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Why It’s so Hard to Unplug From the Digital World

Our digital virtual world may be overshadowing our real personal world.

Have you ever panicked when you forgot your phone while on an errand or brief walk? Have you ever checked your messages in the middle of a romantic dinner with a partner or date? Have you ever left a social gathering to find you’ve spent more time connecting with your Twitter network than talking personally to people at the gathering?

Do you answer texts or e-mails on the way home from work, during your dinner hour at home, or conversations with family? Do you go on vacation and find it impossible to be without your phone or Internet connections instead of just relaxing and enjoying your vacation?  Wake up in the middle of the night and have the urge to text, phone or email someone, or check the status of your social media sites?

Then you may be dependent or even addicted to the digital virtual world. What’s more, digital world dependence may be physically disconnecting you from others and your inner self.

 Sandra Moeller, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland studied 200 students aged 18-21 who had been asked to “unplug” from all forms of media for 24 hours, most in the form of digital social media. She concluded, “most college students are not just unwilling, but functionally unable to be without their media links to the world.” As one student reported, “I am clearly addicted and the dependency is sickening.” Another student said, “Texting and IM-img my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two things, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life.”

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 The study also concluded that students:

  • Use literal terms of addiction to characterize their dependence on media;
  • In their world, going without social media meant going without their friends and family;
  • Have only a casual relationship with news media, with no particular loyalty; they make no distinction between factual news and personal views; and they put as much credence in the views of friends as “experts.”
  • Are constantly texting and on Facebook, often just seconds apart;
  • Could live without TV and newspapers, but couldn’t “survive” without smartphones, iPads, iPods and similar devices. One student said, “I only use newspapers to clean my windows.”

Following the 2010 study by Moeller, a dozen universities in the U.S. and around the world are now engaging in a research project entitled The World Unplugged, based on the template of Moeller’s study. A separate study by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business found that most people consider Facebook, Twitter and email harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol.

People aged 18-34 have an average of 319 online connections, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. That’s compared to an average of 198 connections for the 35-46 group. Pew also recently reported that 63 percent of teenagers text message with friends on a daily basis. Thirty nine percent speak on the phone daily and just 35 percent interact face-to-face outside of school. Other research has found that text-happy teens send more than 100 messages per day. A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found a correlation between media consumption and poor academic performance. Twenty one percent of young people between the ages of eight and 18 consume at least 16 hours of media per day. Seventeen percent consume less than three hours per day. Forty seven percent of the heavy users reported typically earning grades of C or below in school, compared to just 23 percent of the light users. Twice as many heavy users as light users reported getting in trouble frequently.

According to Nicholas Carr, the author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, found that the average office worker enjoys no more than three minutes at a time at work without interruptions. The average American spends at least eight and a half hours a day in front of a computer or telephone screen, and the number of hours American adults spent online doubled between 2005 and 2009. The average American teenager sends or receives 75 text messages a day.

The problem of being constantly plugged in has expanded to the workplace. Work is no longer restricted to the office or actual place of work, it is carried with you to your home or anywhere you are through emails and text messages and phone calls. According to a study by the company Neverfail, 83 percent of professional workers check email after working hours.; 66 percent take a smartphone or laptop with them on vacation and more than 50 percent report that they send emails or texts during a meal with family or friends. These practices, while not officially mandated by employers, have become expectations. So the workday, along with the mental and emotional pressures of it, expands to fill workers’ lives.

How serious a problem is email? Studies such as that by Thomas Jackson and his colleagues, published in the papers of the Conference of Empirical Assessment, show that it can take over a minute for a person to focus their attention on the task at hand after they've been alerted to a new email. If the average person gets 100 emails a day, that's 90 minutes a day wasted by having to refocus on the work at hand.

Jonathan Spira, author of Overload: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization, contends that information overload costs the U.S. economy almost $1 trillion in 2010; that reading and processing just 100 emails a day can occupy over 50 percent of a knowledge worker's day, because it takes 5 minutes for the brain to get back on track after a 30 second interruption.

According to a research firm, Radicati Group, the typical corporate user sent and received about 110 messages daily, about 18 percent of which was spam, unwanted newsletters or alerts. A 2010 survey of knowledge workers by LexisNexis found 50 percent of the workers reported that less than half of the emails they received are relevant to getting their job done — most of which were interdepartmental emails. In the U.K. the Daily Telegraph reported that 30 percent of workers were suffering from “email stress”

A study by Dov Eden of Tel Aviv’s University’s Faculty of Management, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Organizational  Behavior and Human Decision Processes, shows that people pay a price for continued connectivity to work after work hours, in terms of chronic stress and job burnout. He also found that for people who were used to continual connectivity to work, when they did take a vacation without digital connectivity for a rest, they either returned to work extremely anxious or stressed, or the restful effects of the vacation did not last.

