Recently, I walked into my local coffee shop and noticed something interesting: it was full of people, but few were actually talking to one another. One couple shared a table, absorbed in individual laptops, others sat solo—plugged into earphones, texting on cell phones or ‘catching up’ on social networking sites. It struck me as ironic, here were all these people more caught up in their virtual communities than the real one.
Obviously this isn’t just a local phenomenon, nor is it limited to coffee shops—it happens on street corners, in airports and parks, and on the bus and train, even at home. The more privileged among us have televisions throughout our houses, GPS systems and DVD players in our cars, and miniature computers in everything from our kitchen stoves to our portable music devices. As a tool, technology is invaluable, but when is enough, enough?
Claudia Dunn, Occupational Therapist and Lifestyle Consultant at the California Health and Longevity Institute notes, “Though our interactive experience has gotten richer in recent years as a result of the convenience and connectivity so many technological devices afford us, it’s also a tremendous distraction.” For cell phone and “smart” phone users, it’s a distraction that is particularly dangerous while driving, but overuse of technology—whether it be television, radio, computers, cell phones or the internet—is also damaging to relationships, as well as mental and emotional health. Dunn observes, “It can get to the point where we find ourselves interacting more often with digital interfaces than with the human beings in our lives.” Plus, she adds, “Many report their anxiety associated with even the thought of separation from the ‘fix’ of checking their email (etc.) incessantly has taken on all the qualities of addiction.”
Consider for a moment how use of technology relates to consumption of food. To be healthy, we want to take in well-rounded meals, drink plenty of water and moderate our intake of fats and sugars. For optimum health, we choose organic fruit, vegetables, meat and dairy. We ask questions about where our food comes from, and maybe even choose to eat what is currently in season. When it comes to using technology, we should be just as mindful. Television and radio news programs notoriously report the worst of all the bad, scary and generally awful events happening locally and globally. As Dunn argues, “Research shows that due to recently discovered ‘mirror neurons’ in the nervous system, even the passive consumption of ‘toxic’ media can register as vividly as what we actually experience.” She adds, “Psychologists hold that the repercussions of such consumption on a daily basis can foster feelings of depression, paralysis or an attitude of cynicism.”
The effects of overusing technology are perhaps more subtle than those from eating too many French fries, but the consequences to our health are comparable. Aside from the detrimental behaviors associated with any addiction and the well-documented physical maladies, like eye-strain and repetitive use injuries, linked to hours in front of a screen, using technology for written communication lacks the tone, body language, gestures and facial expressions that give such depth of meaning to words. Constantly tuning in to music, radio or television eliminates time for quiet self-reflection and contemplation, and limits opportunities for conversation. Habitually spending time in front of the computer or the television before bed has been shown to disrupt sleep patterns, not just as you are falling asleep, but all night. Emotionally, Dunn adds, “Coupled with the generally accepted perception that being constantly connected is associated with being successful, in demand and valued, one’s self esteem can become intertwined with one’s degree of device connectivity at any given time. Many relationships too are transformed to being maintained and nurtured more often virtually than in reality.”
To begin to unplug, first it’s important to have a realistic awareness of just how much you use technology currently. Try keeping a journal or notepad with you and for 24 hours jot down how much time is spent checking your email, listening to the radio, talking on the phone or sending text messages. Note television, computer, mp3 player and video game use too. Tally the number of minutes and hours you spent interfacing with technology. You’ll probably be shocked at how much of your waking life is ‘plugged in.’
Next, make a commitment to reduce your consumption of technology overall, by designating certain times for checking email, returning phone calls, catching up on social media, watching television and listening to the radio. Or take it a step further and eliminate use of all devises a couple hours a day, or even one day each week. Dunn says, “The key is to begin by setting appropriate expectations. If you set the expectation that you are perpetually available, then you’ll be treated as such.”
Finally, consider taking a scheduled technology fast—at least 24 hours free of any devices. You don’t have to wait for a vacation to do this—anytime will do. Dunn suggests, “Post on your social networking site (like Facebook), your status saying you’ll be off your phone and computer for 24 hours....” Change your voicemail message and email rule settings to let people know that you’re unavailable right now and when they can expect a response from you. As for the TV, radio, and other tech-toys? Put small things away, out of sight. Cover your TV or computer screen with a lovely scarf or lightweight blanket. Unplug anything else that you might turn on out of habit. Then ask yourself, what’s been missing from my life that I haven’t had time for? Whether its tending the garden, playing with your kids or nurturing a hobby, dive in. Get outside, take a hike, have lunch with a friend, read a good book. As Dunn says, “When not distracted by perpetual incoming stimuli, we have a chance to reconnect with the living, breathing people in our lives, catch our breaths and replenish our souls.”
Above all, use the time to contemplate your relationship with technology. Just like with any fast, you’ll become clear on what you miss most, what you can live without, and which choices you are making out of habit rather than true purpose or productivity. As Dunn notes, “Ultimately, if you’re feeling enslaved by devices and information, you’ll want to change your unhealthy relationship with media and technology rather than throw the baby out with the bath water. After the initial withdrawal period, you will find that you have taken back control of the role devices play in your life, using them as tools that serve you rather than a controlling force that must be tended to.”
Just like habitually eating fast food or reaching for a candy bar in the middle of the afternoon, unconscious use of technology has real and measurable effects on our health. And though many consider these tools indispensable, finding ways to moderate how and when you connect, tune in and plug in allows for a greater sense of personal freedom and more balance in day-to-day life, not to mention a closer feeling of true connection with those around you.