Written by Dr. Eric Perry, PhD
“True happiness is… to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future.” ~Seneca
We live in a world where most of our life essentials are one click away. Food, clothing, companionship, entertainment, and even sex can be attained by just a click. More and more we are giving our vital life energy to electronic devices. Look around. I am quite sure you will see what is becoming a familiar norm. The bent head, focused-non-blinking stare, the raised hand holding an electronic device, with the other hand probably tapping or swiping the screen. We are slowly becoming electronically fed zombies. Our interactions with one another are becoming less in person and more facilitated by an electronic device. It is reported that one in eight Americans suffer from problematic internet use and an estimated 30 percent of the population in China is highly addicted to the internet. Individuals who struggle to form real-life connections are more likely to turn to social media sites to connect with others in an impersonal and non-threatening way. Other studies show that people with anxiety, depression, ADHD, OCD, or Bipolar Disorder have an increased chance of developing an addiction to technology.
We are becoming programmed to be at the beck and call of our technological devices. A recent study noted that 70 percent of emails are checked within 6 seconds of arriving in the inbox. Further, on average people click, tap, or swipe their phones 2,617 times a day. The heaviest smartphone users touch their phones 5,417 times a day. That is approximately 2 million times a year that an electronic device has taken up moments of your life. Pause and imagine what you might have missed in those moments. Maybe you missed a sunset, a tender moment with a loved one, or perhaps something not as poetic; a stop light or tragically, a pedestrian. Life is too fleeting and fragile to be spent staring at a smartphone screen.
We have to stop and wonder what impact this is having on our children. When smartphones were first introduced they were considered a luxury and very few children had them. Now it appears that every child has an iPhone, iPad or other electronic devices. Children mimic adult behavior. They are spending less time playing with each other in order to spend time in isolation with their phone. They are not developing the important social skills necessary for adulthood. We are creating a generation of individuals who will have trouble connecting with each other in a real-world way.
Technology addiction is not yet a disorder recognized by the DSM-5, but it is an umbrella term that may include addictive behavior such as cybersex, online pornography, video gaming, gambling, E-bay, social media, emails and excessive texting. It is an information overload that is causing a worldwide disconnect from one another and most importantly from ourselves. At a recent convention of the American Psychological Association, the results of recent studies were presented. Social isolation, loneliness or living alone was a significant factor contributing to premature death. Each of these factors was shown to be a more significant risk factor for an early death than obesity. It is estimated that 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 are suffering from loneliness. Marriage rates are declining and the number of people living alone is rising. Technology is robbing us of time we could be spending forming healthy connections with one another, in person. Do you feel the need to stay connected to the world wide web as if it is feeding tube? Do you find yourself wishing you had more time to do the things you love? If you do, don’t worry… you are not alone.
There appears to be a physiological response when we are connecting to social media. A recent Harvard study showed that self-disclosure was strongly associated with increased activation in the brain regions that form the mesolimbic dopamine system. What this means is that talking about yourself lights up areas of the brain which are also activated by pleasurable acts such as eating and sex. Further, when researchers told participants they had an audience, their brains lit up even more. It appears we love talking about ourselves and love it, even more, when it is in front of an audience.
We are social beings and perhaps this love of sharing about ourselves is helpful to form social bonds and a sense of community even if it is only a virtual reality one. The need to share and in some cases over share becomes a problem when it begins to interfere with our lives. The constant stimulation of the dopamine system becomes an exhausting never ending loop of clicking and tapping when we receive notifications about the latest tweets or posts. Much like Pavlov’s dogs, we are being trained to respond to cues from our electronic devices to check and recheck our phones.
So how do we break the exhausting cycle of behaviors?
1. Recognize there is a problem
Be honest with yourself about the time spent on technology. This includes emails and any form of social media such as Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Twitter, etc. If you have a child, it is important to be mindful of the amount of time they spend on their phones, computers or other devices. You want to assess the number of times an electronic device is being used to disconnect from the world.
2. Create distance
When it is not absolutely necessary to have your phone by your side, put it away. Take the phone away from your child. If you must have it with you, turn off the notifications so you are not being prompted to check and recheck it. You might start off by checking your email and then an hour later start to wonder where the time went.
3. Seek professional help
As with any addiction, you may find some of the behaviors seem impossible to break and are interfering with the quality of your life. It is important not to feel shame to the extent that you do not seek the help of a professional.
It is important to remember that there was life before social media and there is more life to be lived and experienced outside of technology. Technology is an amazing thing but it must be handled with care. Technology invites you to enter a world of solitary amusement. You can reinvent yourself online and satisfy your every whim. We are learning to pacify ourselves with the use of social media. Bored, angry or upset we turn to social media to soothe us. Perhaps we should take a cue from Steve Jobs, the now deceased founder of Apple. He wisely limited the amount of time his own children spent on technology. In a New York Times interview, he was asked whether his children loved the newly introduced iPad. He answered, “They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
Perhaps, LOL meaning Laugh out Loud should really mean Loss of Life. Allow yourself to have at least one day a week without social media. Interact with your loved ones and real-life friends. Remember what it is like to just be present in an unfiltered world and in the moment without worrying about likes or shares.
The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.
Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology
M.A. in Clinical Psychology
B.A. in Psychology
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