Constantly being plugged into social media is extracting a significant tax from our bodies. These days we’re blurring the boundaries between the various activities that shape who we are as human beings. Everything we do is purposeful. The choices we make and the roads we travel are unique. The problem with a constant connection is that whether we’re working, studying, spending time with our families, or spending time alone, those actions lose a degree of their independence when they're constantly intertwined with online connections.
Not only do work emails interrupt personal time, but personal connections also interrupt work time. Who among us can resist the urge to respond immediately when we receive digital requests for attention from people in every corner of our lives? The demands of these types of technology also spill over into activities that were previously free of interruption: meals, showers, and sleeping are now disrupted with pings, pokes, and the constant temptation to check in. The pulls of technology are invasive. Sometimes we’re pulled right out of the reality in which we’re currently living at the whim of a vibration in our pocket. Wait, what? Why am I standing in the kitchen? I came in here to grab something and my phone buzzed...
Text messages and the rest of technology’s advances have the ability to halt everything that’s happening within our physical surroundings.
As we discussed in chapter one, technology and social media have disrupted the cyclical pattern in which we previously engaged with life. On a physiological level, human beings are designed for homeostasis. We need to balance ourselves out with each waking cycle. It's a pattern many experts have agreed we've evolved into - which means we can evolve out of it as well.
That would not be good.
Always being switched to on mode is not realistic, despite what our bosses, partners, or that annoying voice inside our own mind would have us believe. Ignoring your needs for short bouts can be managed - think all-nighters during university finals or sleepless nights with a newborn. However, continuing to go-go-go for long periods without recharging depletes both our physical and mental resources. You simply cannot be your best self if you are running on empty.
While you may have been able to muddle along for some time being switched on for more hours than not, it takes a toll. And usually it’s not the face you see in the mirror that’s the first to be aware of that toll - it’s the faces of everyone around you. If you’re lucky, perhaps the evidence to date is minor: irritability, increased feelings of stress and anxiety, or disrupted patterns of appetite and sleep. Now don’t get me wrong, your own sense of yourself and your grasp on your mental wellness is what’s at stake here. It’s just that when your batteries are running low, it’s difficult to strum up enough self awareness to acknowledge what’s going on. And if you’re overloaded with connections, being a bit grumpy is just the beginning. If you’ve been drained for a prolonged period of time, the effects could transform into major health concerns, relationship strife, or even loss of the relationship itself. If you’re constantly switched on or plugged in and you haven’t felt the strain yet, perhaps you ought to use your good fortune to make a change while you’re still in control of your decision-making abilities. Do it before the crisis hits. Regardless of which boat you’re in - a state of being overwhelmed and feeling it or being overwhelmed and not feeling it yet - it’s vital to take a step back to determine how you can feel your best.
Getting to the Top
You likely want to lead a life that has you feeling good down to your bones. Most of us do. However, we forget the building blocks required to get there. We rush. We accept instant gratification. But sometimes true mental health, like physical health, takes a little more time.
In the 1940’s psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a theory: the Hierarchy of Needs. He acknowledged that while we would all like to get to the top and lead a life of self-actualization, it’s necessary to build up to that goal by meeting our most basic needs first. Starting at the bottom of the pyramid, Maslow demonstrated the importance of maintaining adequate levels of food, water, warmth and rest, in conjunction with safety and security. His theory states that it is only as we maintain our base that we can ascend to the next level of needs. So, if you’d like to get to the top, you have to start at the bottom - who would’ve thought?
Technology and the Pee Pee Dance
Given our discussion about the pull of technology and social media, it can’t be ignored that it often pulls us right out of managing our own needs. Have you ever witnessed a small child doing the ‘pee-pee dance’? It’s comical as an adult to watch kids who won’t leave something they enjoy doing to just run to the bathroom. Heck, they’d likely enjoy themselves even more afterwards without the worry of a leak! Yet us adults do similar dances all the time.
