Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Connected - How Much is Too Much?

An increasingly complex and discussed topic: In a world where we have devices on our person which are keeping us constantly connected to the digital world… Is this actually good for us, or society as a whole?

I’m not going to suggest that we do away with all this tech, because it can be a force for good. What I will be exploring, however, is if we should be approaching this by treading a little more softly and slowly, rather than simply stomping ahead like a foolish child, unaware of the possible dangers, or even what it’s already doing to us.

What's the big deal, anyway?

People love being connected with other people; it’s just who we are. So what’s wrong with using devices that helps us to be connected with people even when they’re not in our immediate vicinity?

The problem isn’t the use of these devices, it’s the incessant use. It’s that when we constantly try to be social on the internet, it has other effects on us which aren't often noticed. This can sound at first like wild conjecture mixed with hippy-speak, until you look at some of the studies on this topic:

And from our own lives, how many times has it occurred that during a party or other social gathering, at the first quiet moment in the conversation, the people present have all pulled out their phones to check their various social network feeds? I.e. choosing to give the phone their complete attention, ignoring the people around them almost entirely in the meantime.

All too familiar?

This has become the norm for many people, where if their phone is vying through vibration for the phone-holder’s attention because someone has done something involving them on their chosen social network, there seems to be no way that they could just let it slide until the conversation with the people around them is finished. They have to check their phone, and now. The person right in front of them effectively doesn’t matter until this notification has been checked, and responded to if necessary.

Moderation is key

As with all things in life, moderation is key. Despite the possible sound of this article thus far, I’m not suggesting that people should give up their smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with using any of these devices. This is proven by the people who are able to withhold from immediately checking their notifications so that they can finish interacting with the person in front of them, first. The people who can go more than five minutes without checking their social network just to see yet another post about how good someone feels because they cooked a nice meal for themselves.

People can absolutely use their phones in a way which allows them to be connected, and retain their imagination and ability to amuse themselves for a bus or train ride. The problem is, this takes self-control. Self-control which people say they have, and yet often prove they don't.

The more you use your phone as a simple and easy way of passing the time, the more you train your mind to not think for itself when you have a spare moment. This, in turn, makes you more easily bored, which makes it more likely that you’ll just pull out your phone whenever you need to pass the time. On and on it goes, a kind of boredom-feedback loop, slowly making you more dependent on your phone to pass any spare time rather than just stopping, and taking the time to slow down for a few precious minutes. Think about whatever you like, but think. Or even use it as time for meditation.

I won’t try and sum up how to practice meditation while on public transport, as there are already articles out there written by people who do a better job than myself. The point I’m getting at, is that there’s a vast array of things you can do while on public transport (including writing, sketching if the ride is smooth enough, reading, etc.) that aren’t some form of staying connected to the wider world. And most of these methods are certainly better for the mind and soul than checking your social network feed for the third time in ten minutes.

How do I spend my time on my daily 20 minute bus commute to (and then again from) work? I write articles, I read, I sketch, and/or I think critically about whatever is on my mind. Consider this all personal opinion if you like, but I wholly believe that these methods of passing the time are a vast improvement on simply finding out what new funny cat pictures have been posted.

"Won't someone think of the children?"

Frequent use of technology can cause issues for kids, too. Several studies show that too much TV for young children has been linked with obesity, irregular sleep, and behavioural problems, among other things (summed up here).

Other studies (such as this one) show that any screen time at a young age (especially when the child is 2 or younger) can lead to a significantly greater chance of problems associated with speech development.

Another study shows that kids who have access to a smartphone or tablet within their room got slightly worse sleep than those with a TV in their room, who themselves get less sleep, or more irregular sleep, compared to kids without a TV in their room (reported on here).
So, babysitting kids with TV, smartphones, and tablets (though it can provide a welcome relief from time to time) is unfortunately far too easy to overdo, and it can cause possible harm to the children's development.

Yet on the flipside, disconnecting and taking your children out of the house and into somewhere sporting a little natural green can be good for children, especially those diagnosed with ADHD (as found in this study). One of the interesting things to take away from this study is that to get the good effects which help with ADHD, the child doesn't need to be taken far off to a rainforest, or anything like that. Taking them to a nicely kempt park after school is enough.

Pictured: Possible daily medication for a quieter mind

Furthermore, other studies show that kids who are exposed to greenery on the commute to/from school, and around/within the school itself, generally develop better working memories and attentiveness. One study (reported on here) theorised that lowered traffic-related pollution thanks to the greenery doing it's part to clean up the air would be one of the major causes of these beneficial effects. However, the study authors noted that another major cause would simply be the sight of greenery itself (which has been shown to have beneficial mental health effects, for adults and children alike). This is also known as/highly related to the Biophilia hypothesis.

A quiet plea

At this point, I feel the need to re-iterate. I'm not saying that we should do away with technology and start heading backwards. I'm simply saying that we need to be a bit more cautious with how and how often we remain connected, and especially how we're introducing our kids to this world.

Furthermore, nature is something we can't afford to just lose our connection to. Even simply keeping a garden, or working in the shade of a tree, can have health benefits for us and our kids (though a full exploration of this topic in particular would be an article in itself).

Maybe it's time that more people put down their smartphones and tablets on the bus and train, look around, and find more joy in watching the scenery passing by. Perhaps even strike up a conversation with a stranger - scary though the idea may be, it could be a much better way to pass the time than you may think.

(Originally published, by me, on - 11/07/2015)

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