Plugged in – a virtual world

What does it means to be “connected” in the 21st Century?

As seen in this amusing French Commercial, many of us who enjoy and have come to rely on technology are likely to declare its virtues.

Questions are emerging however about the impact that technology may have on our health. This includes the ongoing debate over whether phones (mobile/cell/smart) have possible links with brain cancer (see recent Catalyst on Wifi), and concerns over the screen-time from the couch leading to a particularly sedentary lifestyle. It is only recently though that with the advancement and proliferation of portable devices (one in every 5 people in the world own a smartphone) that broader questions are arising over the impact of our “ultra-connected” lifestyles.


Our personal and family relationships

“It seems that our obsession with all things digital can be damaging to our love lives in the real world” (Age article, June 2014).

Writer William Powers in his book Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age (HarperCollins, 2010) explains that “as screen time rises, direct human-to-human interaction falls off proportionally.” He experienced this in his own home with what he calls the “Vanishing Family Trick”—a phenomenon marked by family members disappearing, one by one, from a gathering to check e-mail, send a text, and so forth.

According to a study on media influence done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 8-18-year-olds spend over seven hours a day using entertainment media. That’s over 50 hours per week.

Human relations, and the self-image of the human being, have been profoundly affected by the Internet and by the ease with which images of other people can be summoned to the computer screen to become the objects of emotional attention. How should we conceptualize this change, and what is its effect on the psychic condition of those most given to constructing their world of interests and relationships through the screen? From Hiding Behind the Screen, 2010.


Dependency, addiction and screen-time

“Spending large amounts of time on tablets, smartphones, laptops and applications like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram can change our brains over time.”

The 2013 Public Health England report suggests that too much time in front of TV and computer screens is causing increasing psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety, in children. The amount of screen-time was negatively associated with their general mental and physical health, resilience and the extent to which they are happy or worry about different aspects of their lives. The effects, particularly on mental health, were most pronounced for those children who spent more than four hours a day using some sort of screen-based technology. More in the Guardian Weekly article.

In the 2014 ABC report ‘Are smartphones making us less intelligent?’, psychologist Jocelyn Brewer –  who works as a counsellor for school kids and has helped depressed children shake their screen addiction – says screen time stimulates happy chemicals in the brain and can leave users anxious and distracted. “It works similar to other addictions in that there is a reward pathway that dopamine sets up. If you’re doing any activity that feels really good, you would want to do more of that activity and continue to have that good feeling”. See the full video.

‘Warcraft widow’ is an affectionate term given to those who have “lost” a partner to World of Warcraft (WoW) as a result of excessive game-playing”. See this interesting article on game addiction and the video link.


Living in the NOW

Kirsty Goodwin from the Every Chance to Learn blog reflects in her  ‘Why I’m spending less time behind a screen this summer’ post:

I wonder sometimes if we’re so busy recording our special moments that we forget to actually “experience” them.  I mean really experience them. Are we so pre-occupied with capturing moments that we forget to actually live them? And really experience them?

Michael Harris, in his book The End of Absence, argues that amid all the changes we’re experiencing, the most interesting is the one that future generations will find hardest to grasp. That is the end of absence-the loss of lack. The daydreaming silences in our lives are filled; the burning solitudes are extinguished. There’s no true “free time” when you carry a smartphone. Today’s rarest commodity is the chance to be alone with your own thoughts.

“Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet. What does this unavoidable fact mean? For future generations, it won’t mean anything very obvious. They will be so immersed in online life that questions about the Internet’s basic purpose or meaning will vanish. But those of us who have lived both with and without the crowded connectivity of online life have a rare opportunity. We can still recognize the difference between Before and After. We catch ourselves idly reaching for our phones at the bus stop. Or we notice how, mid-conversation, a fumbling friend dives into the perfect recall of Google”.

“The line between what is ‘real’ and what is ‘perceived to be real’ is blurred”. Oculus Rift


Unplugging – a counter cultural revolution!

So how do we balance our digital entertainment and real-life play? Is it actually possible to unplug?

In 2010 the ‘social experiment‘ saw a group of teenagers competed to see who could last the longest without any of the modern-day communication tools that define their lives. See News article.

Some useful resources:

  • The Sabbath Manifesto, a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world, have their annual National Day of Unplugging – held from March 6-7 in 2015.
  • Digital Detox is a free application for Android smartphones that irrevocably disables your Android phone for a period of time you specify. Yes … seriously! (Also see Adbuster’s Digital Detox Week).
  • Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now – living in the moment, not in our heads.