Consider the last time you were online and accidentally worked your way right through lunch. Or how many times you take your device to bed thinking you'll look at ‘just one thing’ only to find yourself scrolling through media feeds late into the night. Or noticing the fact you had to go to the bathroom nearly an hour ago and still haven’t gone. You may be old enough and trained to avoid the embarrassing playground accidents of childhood, but it doesn’t mean your body is not suffering the consequences of ignoring the urge.
The basic needs Maslow highlighted years ago are those we often overlook or neglect. We want to be our best selves, yet we’re not providing the basic input that is required for success. Basic knowledge of health can show us the need for consistently healthy choices. Hydration, nutrition, sleep, and movement are building blocks of feeling fresh, alert, healthy, and just plain good. Not to mention going to the bathroom when your body says you need to.
Pass the Remote
Let’s be honest, it's not just new technology that’s prohibiting us from taking care of our bodies and our minds. Distractions that cause us to ignore our needs have existed long before the advent of the smartphone. The difference is that when you used to be distracted by something, typically its availability would be much more confined as opposed to today’s rapidly developing pace of technology.
You did not grow up with today’s current state of technology. Your recent exposure to it is fundamentally different than if you'd had it around during childhood. How different was interacting with technology 10 or 20 years ago? If you had a TV in your household, you probably had rules around when and how much you could watch. You may even have had rules about what you could watch. And then there’s forced compromise - anyone else have siblings who tried to dominate the evening’s television schedule? When it was time for dinner you likely knew the TV had to be switched off. Afterwards? I remember the signal in our house; when dad sat down it was his turn with the remote.
These rules helped shape your relationship with television and the natural interruptions created space for you to attend to your needs - a stretch, a snack, or perhaps a sleep. Sure, you may have rebelled or indulged on occasion, but you were raised with a sense of how much is too much.
The biggest problem with social media and technology is also its biggest benefit: it's always available. Plus, you don't have rules to guide your internal radar. Your parents didn't have to navigate this particular landscape so it's not like you grew up with role models demonstrating what the relationship with technology should look like. Heck, your parents may be connecting with you online or asking for your help in how to be tech savvy. Anyone else have nightmares about fixing their parents’ computer during the holidays? “How do I download this photo?” is the most terrifying sentence I’ve ever heard.
Another factor that leads to our basic needs being ignored is the personal nature of our gadgets. These devices don't require the sharing of space and time. Unlike television which requires compromise amongst family members, these days devices in a household are plentiful. You can be watching something on the TV screen while scrolling through a phone and also listening to music on a tablet. Have you ever had an epiphany caused by looking up and realizing everyone in the room is staring at a screen? On top of all that, up until relatively recently, television wasn’t a streaming feed where you could personalize your content. You were at the mercy of programming that may or may not suit your fancy.
These days you are the boss: in charge of your personal device, in control of your content, and left to determine your own usage. That means it’s your responsibility to measure your usage and to understand precisely how technology may be hampering your climb to the top of your personal hierarchy of needs. Is your connection preventing you from being your most successful self? You’re the only person who can answer that question, and you’re the only person who can change your relationship with social media and technology.
Good thing you’ve already started the journey.
Next week in Chapter 3: Where Does Stress Come From?
The mind and the body are connected. If the mind is constantly revved up, so is the body. Do you ever feel a spurt of anxiety when negative image or message pops into existence in your facebook feed?
Huang, W., Ramsey, K. M., Marcheve, B. & Bass, J. (2011) Circadian rhythms, sleep, and metabolism. J Clin Invest, 121(6):2133-2141. doi:10.1172/JCI46043.
Calamaro, C. J., Mason, T. B. A. & Ratcliffe, S. J. (2009). Adolescents living the 24/7 lifestyle: Effects of caffeine and technology on sleep duration and daytime functioning. Pediatrics, 123 (6) e1005-e1010; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2008-3641.