I remember walking to my seat in a movie theater in 2003, the year the BlackBerry had become popular. As the first version of the modern day smartphone, the working professional could check his or her email on the go for the first time ever. Dozens of blue light beams buzzed as theater patrons soaked in as much information as possible before the movie started. Then as the lights dimmed, a chorus of chimes resounded around the room, the sound of a hundred cellphones powering down.
Today, it's a rarity that we shut off our phones and disconnect from the outside world. We were once reluctant to get up and refill our popcorn for fear of missing part of the film. Now, we welcome distraction; we even wait for it. Watching a film in a movie theater is a rich and rare experience that has become less relevant to our tapped-in, fast paced lifestyles. With unlimited access to information or entertainment on personal devices, we are constantly digitally engaged. Even at a movie theater, a place designed specifically to hold our attention, we look to alternate screens for entertainment, or for signs that we are still socially connected.
In a lot of ways, we are egged on by the media to multitask while watching a movie or a television show. Our Netflix accounts are linked to our Facebook accounts; television shows and commercials have their own hashtags; "live-tweeting" during the Oscars and other live broadcasts has become a trend. We're encouraged to navigate away from a movie that we’re watching or to pick up another device. Toggling between screens and interacting socially online has become a compulsion and we are rewarded for submitting to it. Obtaining "likes" or increasing our following on the internet gives us a sense of importance and triumph, and actually incites the production of dopamine in our brains. We're not just watching movies to be entertained — we want to contribute to a larger conversation, and to reap the physical and emotional benefits.
Our impulse to interact online could strike at any time. While watching Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, a deeply cerebral and unsettling film, the person in front of me at the theater took a photo of the screen and posted it on Instagram. A friend of mine once spotted a girl shuffling through a photo album from a prom on her iPad in a movie theater. In fact, according to a study in July of this year, 35% of Americans use their cellphones while at the movies. But it's not altogether our fault: smartphone users have developed a subconscious habit of checking their email and/or facebook for about 30 seconds, every 10 minutes, on average.
Giving in to the compulsion to look at our phones while at the movies, or to navigate away from a show on Netflix to check our email can have a negative effect on our mental health: media multitasking is actually linked to social anxiety and depression. While we are encouraged to share our every sentiment or experience online, this does not fulfill our need for actual human interaction. Habitually checking our iPhones, according to UCSF neurologist Adam Gazzaley, acts as a way to avoid interacting with people in the real world. The drop of dopamine that we get from an email or a Facebook notification doesn't last very long, and we are left feeling bored and alone, craving the simulated social activity.
What if we did disengage? What if we actually turned off our phones when the PSA at the movie theater asked us to? Not only would the experience of the film itself be that much greater, we would be living momentarily without the pressure to interact online, released from the everlasting quest for the drug that is social media. Rather than trying to avoid Downton Abbey spoilers as we scroll through our news feed, we would experience media firsthand, for and by ourselves, and therefore in a more meaningful way. Places like movie theaters give us the chance to absorb entertainment media without distraction, and we should take advantage of what has become a rare opportunity.