Break Time

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Too Much Time Online Makes You Moodier, Lonelier and Obsessed

Research confirms fears about the impact of the internet on our Brains

Public Domain Pictures.net Petr Kratochvil
Though I enjoy reading leadership expert Michael Hyatt’s blog, a recent post titled What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (and What We Can Do About It) scared me more than anything I’ve read in a long time. It wasn’t his post so much actually, as the article which had inspired it—a piece by Tony Dokoupil in Newsweek called Is the Web Driving Us Mad? Apparently it is.

I first started to really worry about this when I shared the stage with wellness guru Dr. Andrew Weil last fall. In his keynote, he mentioned that though we don’t yet know how all this “connectivity” (to phones, internet, ipads etc.) is affecting our brains, chances are that it’s not good. He told us that he very deliberately unplugs from everything electronic after 3 pm.

I vowed to do it but haven’t succeeded. Other than a week in Italy that is, when I discovered I didn’t have the right voltage adaptor for my computer cord. It was really eerie to have free WiFi in the room yet to not be able to use my laptop. Even with all the distractions of Florence, the involuntary unplugging made me distinctly uncomfortable and the feeling never quite went away. Not that I would have spent much time online (one would hope), but not even being able to “check” was such a weird feeling.

Here are some key points from the Newsweek article:

1) “In less than the span of a single childhood, Americans have merged with their machines, staring at a screen for at least eight hours a day, more time than we spend on any other activity including sleeping.”

What’s your average screen time? I really don’t want to calculate mine. As a speaker/author/columnist/blogger/coach, my business is run online and driven by emails and social media. I also love to watch Netflix on my computer instead of TV, and my only DVD player is on my laptop. Long gone as well are the days of manual typewriters for writers; maybe someone could make a screenless modern electronic version...please?

2) “Texting has become like blinking: the average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month, four times the 2007 number....And more than two thirds of these normal, everyday cyborgs, myself included, report feeling their phone vibrate when in fact nothing is happening.”

They call this “phantom-vibration syndrome”. I haven’t experienced that, but I’m alert to the vibrations of an incoming text like a new mother monitors her baby son’s breathing pattern in her sleep. I refuse to sleep with my phone though (if you do, please stop insisting it’s just for the alarm function or for emergency calls—if you check email in bed, you’re guilty)

3) According to Pulitzer Prize-nominated expert Nicholas Carr, the Internet “leads to behavior that people are conscious is not in their best interest and does leave them anxious and does make them act compulsively.”

I know I’m addicted, and I don’t even spend that as much time as most people on Facebook or Twitter (I’m only on a handful of times a week and don’t stay long). I deliberately don’t have an iPhone, as there are only so many things you can do on a Blackberry without a memory card (a deliberate choice on my part). This minimizes my phone time, but also makes me anxious that I'm falling so iBehind that I'll never catch up.

So many times I’ve vowed to start unplugging completely in the evenings and then fail yet again. This also makes me anxious, I don’t like that the urge seems to be stronger than I am on such a regular basis. I sometimes manage to sustain an electronics-free Sabbath on the weekend, but it’s extremely fragile and I’ll usually find some reason to check email by the evening. Awful. And compulsive.

4) “Brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.”

Oh. No. According to the article, most of us are online enough in one week to hit the quota that defines an “addict” by Tuesday. This is so disturbing I have nothing more to say.

5) Web use is linked to loneliness, low moods and the loss of real-life friends: “The more a person hangs out in the global village, the worse they are likely to feel”.

It's so exhilarating for me as an author to receive emails from readers around the world, or to interact with Facebook followers from South Africa or Luxembourg. So many people feel this way, yet it appears that this wonderful “connectivity” and expanded “social network” may be a devastating illusion. It goes without saying that our new online world has blessed us beyond imagination, but we need to find a balance between enjoying the benefits and minimizing the very real potential damage.

I would write more, but I desperately need to unplug.

What has your experience been? Have you noticed any effects on your brain, your moods, or your life? What are you going to do about it?

Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. is a medical doctor, health and happiness expert, life and health coach, professional speaker, flamenco dancer, and the author of Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier, More Passionate You, dedicated to helping people worldwide get healthy, find happiness and enjoy more meaningful lives that they love. Dr. Biali is available for keynote presentations, workshops/retreats, media commentary, and private life and health coaching—contact susan@susanbiali.com or visit www.susanbiali.com for more details.

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Copyright Dr. Susan Biali, M.D. 2012

Break Time