Shackleberry

Oh, how I long for the days of the Nokia brick. The brick we were so enamoured with back then because it was so “small and portable”, so modern, so techy – and which performed all of two functions (though not both at once):

1.     Make a phone call

2.     Send a text message

Back in the day we remembered what the “S” in SMS stood for (anyone?) – messages were actually limited to160 characters, including space, so there was no trying to win the award for the longest life story via text, or adding 52 emoticons to try to convey how emotional you were feeling even though you were not there. It cost money to send words out into the world, so we were sparse with them. Also it took 15 strokes and c. 25 seconds to write “sparse”, so you kind of could not be bothered – “OK”, “u2” and “np” were quite enough.

Back then – you actually knew your landline number, and it was probably the number you gave first. Calls made on the move were mainly to make arrangements to meet someone or keep them updated if the circle line had broken down again, or plans had changed. Back then – there was no internet on your phone, no geolocalisation tools telling you where your boyfriend was, no facebook to upload a picture to (from the classroom).

Nowadays – so called “smart phones” are a utility, valued just below running water and electricity but well above gas or an actual landline. Thanks to my blackberry, I was until very recently contactable via:

1.     my personal email

2.     my second secret personal email

3.     my professional email

4.     my professional mobile number

5.     my forwarded personal mobile number

6.     text message

7.     whatsapp

8.     bbm

9.     facebook

10.     twitter

11.     linked in

12.     my voicemail

13.     my work landline voicemail which I could access from my blackberry (why people would still need to leave messages on there after they’ve potentially tried all of the above is entirely beyond me)

And actually, I think I’m a little backwards and missing a few key ‘apps’ (or so my younger brother and sisters keep telling me). No wonder they’re called smart phones. I often ask myself whether I’m smart enough to keep up. And I spare you details of my iPad, where I also have iMessage, Skype, Google Reader for feeds from my favourite blogs, and Pinterest.

The age of concision has gone out of the window as most of us no longer pay per text – they’re either being delivered for free over the internet or we have unlimited contracts. The age of concentration has gone out of the window as the above-mentioned apps are usually all opened at once and we merrily jump from one to the other as soon as we get bored (which is fairly quickly). The age of discretion has gone out of the window because no matter who you are, what you do or where you go – there will be a picture of that on the internet already. Google will know, trust me.

The arguments I hear most often are – “but it’s so convenient!” and “so long as I haven’t done anything wrong, who cares if Big Brother is watching?” Who cares indeed. And anyhow, it’s convenient and everyone who knows me knows I’d be lost without Google maps. AND I write a blog. So who am I to complain over the overly quick advances in technology…

I’m not complaining, actually. I’m a total techy-geek, and I own up to it. But the flow of information is constant and, frankly, I find it exhausting. And a tad pointless. And damaging to my brain. So I’d like to suggest technology with a pinch of salt.

Technology addiction

A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to have a few sessions with a great sleep and energy therapist, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan – and to read her book, Tired but Wired. She asked a few interesting questions to the people in our group:

  • Do you watch TV shows in bed at night before falling asleep?
  • Do you sleep with you blackberry under your pillow and / or use it as an alarm clock?
  • Do you keep your iPad / laptop by the bed?
  • Do you feel emotional / upset / angry if you have misplaced your smartphone?
  • Can you go for lunch with a friend without checking your iPhone?
  • Do you have more than 200 friends on Facebook?
  • When was the last time you had no reception, and how did you feel?
  • Have you, in the last five years, gone on a single holiday without your smartphone, or kept it switched off for the majority of the trip?

Am I the only one feeling like I have a slight technology addiction here?

Impact

The problem is not technology per se, which is arguably one of the most powerful tools of human advancement, but what the current overload of information and connectedness does to human behaviour, body – and brain. Our technology addiction is impacting our bodies, our energy levels and sleep, our concentration levels and memory, our emotional stabilility – and, more worryingly, the neural and sociological development of our children.

Physiological problems: ever heard of a “text neck”? you could also call it an “iPad neck” these days, but it is basically what osteopaths and chiropractors call the kind of neck and shoulder pains caused by long periods of keeping your chin down and neck flexed whilst texting, working with your laptop on your lap or reading on your tablet. “This pressure in the neck can pinch a nerve and affect the nerves that go down the arms and into the fingers”, says an osteopath. “This can result in pain in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers”. Not to mention the itchy, dry eyes a lot of us get at the end of the day from spending so much time in front of televisions, laptops, tablets or phone screens – due to our blink rate going down significantly when we concentrate on those for too long.

