‘The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.’
~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb
With invisible umbilical cords connecting us to our devices 24/7, staying focused is becoming increasingly difficult. Our attention buzzes around with the restlessness of a mosquito, fluttering between emails, Facebook, Twitter and text messages. Many of us are suffering from what Dr Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specialising in ADHD, calls ‘Attention Deficit Trait’. He describes it as ‘a condition induced by modern life, in which you’ve become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving’.
We need to reflect on our relationships with technology, not just for the sake of improving our productivity, but also in relation to our health. Linda Stone, a technology thought leader and ex-Microsoft researcher discovered a condition she described as ‘email apnoea’, a pattern of breath-holding that occurs while emailing. It’s a condition similar to sleep apnoea, which causes disturbed breathing during sleep. The problem with holding your breath is that it activates your stress response, leading to increased cortisol levels that can have a negative effect on your health. So becoming more mindful of our relationship with technology is going to improve our general wellbeing as well as our focus.
As a society, the constant distraction of technology is also affecting the health and safety of children under our care. In 2007 the iPhone was released, and according to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over the following three years nonfatal injuries to children under five increased by twelve per cent. Craig Palsson, professor of economics at Yale University, investigated whether there was a link between the two. In 2014 he published an alarming paper entitled ‘That Smarts! Smartphones and Child Injuries’, which revealed a connection: technology was increasingly distracting parents, and by extension impacting on the wellbeing of their children.
If we wish to remain healthy, happy and clear-minded, we need to upgrade our ‘inner technology’ to meet the demands of our increasingly complex, hyperconnected world. Mindfulness can significantly help with addictions ranging from smoking to social media, and it can help us manage the distractions and urges that constantly threaten our capacity to focus.
Take a moment to reflect on these questions to assess your level of addiction to social media. These are the same questions I used to ask many of my patients to determine whether they had addiction disorders, taken from a list of criteria in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM).
- Are you are spending increasing amounts of time on social media and often longer than you intend to be using it?
- Have you wanted to stop using social media but found you were unable to?
- Do you spend a lot of time on social media?
- Do you have strong urges or cravings to use social media that are hard to resist?
- Do you repeatedly find that some of your major tasks or responsibilities are being interrupted by your social media use (i.e. getting distracted when you should be working)?
- Do you continue to use social media despite it having a negative impact on areas of your life (i.e. staying up late at night and not getting enough sleep, having a child or partner point out your use of social media, using social media while driving)?
- Have you stopped or reduced doing things that you previously did (work, recreation or social) because of your social media use?
- Do you use social media repeatedly even when it puts you or those around you in danger (i.e. while driving or in the playground with your child)?
- Have you continued use of social media despite knowing that it’s causing problems in your life (either physical or psychological)?
- Do you need to use social media more often to get a sense of satisfaction?
- Do you feel withdrawal symptoms after being disconnected from social media that can be relieved by using it? If you answered yes to two or three questions it is likely that you’re mildly addicted, four to five indicates a moderate addiction, and six to seven indicates a severe addiction.
If you suspect that you may be addicted to technology, try to bring more mindfulness to your relationship with it through these four steps which will help you start breaking the automatic habits that maintain the addiction.
Set an intention
Set an intention around changing your behaviour in relation to technology and think about practical steps you can take to make it more difficult to access. Consider taking the social media apps off your phone, or commit to sleeping without your mobile in the bedroom (even for just a few nights to see what effect it has).
The next time you feel the urge to check social media, take a pause. Recognise that you are caught in craving. Count to ten before continuing to use it, as a way of interrupting the urge for long enough to allow it to naturally pass.
When we crave something, there’s often an uncomfortable emotion or feeling that’s present which we are trying to avoid. Take a moment to bring the attention to your body. Sense any emotions or feelings that are present (agitation, stress, loneliness, boredom). Once you identify the emotion, silently label it to yourself. This brings more mindful awareness to your current state and may lead you closer to the underlying issue that might be driving the urges.
Mindfulness allows you to consciously notice what is happening as it is happening – and pause before you act on your urges. In this way it helps disrupt automatic habits and addiction loops, and allows new habit pathways to form.
As technology develops exponentially, being mindful of our relationship with it is going to be the difference between being its slave or its master.
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