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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is the age of unplugging on planes over?

Life in the clouds is a utopia free from WiFi, email and conference calls. But for how much longer?

(Andrew Haener/Illustration for The Washington Post)
8 min

The sky is one of our last sanctuaries from the connected world. When WiFi is available on a flight, it’s usually unreliable or expensive, keeping most of us on airplane mode. Flying commercial forms a bubble away from the normal distractions of life, where we can focus uninterrupted on the important things, such as watching an entire movie without looking at our phones.

Life in the clouds is a utopia free from emails and conference calls, but advancements in technology are conspiring to end this untethered era.

On Feb. 1, Delta Air Lines will begin offering “fast, free” WiFi on most of its domestic flights, another milestone in the industry’s quest to improve in-flight internet. And the European Union has given member states until June 2023 to set aside 5G frequency bands for planes, paving the way for cellphone connectivity on flights overseas.

Delta plans to expand its WiFi service significantly by the end of 2024. Like passengers on JetBlue, or T-Mobile customers on several airlines, Delta’s would be enabled to stream, surf and scroll at high speed from the tarmac to the sky, just as they would on land.

The free WiFi announcement made headlines as a godsend to many. “Of course it’s a good thing for Delta and for customers,” Gary Leff, author of the travel blog View From the Wing, told me. John Rose, chief risk and security officer of the travel agency Altour, called it “fantastic,” something that travelers will enjoy and that will make flights go by faster.

“And let’s face it,” Rose added: “You may want to unplug, but it’s also highly productive when you have a 5½-hour flight.”

You may want to unplug — but.

With easily accessible internet at our fingertips at all times, you may be familiar with the temptation to connect often being too great to resist. The justifications to get online are endless: There’s always work to do, family to check in with or boredom to salve.

Plus, our devices are designed to be impossible to ignore.

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Downloading dopamine

I saw the free WiFi news like a horseman of the digital apocalypse, chasing us toward a permanently online reality we won’t be able to escape.

In the final seconds before a plane peels off the runway, my adrenaline spikes. I’m always racing to download one more podcast, send one more text, judge one more Instagram post. But no matter how much internet I get, it will never be enough.

After takeoff, there is peace. No more endless pit of opportunity, just a digestible amount of pastimes.

At first I thought my flinching had to do with nostalgia; a plane with no WiFi sounds romantic. But just like the glory days of dressing up for flights are behind us, we’re far past a time of passengers buried in paperbacks and newspapers. The norm is to find your seat, buckle up and plug into some device.

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No, it isn’t nostalgia; it’s the realization that our forced internet breaks are healthy.

The downside of logging on

When we’re on the internet, “we’re constantly reacting to external stimuli,” said Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University’s School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic. “We’re in a state of expectancy focused outward. … There’s a sense of alertness, hyper-vigilance, expectation.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re using it to do work or check your email; being on the internet is mentally taxing. Much of what we do online “requires something of you,” said Russell Clayton, an assistant professor at the Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida and a performance and well-being coach. “There’s a cognitive burden on you.”

You’re aware of the people awaiting your reply. There’s that old article you meant to read. You’re constantly bombarded with companies trying to sell you things they know you’d like. As the Cranky Flier blog points out, Delta’s in-flight WiFi is free, because airlines can monetize your data.

“That world is shaped by algorithms, obviously,” said Oliver Burkeman, author of “Four Thousand Weeks,” which discusses making the most of our short lives in a world of impossible demands. “So we’re at the mercy of forces that don’t necessarily have our best interests at heart.”

Your brain needs rest

Burkeman argues that the more time we spend in a world shaped by algorithms, the more we’ll lose our capacity for independent thought.

Being online has become the default, which “very naturally leads to a lack of being present,” he said. You’re distracted from the world around you, from how you feel, from what your neighbor in 34D is doing or what the flight attendant is asking you.

We’re stimulated by screens in a way “that’s akin to the way that we’re stimulated by intoxicants, like drugs and alcohol.”
— Anna Lembke

Lembke said something similar. When we don’t let our brains rest, it “deprives us of a quieting of our minds and focus on our own bodies, … our surroundings, what might be percolating from the depths of our own brains, uninterrupted by some kind of external stimulus.”

We need to rest, but it feels impossible. That’s the nomophobia talking.

Fight the FOMO

Coined in 2009, nomophobia is short for “no mobile phone phobia,” an irrational fear of not having your phone.

“It’s anxiety about being out of touch, … about not being able to access your virtual world,” said Larry D. Rosen, professor emeritus at the California State University at Dominguez Hills, who has been studying the psychological effects of technology since the mid-1980s. “And we all have it, by the way. It hasn’t escaped anybody of any age.”

Rosen said that, for many people, being on a plane has meant being out of touch, “and being out of touch is not comfortable.”

That might be withdrawal. Lembke said research clearly shows we’re stimulated by screens in a way “that’s akin to the way that we’re stimulated by intoxicants, like drugs and alcohol.”

“Frequency and quantity matters,” she added. “The more we use, the more we change our brains, the more we become anxious, dysphoric, irritable, distracted and the more we need to use over time in order to not feel good, but just level the balance or achieve baseline healthy dopamine firing.”

Once we land, we’ll use our phones to find our AirTagged luggage, to find our hotel, to open our hotel rooms with mobile keys, to hail a ride to dinner, to look at the restaurant menu — all of which are genuinely helpful uses.

Hope for a disconnected future

With the astronomic amount of time we spend on our phones for travel and our daily lives, are we doomed to never disconnect? Not quite.

“In the context of our culture, the possibility of being constantly connected is so new,” said Jonathan Malesic, journalist and author of “The End of Burnout.”

Malesic reminds us that most adults have a living memory of what it was like to live without mobile devices. Yes, we can disconnect, but “we just have to try a lot harder,” he said. “And there are a lot of forces pushing us toward constant connection. But it can be done.”

In her book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” Lembke makes a case for “self-binding” strategies to have a better chance at fighting the allure of our devices. They can be mental boundaries we set, such as limiting internet use to two hours a day, or physical ones, such as storing your phone in your carry-on.

Bad or expensive WiFi was a barrier we didn’t realize we needed. Now we need to come up with our own barriers.

Lembke hopes that, as we begin to appreciate the dark sides to our relationship with technology, we begin to create new digital etiquette with intention.

“Carve out spaces that don’t involve devices and that are sacred,” she said. “Spaces where people come together without devices and do that intentionally and appreciate the need for that.”

In the meantime, if you’re worried about getting called out for unplugging from the internet during your flight, Leff has a solution that should buy you a couple of years: “Tell them it wasn’t working on the flight.”