Energy & Sleep: Research has shown that getting good sleep is essential to maintaining energy levels, emotional stability, concentration and memory. Good sleep is critical to our survival – period. Now raise your hand if you regularly go to bed past midnight and just lie there, unable to sleep but completely exhausted? Or if you wake up after an 8-hour sleep feeling like you haven’t slept a wink? Technology overuse, particularly in the evening, most probably has something to do with it. Information overload (or work overload, which really is the same thing) during the day means your brain no longer gets the ‘daydreaming’ breaks it needs for your frontal lobe to start processing the information it is exposed to. At night, this information overload or the excitement of the latest video game you played, TV show you watched or email you received prevents you from winding down. Your mind is racing, because your brain received little shots of a brain chemical usually associated with energy called dopamine, which has an awakening effect. Falling asleep becomes extremely difficult – or, if you do fall asleep, you remain in REM (“Rapid Eye Movement”) all night, which is the shallow sleep phase (or ‘Theta’ phase). This is the dreaming phase, where our subconscient is most active – so you most likely dream and/or worry a lot, and remember most of it. You never actually get to the deep, regenerative sleep phase your body needs (‘Delta’ phase) and during which all bodily functions are very much slowed down (including your breathing and heartbeat), allowing the body to recuperate. Without proper delta sleep, you wake up exhausted.

This is a particularly debilitating problem for children and teenagers who will often watch TV shows in bed or stay on Facebook till late, and whose parents fail to understand why they look exhausted during the day despite getting what seems to be a healthy eight hours’ sleep. Deep sleep is crucial for neural and physiological development, and research is just starting to understand what this might be doing to the younger generations.

Concentration and memory: Can you ignore the blinking red “you’ve got mail” light on your blackberry? My boyfriend knows he can’t, and he kept interrupting whatever he was doing to check emails every time it went on. Everything took that much longer. So he disabled the red light. Concentration and memory deficits are a growing problem for a workforce which increasingly texts or emails during meetings, checks personal emails while surfing the internet and writing a report, or watches the news on TV from the corner of their eye while responding to their client’s latest email. Scientists say this “mental pingpong” is increasingly common and Dr Gary Small, Director of the Memory and Aging Centre at UCLA, calls it “continual partial attention”. “We get more done faster”, he says, “but we’re slower at understanding it, which means we often have to correct everything”.

Research shows that this state of constant “plugged-in-ness”, as well as all the multi-tasking, can severely hamper our short-term (or “working”) memory. It is important to understand, first of all, that the working memory processes information that we receive from all sensory inputs and helps pass it on to the long-term memory site. Memory consolidation (and retrieval) happens in the hippocampus, the filing system which decides where memories are stored when they become permanent – visual, audio, sensory memories each in a different place. Sensory input processing and memory consolidation are critical to learning and memorising – and downtime is critical to the processing and consolidation processes. The brain can only manage a certain amount of information at any given time: downtime is needed so it can allocate energy for the integration of information, rather than just perception. When more energy is used for perception, less remains for integration.

If and when the brain is overworked (which is – pretty much all the time for people who never take breaks from technology and therefore suffer from information overload), it increasingly struggles to do the “processing/integration” bit – i.e. to free up some space in the hippocampus by transferring information to our long-term memory sites. This erodes our ability to concentrate during the day, but also the memory consolidation process at night during the REM phase. Because there is just too much for the brain to do, it is less able to go into delta sleep (regenerative), and it manages to process less. This causes troubled sleep and long-term memory problems. Our brains just haven’t evolved at the same pace as technology, and they struggle to keep up with the recent information overload we’re throwing at them.

Constant multi-tasking also puts the brain under stress “which, over time, can shrink memory cells” says Dr Small. Lastly, new technology makes us lazier and because “our iPhones and computers store phone numbers, addresses and dates”, we no longer bother to remember them which further leads to memory problems.

Emotional stability: In her February 2012 TED talk “Connected, but alone?”, clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that technology is changing the way people relate to each other, how they construct their own inner world and even how our children develop as people. A professor of the social studies of science and technology at the MIT, Sherry Turkle was previously known for having argued that technology offered a wealth of opportunities to explore one’s own identity through networks and avatars (she wrote two books about that actually). In her TED talk, she explains her recent change of heart, outlining why her latest research and patient interviews have led her to become concerned about the extent to which new technologies are making convenience, speed and control priorities for all, our children included – thus diminishing our reliance on face-to-face experiences and our expectations of each other.

