Well done! Reading this book is a fantastic first step in changing your relationship with social media and technology. These tools should serve you, and not the other way around, right?
Right, we can all agree on that. By the end of my book, the only changes you’ll make are ones that feel right to you. No, you don’t have to throw your phone in the trash. After all, achieving wellness is impossible with a black-and-white, all-or-nothing approach. Instead, these pages will help you reflect on how plugged in you are so you can decide what's working for you and what's working against you.
Let's get started, shall we?
Does any of the following sound familiar?
You feel like you’re not quite living the life you’d like and you have an inkling that being plugged in may have something to do with it.
You know at times you need to unplug from social media and technology but can’t resist the temptation to connect.
Someone in your life is getting frustrated with how connected you are to social media and technology.
Regardless of why you’ve decided to examine your relationship with your gadgets and online connections, you’re probably cognizant of the fact these devices contribute to your stress and detract from your mental wellness. Related research is picking up steam, but the results aren’t always easy to access. Or, if they are, then chances are they’re irrelevant to your life. The good news is there’s no research like the science of self reflection. Awareness is your personal key to understanding the effects technology and social media are having on your life. Once awareness is achieved, it’s time to talk about the small, easy steps you can take to start changing your behaviours for the better.
Just How Plugged In Are You?
Before we dig deeper, it’s important to get an idea of how plugged in you are and what it is you’re plugged into.
How much time do you spend plugged in during the course of a normal day? For many of you, the first thing you grab in the morning is your smartphone, tablet, or laptop. At what point in the day do your regular connections occur? Also consider the social networks you frequent, the apps you use, and the communication tools you employ, like emails and texts.
When I work with people one on one it often takes some serious effort to slow down, concentrate, and define our priorities. People check their phones before they kiss their partner at the end of the day, for example. Scrolling through newsfeeds even takes precedence over bodily functions and grooming.
How many of us have a screen in front of us when we brush our teeth?
Some behaviours are so ingrained they’re now second nature. Try to remember the last time you didn’t have your phone in your hand, at your bedside, or sitting next to you during a meeting, dinner, or social event.
No really, try. I'll wait.
Alright, let’s take this concept a bit further. Think about the people closest to you. Is your commitment to technology affecting your real-life relationships? Sometimes being plugged in actually prevents us from being aware of our real-time needs and wants.
Now as you begin to develop a sense of what it is you plug in to, ask yourself if those connections are in line with your priorities. Your friends and family might be important to you, but when you’re with them you’re disengaged in real-time because you’re busy responding to emails from work or mentions from Twitter and Facebook. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to interact with technology and devices, but there is a way that lines up for you. Are you happy with what you plug into?
We've Always Been Plugged In
Being plugged in isn’t new. You’ve been doing it since you were a child, just not with technology. As an infant you were keenly aware of your physical and emotional needs for food, excretion, comfort, and rest. You paid careful attention to how your needs were met by attuning yourself to your primary caregiver’s responses. Your behaviour stemmed from paying attention both to yourself and those around you, and you developed a way of behaving and interacting that best suited your safety and your basic needs.
You developed an imprint of how you connect.
Newborns can’t provide the basic needs for survival for themselves, but before they’re even a year old, children start communicating their needs with gestures and body language. My son is three and he’s able to do many things for himself that weren’t possible six months ago - things like helping himself to a snack, choosing what he wants to do with his time and, hallelujah, taking himself to the potty! On top of being aware of what they want, by pre-school age kids also start developing a growing sense of what those around them want. This two-way stream of negotiating needs, ingrained at a young age, works as a template for how you meet your own needs and those of others.
Good so far? Alright, let’s take a step forward. The child has now grown up to become a functioning member of society. A connected member of society. An adult with newly discovered awareness of his or her surroundings. We’ve all experienced a time in our lives, perhaps early adulthood, where we felt most attuned to ourselves. Free from the rules of childhood and not yet committed to being actively responsible for others, you had a window in which you could follow your own impulses. Even this did not occur in a vacuum - this means your decisions were made at the mercy of your experiences. Your beliefs were influenced at least in part by people in your social network and how they’d react to your choices.
What’s changed in recent history is your ability to instantly plug into an array of online social networks through the helpful gadget in the palm of your hands. Far from being present to the demands of your body or the opinions of those around you, you are plugged into politics, circles of old friends in far away places, potential lovers... a bounty of information is just a touchscreen away.
