By Staci Elder Hensley
We’ve all seen the viral videos. A woman pulls her cell phone out of her bra and answers it … during the middle of her wedding vows. Another woman, while texting and walking, falls into a fountain. Two joggers collide while both are absorbed in their phones. A group of friends are having lunch, and all are glued to their phones, absolutely ignoring each other. The documented examples of technology addiction go on and on.
Beginning early this century, Internet access, cell phones, social media and “apps” have taken their toll on our ability to connect as humans, and our ability to focus on personal and work-related tasks. As our usage of these technologies has increased, so have our overall rates of reported stress, anxiety, sleep problems and depression.
The way to counter this information overload is to make yourself “unplug” from your technology, ideally on a daily basis, say the experts.
“This is a time of great technological advances in communication, both from a local and global perspective,” says Charles H. Dukes, M.D., psychiatrist with OU Physicians. “However, this technology and the virtual world in which we have become immersed are limited in depth and dimension. They are not a substitute for being physically present and engaged in an authentic dialogue with another person, which stimulates the full range of human sensation and perception. If one is not fully present with others, it can cause significant barriers in communication, in addition to creating a source of resentment and tension in important interpersonal relationships.”
Leigh Steere, cofounder of Managing People Better, LLC, agrees.
“People whose eyes are constantly locked on a screen are missing out on vital in-person connections with other people,” she said. “Observation is a key to learning and to gaining new insights. If your head is always down, you are missing the world around you and what it might teach you.”
Why Unplugging is Critical
People these days usually are proud of their ability to multitask, and see it as the normal method of operation, at home and in the workplace. In reality, multitasking is the least effective way to get things done, and usually results in sub-par performance with everything you’re doing.
At some level, though, most of us know that doing three or more things at once, instead of focusing on one, isn’t helpful. If you’re trying to answer texts and email while writing a report, or texting while making dinner or talking to your children, you’re not going to do any of those things very effectively. When multitasking is done consistently, over months and years, it can damage or destroy a person’s ability to focus, to form healthy relationships, and to do well at their job.
In some cases, clinging to your technology can be downright insulting – such as if you’re at a holiday gathering and you’re texting friends rather than talking to family members whom you only see a couple of times a year. Technology addiction also can be deadly. Texting while driving, for instance, has become so dangerous and so widespread that national ad campaigns have been created to discourage the practice, which is now illegal in most states, including Oklahoma.
Scheduling time away from your technology is absolutely vital to boosting one’s quality of life and ability to interact. Many experts recommend disconnecting during family dinner and for at least an hour or two before bed.
“Without question, it is extremely valuable and necessary to unplug from technology on a daily basis,” Dukes said. “The virtual world is no substitute for the corporeal world of sensing and perception. In order to have an authentic dialogue with another person, one must be fully present.”
Activities that can help refresh and restore your mind can include everything from meditation, journaling and reading a book to exercising, exploring nature, and simply talking face-to-face with your family and friends.
“It is important to have a good balance between work and one’s personal life, and technology affects both,” Dukes said. “Most of us are creatures of habit, and it’s important to set boundaries with technology.
“In the same way we should set aside time in our busy lives for exercise, we should also set aside time when we are free from our computers or phones,” he added. “Just like with exercise, start with small steps, like one or two hours a day where you don’t check email or look at your phone, and then increase that gradually to maybe a four-hour block of time where you are free of technology. This does take work, but many people who have extended periods of time without the electronic distraction report that their overall mood, anxiety levels and peace of mind improve.”
For many people, that improved morale comes as a surprise. They don’t realize the effect it has on them when they see everyone on Facebook posting photos of their exotic vacations, gourmet meals or gorgeous new homes and cars, while they themselves are slogging through the daily grind of work and chores. Taking a break from that bombardment of images to talk with people or take a walk outside can literally restore the soul.
Many CEOs and others have found that unplugging on the weekends works like a mini-vacation or retreat, and allows them to regain perspective, restore their energy and motivation, and even come up with new ideas. It can be hard to do initially (especially if bosses, coworkers or clients are objecting), but you can counter with the statement that stepping back for breaks will actually boost your job performance. If it’s an option, you can go so far as to designate someone else to reply for you while you’re unavailable, and then return the favor.
The benefits of unplugging are even greater if you can summon the discipline to go on vacation without your phone, laptop or iPad. You may miss out on a few Instagram photos and Facebook postings, but it will allow you to live fully in the moment, experience a genuine break from your work and daily life, and reconnect with those around you.
What the Research Says
Lots of studies are underway to determine just what’s going on with people – physically and mentally – when they’re connected to their technology 24/7. There’s even debate among the experts about whether or not Internet addiction should be classified as an official mental disorder. Research has shown that receiving emails, texts and tweets can actually produce a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical neurotransmitter produced by the brain, and it plays a prominent role in addiction.
“Studies have revealed that certain individuals are genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors or substance abuse disorders,” Dukes said. “However, addiction is a complex biological and physiological process, and we want to be careful [not to label someone incorrectly]. Certainly, a person who might be predisposed to addictive behaviors could become more preoccupied and/or obsessed with technology.”
A Swedish study found that the light put off by tablet computers reduces the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are linked to both sleep disorders and depression. Another study, conducted by TNS Research and Hewlett Packard, determined that employees who were distracted by emails and texts suffered a larger IQ drop than if they had been smoking marijuana. Ongoing studies are revealing that an obsession with technology and social media results in individuals becoming lonelier, jaded, jealous or otherwise mentally unhealthy.
The Connection Challenge
Recently, another Internet video made the rounds – this one located in the center of a big city – where a gentleman was inviting random individuals to sit in pairs, face to face, and stare into each other’s eyes for one minute. A few brave souls took part in the experiment and learned just how long a minute can be. Sixty seconds of solid, focused human contact, looking into our “windows to the soul.” At the end of the exchange, most of these random strangers ended up hugging each other. Something that was very hard for them to do initially turned into an overwhelming positive for everyone. It’s a vivid reminder of our need for human contact, and why disconnecting from our electronic “masters” should be an everyday event in our technology-obsessed society.