She says that whilst being able to perfect an online profile might facilitate communication for shier people (who might otherwise never dare to express themselves), what it also does is create a false image of ourselves which we are becoming increasingly preoccupied with controlling – because we can. We edit and perfect the photographs we post, we choose the likes and dislikes we publish, we share the fun and the beautiful only. We manipulate our social media tools to create the “right” impression (whatever we perceive this might be) and win friends or accolades. Dr Turkle argues that we are essentially becoming our own brand, and that this comes with psychological side effects – among which an addiction to those medium that perfect our lives, heightened anxiety at having to keep up with everyone else’s perfection, and an increasing inability (or unwillingness?) to develop real human relationships. Because virtual ones are so much easier to deal with: we can communicate when we want to and disengage when we choose to. We can screen people in and out of our lives without much of an explanation. The internet, text messages, tweets and facebook are preferred to the phone which implies “conversations that are almost always too prying” and “take too long”. In Dr Turkle’s recent book “Alone together”, she quotes an adolescent’s feelings about the telephone: “When you talk on the phone, you don’t really think about what you’re saying as much as in a text. On the telephone, too much might show.” It’s about control, and having enough time to process emotions as opposed to having to do it real time. It’s also about keeping our feelings at a distance.

Now it’s all very well to have 300 friends on Facebook, but who do we turn to to really talk when the going gets tough? Psychologists estimate that for every hour spent online, we lose 30 minutes of face-to-face contact with family and real friends. Whilst this might be ok for adults and older people who have actually grown up having had to learn to communicate verbally, this becomes really concerning for children and teenagers who have never known a life without the internet. Sherry Turkle quotes a 19-year old patient of hers who says: “One day, I’d really like to learn to talk to someone. Not right now, but one day”. What will become of teenagers who have never learnt to express their feelings to a real person and potentially had to face rejection? To children who have grown up with mostly superficial, “emotionally lazy” relationships? What happens to young brains who do not have to develop the neural connections for real-time emotional reactions, for extended focus and concentration, or simply for “the flow of physical, messy, untidy life”?

The internet is a wonderful thing, but we must remember that the technology that comes with it can never replace companionship, nor the demands of friendships and intimacy; that it can overwhelm, tire and make people lonelier and more emotionally unstable than ever before; and most importantly, that our children need to learn that real communication comes with emotional risk, or they will one day pay the price.

A few helpful tips for the tech addicts:

–       Eyes & Back: take (even very short) breaks from the computer every 20-30 minutes if possible – go for a short walk, to the loo, make yourself a cup of tea. If, like me, you simply forget – set an alarm in your calendar that will pop up at regular intervals (it’s geeky but it works!). It’s important to allow your brain to rest (by focusing on nothing or “daydreaming”), your shoulders and neck to uncurl and shake, and your gaze to change so you’re forced to blink;

–       Sleep: make sure you have as much tech-free time as possible before going to bed (Dr Ramlakhan recommends 90 mins, but if you do not have the luxury of time, 30mins with a book or doing some mindfulness exercises (or else…) can already help a lot);

–       Concentration & Memory: turn off your email and phone when working on a task, and go to the shorter meetings without blackberry (things generally can wait). Memorise things, phone numbers and addresses rather than automatically getting your outlook to do it for you;

–       Anxiety: Remember to talk to real people! Make sure children and teens do balance online time with face-to-face time. “When we see each other, chemicals such as oxytoxin are produced which make us feel good” says Dr Sigman in Marie-Claire. “People with more human contact live longer and have stronger immune systems”

Sources:

Tired but Wired, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Bright from the Start, Jill Stamm, Ph.D.

‘Friends’ Without a Personal Touch. The NY Times http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/books/22book.html

Is Technology Addiction Wrecking Our Sleep? The Huffington Posthttp://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2011/07/06/technology-addiction_n_890721.html

Are you a tech addict? Marie Claire http://www.marieclaire.co.uk/lifestyle/lifestyle-galleries/34903/9/are-you-a-tech-addict.html#index=1

Visualisation : des images pour des actes, François J. Paul-Cavallier

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