The dangers of being always connected

The ad is compelling.

A surfer rides a blue wave, seen from below in crystal clear reflection. The Apple Watch on his left arm cuts through the surf, elegant, sparkling ripples trailing behind. Suddenly, it breaks the surface, and the screen lights up, announcing an incoming call.

Let’s face it, shall we? We are always connected. We are always wired in. We are always on.

We have become a world of interconnected people, carrying oversized cell phones in our jean pockets, toting oversized tablets in our backpacks, jumping from phone to watch to tablet to laptop to desktop to talking cylinders on our kitchen counters with ease. We start a thought on the subway, work on it at the office, add to it on the bus or in the car, and finish it in our home office. We email things to ourselves, text I love yous to our boyfriends across town or our spouses upstairs. We store emails, copy and paste notes and publish selfies to Instagram as easily as we used to sign checks.

We have taken to social media sites and platforms like ducks to water, or more appropriately like toddlers to tablets. Since 2004, Facebook has grown from a small platform to rate college students by their looks to a worldwide behemoth with over two billion monthly active users. It has been followed by Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. Message apps, apps for sharing pictures, apps for selling things, apps for hooking up, and apps for buying things have skyrocketed in popularity.

It has become harder and harder to disconnect from this grid of talking, picture taking, messaging and buying. Telephone calls? Passé. Carrying a point and shoot or 35 mm camera? Negative. Writing a note or sending a postcard to the folks back home? In the dead letter box. Using cash to buy anything at the local department or grocery store downtown? A bankrupt proposition.

We are becoming locked in, signed in, tuned in, connected, interlinked, and on the grid twenty-four hours per day. We may fool ourselves into thinking that we set limits on our use of these technologies, but we are inadvertently challenging ourselves to circumvent the very limits that we impose. In addition, technology is so good that it will continue to maintain our connections while we work, sleep or eat, leaving us little reason to actively think about how it all happens. Hello Skynet.

Are there advantages to being always on? Of course, there are.

We are able to start and maintain meaningful relationships across great distances. We can find those that we might have lost touch with years ago. We can search for literally anything in real time. We are raising the first generation of nimble multitaskers who will find it second nature to listen to a physics podcast while ordering a latte, paying their mortgage, hailing a ride downtown and buying tickets to the game all at the same time. Our children and grandchildren will be able to crowdsource solutions to almost any problem, and their ability to gather new knowledge and expertise online will astonish us. The tech that they use will soon seem to disappear, to become part of the actual and virtual fabric of their lives, to be so embedded in their daily routine that they will only have to think to make something happen on the grid. Online learning will mushroom to unfathomable heights.

Are there also disadvantages to being always on?

We have already seen that we sit too much, and that we are idly watching our screens more and more hours during the day and night. Instead of sending the kids outside to play, we queue up a virtual game of basketball or hide and seek and allow them to sit on the floor and play. It keeps them quiet, it decreases our stress, but it gives them precious little physical exercise.

We all know that we grab our phones, only meaning to quickly check our messages or Facebook, but then finding that we have spent the last thirty minutes perusing Instagram pictures or checking out the latest fad on Pinterest. A mindless waste of a few minutes leads to a few hours.

The jury is still out, but we think that internet addiction, and by extension addiction to social media, may be very real indeed. Like any addiction, cutting down on the use, especially if it is done abruptly, may lead to very real withdrawal symptoms such as decreased interest in other activities, lack of sleep, decreased appetite and irritability.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has already warned against the negative effects of social media, including cyberbullying and so-called “Facebook depression.”

Some studies have also shown that increased use of online resources such as social media may actually result in less happiness, not more, by undermining one’s sense of well being. Comparing your life to others online, whether positively or negatively, may result in more emotional dysregulation. Jealousy may lead to one-upping behaviors and a vicious cycle.

Also somewhat counterintuitively, increased connection time may actually cause one to feel more isolated from friends and family, not less. More “friendships” online may portend less actual physical and real-world social interactions, leading to more isolation and mood changes.

You may have read that humans can only keep track of so many actual friends and relationships in real time, usually around one hundred to one hundred fifty. Having five hundred Facebook friends or ten thousand Twitter followers does not necessarily mean that you are fully engaged with all of those people. How could you be, given the other tugs on your time from other parts of your life that demand your attention?

The generation that is growing up always connected may have trouble with always wanting instant gratification, having less overall patience and making quick, impulsive choices. Decreased face time, not FaceTime, may lead to a stunted growth in social skills and normal social engagement with others. Although they may grow to be master multitaskers, they may find that it is very difficult for them to think long and deeply about a subject that is particularly perplexing.

As you can see, there are good and bad things about being always on.

If you decide that you want to try to disconnect, at least part of the time, what should you do?

Physically leave your gadgets at home once in a while. Ditch the phone, the watch, the tablet. These devices are wonderful at recording any communication you get in real time, so that when you get home, you can always see what happened while you were away, acting on anything important and deleting the rest.

Even if you have your devices with you all the time, turn them off for half a day. Rest your batteries, your ears and your fingers in the meantime. Uninstall apps that keep you always connected and always on.

Consider limiting social media time, especially on phones and tablets. Set a schedule for checking your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts, perhaps once in the evening after dinner. You don’t have to stop using them all at once or at all, but limiting the exposure to these platforms has shown greater overall happiness in some studies.

Set an email away message when you are out of the office, out of town or on vacation, and then stick to it. Do not try to access your email from the beach or the mountains or the amusement park ride.

It is true that we are becoming a hyper-connected world, always on.

I’m not saying that you should give up everything all at once, or even give some of it up at all. Just consider whether or not you really want to receive and take that phone call from your watch when you’re catching the biggest wave of your life, in the sparkling sea with the bright sunshine overhead.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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