Four years ago, Facebook had 100 million users, today it has 1 billion. Jonathan Harris, writing in the blog Big Think, says that social networking on the Internet and telephones is constraining our identities and communication through:

  • Compression. We’ve moved from letter writing to phone calls to email to texts, compressing both time and language;
  • Disposability. Information overload leads to a sense that ideas don’t need to last.
  • Curation. The focus is more on the storage of information online than its creation.
  • Self-promotion. The encouragement of social competition and self-advertising more than collaboration and interconnecting.

Harris says “Twitter and Facebook are about as revealing as dorm room walls—a scrapbook of interests, snapshots and one-liners.” He has created projects that focus on how humans relate to technology, such as Cowbird, a new kind of social network that focuses on personal stories and poems, allowing people to build collections of their own and other’s stories, all of which creates more intimacy.

Psychiatrist Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of the Impulse control Disorders Clinic at Stanford, and author of the book Virtually You: The Internet and the Fracturing of Self, found part of the danger lies in how the Internet allows us to act with exaggerated confidence, sexiness, and charisma. This new self, whom Aboujaoude dubs our "e-personality," manifests itself in every curt email we send, Facebook "friend" we make, and "buy now" button we click. Too potent to be confined online, however, e-personality traits seep offline, too, making us impatient, unfocused, and urge-driven even after we log off. He says the efficiency, speed and anonymity of the Internet can change the core of who we are, and that the vast storage of email and information on the Internet prevents us from “letting go” of unnecessary memories at  the expense of making new ones.

 So what’s to be done about our dependency or even addiction to being plugged into the digital world both in the work world and in our personal lives?

One company has decided to take a bold step to do something about the problem. Theirry Breton, CEO of Atos, Europe's largest IT company, plans to put a "zero" email policy in place by 2013.  Breton argues that only 10% of the 200 electronic messages his more than 74,000 employees around the globe receive each day turn out to be useful. "The email is no longer the appropriate communication tool," says Breton, "It's time to think differently." Instead, Breton wants Atos employees to use chat-type of electronic communication similar to social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. In a similar move, Volkswagen Company in Germany has decided to stop sending emails to certain employees after work hours. Even Intel experimented in 2007 with conferring four uninterrupted hours of quiet time every Tuesday morning on 300 engineers and mangers.  Some employers are now attempting to flip the “off “ switch. Companies such as Deutsche Telekom and Google have adopted measures that force workers toward a better work-life balance with scheduled breaks from the Internet. Volkswagen pledged to deactivate emails during non-office hours.

A study by researchers at the University of California and U.S. Army and funded by the National Science Foundation shows that being cut off from work email for blocks of time significantly reduces stress, including cortisol levels and heart rates and allows employees to focus far better when they are on the job.

In one of the most popular New York Times essays, “The Joy of Quiet,” Pico Iyer argues that the future of travel will be what he calls  expensive “black hole resorts,” where people get remote beautiful rooms that are offline, underscoring the notion that freedom from the Internet will actually become a commodity. Iyer says that “in barely one generation we’ve moved from exulting in the time-saving devices that have so expanded our lives to trying to get away from them—often in order to make more time. The more ways we have to connect, the more of us seem desperate to unplug.”

Iyer says the central paradox of the digital age is that machines have made our lives so much brighter, quicker, longer and healthier but they cannot teach us how to make the best use of them; “the information revolution came without an instruction manual. The only way to do justice to our onscreen lives is by summoning exactly the emotional and moral clarity that can’t be found on any screen.”

Katie Rolphe, writing in Slate magazine, contends that quiet resorts and programs like Freedom may be useful, “but the truth is that our minds have changed. We don’t use the Internet; it uses us. It takes our empty lives, our fruit fly attention spans, and uses them for its infinite glittering preoccupations. Solutions like Freedom or a couple of days at a Benedictine monastery can’t remake us into peaceful, moderate, contented inhabitants.”

Fred Stutzman, the inventor of the program, Freedom, told The New York Times, “We’re moving toward this era where we’ll never be able to escape from the cloud. I realized the only way to fight back was at an individual, personal level.”

This sense of disconnectedness within us caused by the digital world may the reason for the rising popularity of such things as yoga, tai chi, meditation and mindfulness practices, which among others things aim to make inner connections.

 My observation, in coaching and mentoring CEOs and executives for the past decade is not that technology has forced them to be dependent or addicted to it, as though somehow they were the victims of it.  Rather, I have found that they have redefined their identity as successful professionals — the belief that you can only be a successful (and important) person if you are plugged in 24/7. At the same time, an equal amount of energy and time has not been spent developing greater self-awareness and connecting to the inner self physically, emotionally and spiritually. The result is often a sense of being lost, a search for greater meaning in their lives, and not being sure who they really are.

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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