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Are You Too Connected?

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Being able to reach each other anytime, anywhere, has some serious downsides.

By Susannah Shmurak Posted Mar 10, 2017

Person with media icons around them
I’ve only recently joined the ranks of the billions of people with smartphones, and I quickly understood why these miraculous devices have become so popular. (And why friends previously stared in disbelief when they learned I didn’t have one). As long as I’ve got my phone, I have a camera ready to snap a shot of any adorable moment in my kids’ day – and text it to their grateful grandparents. I can get directions when I’m lost, or look up the answer to virtually any question. Prior to this phone, I had a 11-year-old pay-as-you-go “dumb” phone that I’d gotten for emergencies. It couldn’t text, and it certainly couldn’t check the weather or show me a recipe. But I didn’t care much. You don’t miss what you’ve never known.

Here’s what I’ve noticed as I’ve slowly learned to use this remarkable and ubiquitous hand-held computer: It is in fact highly convenient to use little bits of time I would have formerly “wasted” to tame my overflowing email inbox. Waiting at the dentist’s office or in line at the grocery store, I can save myself a few minutes of reading and deleting emails. I’ve gotten many more photos of my kids’ daily lives, since I now always have a camera when we’re out. Texting other members of the family has proven a useful way to exchange information without taking time for lengthy conversations.

Now that I’ve got a smartphone, I certainly would notice its loss if I returned to its less intelligent cousin. The people who’d taught me to text would be annoyed if they had to call me instead.

Being somewhat technically challenged, I haven’t taught my phone to alert me when new emails or updates come in. Since I’m not a fan of social media and hate interruptions, it’s going to stay that way. But plenty of people go through their day constantly interrupted by the pinging of their phone, whether they’re on the bus, at lunch, or trying to get work done. As a writer who spends hours each day on her laptop, I know how much time can be lost to checking email, and I can’t imagine how much less I’d get done if I allowed myself to be interrupted in all these other ways as well.

At what cost are these incessant intrusions into the flow of one’s day? Smartphones, laptops, and tablets have quickly become so pervasive in our lives that many of us are not aware of how much time we spend on them, or what we’re missing when our attention turns to the latest pictures our college roommates/cousins/childhood friends/neighbors post on their walls.

Effects of Too Much Tech

Person on laptop
Study after study has shown us that excessive use of the internet on whatever device seems to elevate rates of depression and anxiety. And if you look up from your own phone long enough to look around you, in all likelihood you’ll see dozens of other people with their eyes glued to their phones on the subway, the street, or at the park with their kids. Only a few years ago, those parents at the park might have struck up a conversation, or gotten involved in their kids’ play. Or minds might have simply wandered, a state of rest our modern brains rarely enjoy.

Never unplugging seriously taxes your brain, which needs respite to recharge and function well. While our anxiety rises as result of over-stimulated brains and the glimpses of apparently much more exciting lives than our own, our disconnection from one another may also contribute to declining collective psychological wellbeing. Eyes glued to our screens, we miss the chance for real social interaction and destroy the opportunity to foster a sense of community in our increasingly isolated lives.

While incessant checking of email and social media might not be full-blown addiction, overly-frequent checkers may still show signs of compulsivity.

In its most extreme form, technology use can teeter over the edge into addiction, when a habit becomes so consuming that it interferes with one’s ability to function normally, whether at work or in relationships. Dr. Kimberly Young, who founded the Center for Internet Addiction more than 20 years ago, recommends consulting an 8-point screening survey to determine whether someone has an internet addiction.

The survey asks people to evaluate whether their internet use unduly preoccupies their thoughts, consumes their time, or has interfered with relationships or work. If someone has trouble cutting back on their internet use and prioritizes it over friends, family, or other enjoyable activities, it might be cause for concern.

People so consumed with their online activities that they short themselves on sleep may compromise their ability to function. Young works with parents so involved with social media they forget to pick up their kids or make dinner.

Disconnect and Reconnect

Teenagers texting
Psychologists who specialize in addictive behaviors advise taking stock of your technology use and reshaping your behavior accordingly. Start by realistically evaluating how much of your free time goes to activities like websurfing, email checking, and social media updates. Set yourself a reasonable limit for how much of your day may go to these activities, and then take steps to rein in your use.

Young likens internet use to another area many have trouble controlling: unhealthy eating. She points out that similar to disordered eating, there are two issues to consider when evaluating the health of your internet habits, how much and what you consume. She counsels people with internet addiction to put themselves on a diet, limiting the amount of time spent on the internet each day. She also helps them distinguish which uses of the internet are healthier. Someone with a gaming or gambling problem may still read the news or look up information, for instance.

Young challenges everyone to “check their checking” and set time limits. She also advises periodic detoxes, which she believes will help people rekindle their interest in relationships and other activities. She urges us all to “disconnect to reconnect” so we “have tech free time at home and more quality time with each other.”

5 Ways to Unplug

1. Limit interruptions

If one of the reasons you check your phone or email so much is because your phone dings when a new update or message arrives, there’s a simple solution. TURN OFF the notifications. Then you’ll only be drawn into your social media or inbox when YOU choose. And if you’re in the habit of choosing to check often, try to be mindful and limit your checks to a certain number every day rather than several every hour.

2. Put that phone away!

During meals out (or even in!), it’s not uncommon for people to have their phones in front of them on the table. Not everyone appreciates the underlying message this behavior sends: The people I’m dining with aren’t important enough to have my full attention. Hopefully modern etiquette will catch this faux pas soon, and having a phone on the table in front of you will join chewing with your mouth open in the category of mealtime no-nos.

3. Have a no-phone policy in the bedroom

Sleeping next to your phone is a questionable choice, exposing you to electromagnetic radiation and potentially disturbing your sleep. You do not need to get social media updates and work emails when you’re supposed to be sleeping! If you use your phone as a clock, just buy a separate clock and leave your phone with your work things. Rarely is something so urgent it can’t wait till morning.

4. Declare a tech holiday

Call it a tech sabbath or detox, or whatever’s most appealing to you, and vow to stay away from tech for a period of time. Curl up with a good book, play a board game with family, or get outside and reconnect with nature.

5. Detach digitally

If you’re struggling to implement the above suggestions, or if you need to keep your phone within arm’s reach for work or emergencies, consider downloading a ‘detach app.’ These apps allow you to program your phone to work only for messaging and phone calls for a limited period of time—turning everything else off so you can accomplish what you set out to do.

Becoming more mindful of your technology use can help you keep your life more in balance. Once you’ve regained control of your gadgets, you can use them intentionally rather than constantly and get more out of the real world around you.

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Are You too Connected?

susannahshmurak

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Susannah Shmurak is an enthusiastic advocate for healthier, more sustainable lifestyles. She shares practical tips about gardening, food, and low-impact living at HealthyGreenSavvy.com.
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