But along with information, distraction is hitching a ride.
Tech Toll: Are You Paying for this Ride?
The advances of technology have completely altered human interaction. We are all familiar with the positive aspects of these alterations. You can stay on top of news from friends and family even with great distances between you. You can utilize real-time conversations and even use video feeds to see these special individuals and connect to them like they were sitting beside you. You can meet new people, connect with like-minded groups, and play Scrabble with friends dispersed all over the world. While all these connections feel positive, they are vastly different from how we interacted with one another before the internet, before electricity, and before we developed language itself!
In a time before smart technology and the Internet, communicating with others was best done face to face. Letter mail and phone calls aside, you interacted with people in your immediate vicinity. This meant that while you were at school you talked to your teacher and friends, and while you were at home you interacted with family and neighbours, and there wasn’t much overlap. There was also a time where you interacted with no one but yourself; on those morning walks to school, in the dark of your room while you tried to fall asleep, or on a hike in the mountains. You also interacted with other individuals on an intimate level. Imagine the bliss of an uninterrupted trip with a loved one to the other side of the world (or the grocery store).
No matter where you were, life’s physical boundaries prevented you from consistently being connected to your social network.
Your body and mind are used to engaging with the world in a cyclical fashion - on like the sun and then off at night when the world goes to sleep*. Even night owls and shift workers engage with the world for a normal period of time before turning off.
Well, on and off are starting to blur together. These days, Instagram images invade your visual feed, Snapchat shots blink in and out of existence and your ears are filled with tweets, pings, and notifications of someone trying to connect with you. Always on, always plugged in, always available.
And even when you’re not, you know you could be.
We’ve got the world at our fingertips, but there’s no official handbook to teach us how to use this expanse of available information. Until now, of course!
While research on the toll of technology on mental health is picking up steam, this research is not yet having a large impact on our interactions with technology. Think about how scientists knew smoking was correlated to a negative impact on our health for ages before policy and societal norms caught up. And unlike cigarettes which have arguably few ‘good’ characteristics, the availability of social media and technology is a double-edged sword. While it can feel so good to connect, sometimes too much of a good thing can also be a concern.
One drink loosens you up
Two drinks and you’re a bit more social
Three drinks and your inhibitions are dissolving
Five drinks and you’re agitated and picking fights
You get the idea. While you may not have an actual addiction, your usage habits and outcomes may have tipped from being an element of your life that serves you, to an exhausting force that contributes to depression, anxiety, and long term damage to your personality. You’ve got access but so does everyone else. Your unending availability to ‘be on’ all the time shifts everything: your expectations, your behaviours, and your internal experiences.
As a therapist working to increase mental wellness, a fundamental part of gathering enough information to build an individual’s profile relies on my understanding of a person’s interactions with social media and technology. From a biopsychosocial perspective, or one in which it is recognized that our biology, psychology, and social lives are interconnected, it’s impossible to ignore the growing impact of social media and technology as they seep into every aspect of our lives.
Social media and technology can also impact your spiritual life. Religion, faith, or even your interactions with nature or the world at large are not protected from the force of devices. It can be difficult to fit technology and spirituality into the same space: your mind.
Several of my clients express frustration about the lack of assistance they receive when it comes to their relationship with technology. The reality is many professionals working in the field simply have had little to no exposure to this new aspect of life and therefore lack the urgency to address these challenges in therapy.
Have you experienced a negative impact from technology and social media? There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for how to proceed, but it’s important to learn skills to help you manage your reliance. By learning more about how your mind and body work and how that impacts your reliance on plugging in, you can return to a place where your choices help instead of hinder. As you learn to be responsive instead of reactive, social media and technology can serve you instead of you serving them.
Don’t worry, the challenges with connection aren’t confined to the mental health layman. Mental health professionals also struggle to organize their thoughts, both online and off. I’m still searching for the right balance. I use technology every day, I’m connected on social media, and defining the right recipe for all these ingredients is a journey I’m excited to take.
And I’m glad you’re coming with me.
Next week in Chapter 2: Social Overload
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.
*Laber-Warren, E. (September 1, 2015). Out of Sync: How modern lifestyles scramble the body’s rhythms. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/out-of-sync-how-modern-lifestyles-scramble-the-body-s-rhythms/