings on Apple and Android devices, I came across countless self-help applications that track the frequency with which you unlock your phone and the amount of time that you spend on it daily, including a breakdown of time spent for each app you use. Some apps even compare your statistics to the average for your age range or the nation. 

So far, four months in, I have noticed a stark change in my smartphone habits. I’ve cut my usage down by 50% and have found that I no longer rely on mindless scrolling to pass time. The most helpful tip I read online was to ask yourself what your purpose is each time you pick up your phone. It can be unnerving to realize that many times we pick up our phones without any given task in mind. In the last month of my semester abroad I finished a few books and crossed even more sights and experiences off my endless tourist to-do list. Equally as important, though, was the time I spent just living, without any specific task, without a phone in hand, just thinking about the semester or taking in an experience or sight. 

I’ll be the first to admit that this is a comically predictable millennial or Generation Z problem and that there are, undoubtedly, much bigger considerations in life than reliance on technology. That being said, just a few small changes in usage can have a snowball effect on quality of life. After all, life is that much for fulfilling when you take an active role in it.