Today’s middle-aged adults may remember the telephones of their childhood being attached to the wall at home. Making a phone call outside meant searching for a pay phone. However, most teens and young adults do not remember a time without cell phones, handheld devices, and the Internet. These advances have created incredible and positive change all over the world, and will continue to do so.
As our dependence on electronic devices and the Internet grows, so does concern about the time we spend on devices. Questions are being raised about how the Internet can passively entertain and even consume us, rather than fostering creativity.
Unguarded online relationships can be dangerous. If we become addicted to staying connected, we can suffer physical and psychological symptoms as a result.
More subtle are changes in how we communicate every day. More texting means fewer direct conversations by phone or in person. More focus on news feeds, blogs, tweets, and conversations with people who are not present means less interaction with the world right in front of us. More connectedness creates an increasing, but often unspoken, expectation of availability from our workplace, friends, and family. The boundary between work and personal time blurs. The expectation of always being available can create a feeling of always being ‘on’. It can be hard to escape.
What does it say about our world when people feel they must take their cell phones to bed so they can check for messages as soon as they wake up, or even worse, in the night?
Do we need to unplug? Some people are scheduling unplugged time – either a little each day, or a longer period of time, like a full day or longer. An organization in the United States promotes an annual ‘National Day of Unplugging.’ This is a self-declared break from all things electronic. Instead, talk with neighbours, spend time in the park, play with the kids and eat an uninterrupted meal. It is rather sad when such simple activities become complicated by a dependence on technology. Rather than being natural or automatic, they may now have to be done mindfully.
‘Being mindful’ has become a common phrase. What does it mean? The definition of mindful is to be aware, attentive, or conscious, without distraction. It is a concept often associated with Buddhist beliefs and practices. This also includes an element of acceptance and non-judgment of your perceptions. For example, being mindful of eating a strawberry would involve observing that you are eating a strawberry. You might observe the taste, the colour, the smell, and the feeling of swallowing a strawberry. Mindfulness means not being distracted while eating the strawberry about thoughts of chores that await, or that a mango would really taste much better, or that email could be checked while eating the strawberry.
People trying to lose weight are often reminded to be mindful about eating. By paying more attention to what they think about and do with food, they may begin to use food in a healthier way. Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned. The concept of mindfulness can also apply to technology.
Try being mindful when sitting down at the computer to tackle a set of tasks. What happens when the computer is turned on? A series of messages flash. You know how many emails are waiting to be read, about activity on social media, and whether your clan is ready for battle in a computer game. Perhaps you open the music manager to decide what you’ll listen to while working. Only minutes in, you have already been distracted several times. Logging onto the Internet opens a home page. This may be blank, but is more likely full of further distractions. The temptation of these dangling carrots can be too much to withstand. If you stay focused on the original task, you remember to search for the page you need. Oh dear, it’s not loading as quickly as expected. So, what to do? Find something else to fill the time while the page loads, like checking the cell phone for text messages. The routine repeats itself over and over, all day. Fast-paced and fragmented, it does not allow for deeper, slower, more meaningful thinking.
This sequence may play out many times a day. It occurs not just in a working environment, but also in a personal one. The result can be a kind of electronic fatigue that feeds anxiety, dissatisfaction, and impatience. Growing research suggests that dealing with less information coming in and going out gives us a greater sense of satisfaction. The constant distraction of ‘surfing’ or jumping from email to text to social media is also proving to be unnerving for the brain. The ironic result? Our attempts to be more connected can actually make us less happy.
By being mindful of computer use, you can begin to observe your jumpy flights of attention without judgment. Notice the many changes in direction that your attention takes as you attempt to complete a task. Observe how these changes in attention affect the amount of time spent on the device. Consider how this contributes to your sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and your mental state. Do you feel calm, or pressured and anxious? How do you feel as small tasks, messages and expectations accumulate as the day goes on?
Mindful computer use might also include having a reason for using the computer before you turn it on. Observe, without judgment, when your actions stray from that goal. If you find yourself distracted, refocus on the task at hand. Once the task is finished, move on to the next task in the same manner. Avoid distraction or a reward – “I’ll just check my email once.” If you work with computers all day, take breaks. Scheduled breaks allow your brain to refresh itself.
Problems might arise when technology is used for passive entertainment, with no identified goal. Are you ‘hanging out’ on your device? Is the interaction mind-less or mind-ful? It is mindless interaction that can feed agitation and forgetfulness. It can even spawn new disorders, such as social media anxiety – a condition described as a pathological fear of missing out.
Becoming mindful of technology use might also include identifying times when technology should not be used. Avoid it during meals, during the wind-down bedtime routine, while coaching a child’s hockey practice, and during family events. Consider using a bedside clock radio, and keep the cell phone out of the bedroom. Unplugging once a year during the fanfare of a well-publicized national day is only a start. Ideally, unplugging should happen every day, perhaps many times per day, in a conscious, mindful way.
You can teach your children how to unplug. However, your child will observe your habits. Be mindful of what you are modelling. If your child is not allowed to use a computer or cell phone during mealtimes, then neither should you. Talk to your children about the reasons for limits on computer time. This teaches them about appropriate use, without depriving them of the many benefits.
As with many other areas in life, technology ‘in moderation’ is probably the best approach. Like many other harmful habits, the ill effects of technology can sneak up on us. We may not see the problem until it is bigger than we could ever have imagined. Being mindful allows us to take advantage of the wealth of resources that technology offers, without letting it take over our lives.