Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Importance of Unplugging

In its July 16, 2012 issue, Newsweek offers a cover story called "iCRAZY: Panic. Depression. Psychosis. How Connection Addiction is Rewiring Our Brains," which is well worth reading. It turns out that the internet can change how we think and feel. Next year, when the new version of the DSM (the reference therapists use to diagnose mental health issues), Internet Addiction Disorder will be mentioned for the first time ever, but in the appendix, for more research and study.

As parents of teenagers can tell you, life has changed for this generation of young people. Newsweek
states that the average teen is involved in 3,700 texts a month. This is why most of us parents have switched to unlimited texting plans! Most parents learn to text to be able to get updates on teens who are out away from the house. The average adult sends 400 texts per month. Many people check their messages constantly throughout the day in a hyper-vigilant way, often checking messages first thing in the morning, and last thing before going to bed. The average adult sends 4 times more texts now than in 2007, while teens have always been heavier text users, but their usage has doubled since 2007.

Newsweek writers reviewed studies from more than twelve countries to look at the impact of the computer and internet on our brains. Peter Whybrow, the director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at UCLA believes "the computer is like electronic cocaine," triggering bouts of mania and depression. It can lead people into poor behavior choices, increase compulsive behaviors, and make people anxious. Nicholas Carr wrote the book The Shallows about how the internet impacts cognition, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The web can be a great resource, but it can also increase our passivity, dependence, obsessions, and stress reactions.

Stanford researchers are studying the rise in ADD, ADHD, and OCD diagnoses, and the possible link to being wired up. The internet draws us to its temporary rewards, with every message bringing potential social, professional, or sexual opportunities. One  2011 study showed about 80% of its participants brought their laptops or smartphones on vacation to stay connected to the office. (That's not really a vacation in the traditional sense, is it?)

One study at the University of Maryland  in 2010 had 200 undergrads go unplugged, avoiding all web and mobile technologies for one day. The students kept logs of the feelings they experienced, which included withdrawal, dependency, emotional distress, and a great deal of difficulty. Another study found that most of its subjects check text messages every 15 minutes or all the time, with the exception of those over age 50.

The brains of internet addicts can end up looking like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts, with extra nerve cells built for speed in the areas responsible for attention, control, and executive function. Other studies show shrinkage of 10 to 20%  in the area of the brain responsible for speech, memory, motor control, emotion, sensory, and other information in internet addicts. A 1998 study at Carnegie Mellon found over a 2-year period, web use was associated with loneliness, down moods, and fewer real-world friends. More recent studies duplicated these findings, linking extended web use with sleep problems, feeling worse, less exercise, and fewer face-to face interactions. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians add questions for children, teens, and parents about technology use in annual exams.

Bad experiences online can trigger depression. It can magnify the power of bullies through Facebook and other social media. Many people can feel a fear of missing out on something if they don't check for updates regularly. It's easy to understand how some of these dynamics can create exhaustion, burnout, stress, anxiety, and other mood issues.

The findings reported in this article from Newsweek this week fit with my clinical experience in counseling individuals, couples, teens and children. Technology is a great resource, but we need to make sure we control it, rather than let it control us. You need to know when to turn it off, and help your children learn to do so as well. (No technology at the dinner table!) We need to have real friends and real relationships that involve face-to-face time. The internet can lull you into stupid choices or a sense of intimacy with complete strangers. We still need to get outside, enjoy nature, and be active. Parents need to make sure their children and teens still develop people skills, because technology only goes so far. We need to make sure that as technology advances, we still develop our soft skills, our ability to communicate verbally, and the ability to give another person our full, undivided attention.

Plus, you just can't break up with someone by e-mail or text, it's just emotionally wrong. Not everything is technologically enhanced. We need to be discerning technology users, and know when to turn it off, go outside, or connect with another human being with our full focus.

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