by Susan Bianchi, MS
A recent Nielson report stated that the average American adult spends 11 hours per day utilizing digital media. The latest Internet Trends Annual Report notes that, on average, we check our phone 150 times a day.
So what is this constant barrage of data and distractions doing to us? While technology has done a great job at connecting the world, it has also pressed us to interact with our computer screens much more than with each other, leaving us stressed out and fatigued. Staying constantly connected through smartphones and technology has not only blurred the lines of the workday, it is impacting our health in less obvious ways.
One of the biggest downsides of all the technology is the constant multitasking we are asking our brains to do. Multitasking is not just doing multiple tasks simultaneously, but also includes switching back and forth between tasks, or doing a number of things in rapid succession. Though we may think we are doing one thing at a time when we reply to an email, then check our phone and return back to our browser, we are multitasking.
In doing so, the executive functioning of the brain that controls planning, working memory and problem solving is slowed down. A recent study has shown that people who multitask were 30 percent slower at task completion and made twice as many errors as those who don’t multitask.
Productivity isn’t the only casualty. Creativity and problem solving also suffer. Being able to hold multiple ideas in our working memory for an extended period of time, without distractions, allows us to see new connections and relationships to forge new ideas and creatively solve problems, while constant multitasking raises stress hormones in the body that can contribute to disease.
There is another direct physiological impact on the body from regular extended screen viewing and we are paying the price in lost restorative sleep hours. The body’s sleep cycle is regulated by exposure to light. The rise and fall of the sun naturally wakes us up as well as encourages sleep. Artificial light, especially at night, throws off that biological clock by suppressing melatonin, a hormone naturally occurring in the body that helps promote a healthy sleep cycle. In particular, there are certain spectrums of light that can have a more detrimental effect. The most powerful suppressor of melatonin is blue light. Blue light is the same light that is emitted from electronics like smartphones, computer and television screens, and energy-efficient light bulbs.
Checking the phone or sending emails before bed exposes one to blue light that disrupts the production of melatonin and sleep suffers. Poor sleep has been linked to increased risk of depression, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
With sleep being even more critical to health than one’s diet, preserving a good sleep cycle is a top priority. A simple step to maintain melatonin production is to avoid screens and blue light for at least two hours before bed.
Adults are not the only ones that need to unplug. The impact of technology is even more profound on young brains. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting children to no more than two hours of screen time per day and children under the age of two should have no screen exposure. The constant exposure affects long-term attention span, learning
abilities, sleep, memory, problem solving and inhibition regulation. Young adults are not immune either, as a study of 20- to 24-year-olds linked heavy cell phone and computer usage with sleep disorders, increased stress and symptoms associated with depression.
For Holly O’Connor of Bethlehem, it has been a conscious and concerted effort to unplug on a daily basis. As an administrator in higher education, she spends 85 percent of her day in front of a screen. For O’Connor, lunch breaks are spent outside mindfully walking on a quiet path. After work, hiking, biking or time spent gardening are keys to her reconnecting.
“Growing up with such an appreciation of our natural surroundings, I realize how much technology draws our attention away from nature and how critical it is to reconnect every day. I think much more clearly and creatively if I take that break in the day and get outside,” O’Connor says. “I definitely feel more fatigued physically and mentally if I don’t.”
Her personal observations are supported by science as a University of Michigan study found that after walking in nature, people learn and process information better and are less mentally fatigued.
Many use exercise to de-stress and disengage from work, but often we are still not unplugging from stressors. The video screens on the treadmill, the exercise app or even the type of workout itself may be keeping your body on high alert. With the popularity of high intensity training as well as phone apps to track every step, it is important to understand when to work “in” versus work out.
Working out puts a physical stress on the body and while that has benefits, if you are experiencing high levels of stress on your system due to inadequate nutrition, poor sleep and/or emotional stress, it may not be the best choice. Consistently adding a high intensity workout could be draining rather than training your body. If you are experiencing a decline in your workout performance, fatiguing earlier than normal or waking up not feeling recovered, you may want to interject a work “in” exercise day. Working in is exercise performed without raising heart or breathing rate. It uses less energy than it produces, thereby helping energize the body and restore balance. Tai Chi and Qigong are examples of great methods of working “in.”
Business and media moguls like Oprah Winfrey and Russell Simmons are just a few high profile people who have attributed their success to the ancient practice of meditation. Meditation helps quiet the mind and develops concentration, promotes clarity and a sense of calm. There are a multitude of types of meditation. Mindfulness meditation is about being present, accepting thoughts that run through one’s mind and practicing detachment from those thoughts. Transcendental meditation uses a mantra or sacred word repeated to help the person meditating focus. Guided visualization involves concentrating on an image or an environment while oftentimes listening to a recording or instructor.
Meditation has been a part of Becky Eshelman’s daily life for over 12 years, helping her personally and professionally. “Doing it first thing, every day—that centers me and is a way to honor myself and my body. I am able to set my intention and attention to what is most important rather than reacting to my day,” Eshelman says.
As an intuitive coach in Bethlehem it is essential for Eshelman to disconnect from the frequency of technology in order to connect to the frequency of intuitive guidance.
“Meditation helps me remember to come from a calm, centered place. It gives me a place to hit my reset button.” She adds that many people are hesitant to try meditation because they think it is too hard, but that is often the problem, we are always thinking too hard.
“I encourage clients to keep it simple. Start off with five minutes to yourself sitting quietly, breathing and work from there. It doesn’t have to be complicated, [it has to] be consistent,” she says.
Understanding the impact of information and technology oversaturation is a first step. The next step is finding avenues to unplug that work for you. Whether it is time in nature, meditation, exercise or just silent breathing, taking the time away helps you be more productive and present, improving your mental, emotional and physical health.