(This first ran August 10, 2012. It’s making a repeat appearance this week as a reminder to unplug and clear the head while clearing the snow on the ground.)
The headline stared out from the magazine rack in the check-out line. Beyond the guess-which-celebrity-has-the-worst-beach-body headlines was:
Panic. Depression. Psychosis.
How Connection Addiction Is Rewiring Our Brains
It was splashed across the top of Newsweek.
* * *
In January, my husband and I bundled up our kids and headed skiing. The lodge where we ate lunch was the only place to plug-in during the day.
The first day I was a wreck. I needed to get online.
“You’re on vacation,” my husband reminded me. “People know you’re gone. It’s ok.”
That wasn’t the point. I needed to know what was going on. What was I missing out on?
And then it started to pass.
And by the end of the trip, I realized my head was clearing.
And I knew why.
The things missing during vacation—those things that ate up much of my usual day-to-day life—were e-mail and the Internet.
* * *
I found iCrazy by Tony Dokoupil sandwiched between pieces about Tom Cruise and Syria. It opened with the example of Jason Russell, the man behind the documentary “Kony 2012,” who went from little social presence to overload—to stripping down on a street corner, slapping the pavement and ranting.
* * *
I didn’t watch much TV as a kid. If chores were done and behavior good, Little House on the Prairie and Saturday cartoons were a treat.
My parents tuned in for the evening news, UCLA football and basketball, and the annual Army-Navy football game.
Otherwise, my sisters and I challenged our play station of the day—the jungle gym Dad erected in the back yard—or we torn up the neighborhood on our bikes, played sports, were involved in Girl Scouts, or hanging at the library, which Mom took us to once a week to pick out books to read. We didn’t have time for TV. No Atari. No computer.
* * *
Before our family ski trip this past January, I felt like my brain was atrophying. I couldn’t sit and read books like I used to. I moved like a cat who’d lost her patience. My focus was on getting that piece of string being wiggled in front of me, not on waiting out the string—and its manipulator—like a seasoned Tom, so I could grab it for good in just one pounce.
I was constantly checking, monitoring, replying, posting.
* * *
According to the Newsweek article:
“The brains of Internet addicts, it turns out, look like the brains of drug and alcohol addicts.”
* * *
I’m one of those people who can’t hold a conversation and watch TV at the same time. I’ve tried. Doesn’t work—even if the show is about something for which I have no interest. It draws me in. And I can’t produce anything when it’s on. I need silence.
That same feeling of being distracted started tugging at my brain a while ago, as I sat in front of my computer. For my work, I spend more time in front of a screen than I do anything else in my life.
And it hurts my head.
It’s not that pain, in a nasty hangover, hammering a nail into your brain sort of way, but more of that leaking pain in your heart sort of way—which comes about when you’re losing someone or something of great value. It just keeps going. No one to shore up the dike. Just a long, heart-wrenching, painful leak.
* * *
My dad’s a doc. When I had my own kids he started going on and on about limiting their screen time. For the first four years of my son’s life, I didn’t listen. He watched a lot of TV. And then my daughter came along, and we were busier than ever. My son was old enough to play sports, we were at soccer practices and games, and TV time faded.
And when we did have free time, and he started watching TV again, I noticed a difference. He wasn’t as calm. Didn’t sit as still. And then the Nintendo DS came along and the iTouch.
We’re a gadget family, so he and his sister bought into those, and then into the iPad, and then I noticed the same. After long periods in front of the many screens they were easily distracted.
I listened to Dad and started limiting their screen time. No TV, no DS, no computer, no iTouch, no iPad during the week. Weekends only.
It didn’t occur to me that I needed to limit my own screen time.
* * *
On the last page of the Newsweek article, a mention of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl made me pause:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” begins Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, a beatnik rant that opens with people “dragging themselves” at dawn, searching for an “angry fix” of heroin. It’s not hard to imagine the alternative imagery today.
* * *
In the public relations world, there’s an attention to staying on top of everything, all the time. I live in it. I get it. If something bad happens, you need to be on top of it—right away. And if something good breaks, you want to blow your horn—loud, within seconds of the fab news.
BUT: That need to know has fueled the social media addiction. The latter services the former. It provides that quick-info-now fix.
AND: It’s expanded it’s territory. It’s hooking up more than just the PR world these days.
* * *
One last line from Newsweek:
The Internet is still ours to shape. Our minds are in the balance.
* * *
I’m still a fan of social media for sharing and connecting. I’ve met some amazing people that way, but I know I can’t be on board 24/7.
When I started limiting my social media time, my head felt better and I collected lost time—and I found that my time online was more rewarding. I accomplished more within the same time by limiting the distractions, keeping to my time limits. And I’ve extended it to e-mail, too. I’m either on, or off. No more having it turned on in the background all the time.
The feeling that my head is being invaded by the mush Dad said TV would turn my head into, is fading.
The thing is, I know I’m not alone in this.
As that last Newsweek line said, “The Internet is ours to shape.”
We’ve got to eliminate iCrazy from the equation.
“Our minds are in the balance.”
We can’t let the howling spread.
The screens are an adjunct to the best action: spending the day with colleagues, striving, competing, contending, collaborating. Spending the evenings and weekends with family; wine, dining, strolling, laughing, chatting, cheering, planning. And time alone; running in the woods, tending the tomatoes, staring at the clouds, listening to the wind blowing in the trees, reading.
Ah, irony. I first noted this article on Facebook, and then spent long minutes reading it–on the ubiquitous screen, rather than gardening or writing in these early morning hours before iCrazy sets in from too much screen time. I now must promise myself to not continually check to see what other comments are posted about this fine article.
Aaaah Christine, so true. Here I sit distracted from Real Life by some compelling writing and your comment. All on a screen. So nnow I will turn it off – thank you!
It’s a very serious matter.
We have invite internet to our lives in order to communicate, collect important information e.t.c.
But at the same time we understand that we have to learn (like the learner magician) how not to make it “our life”. If we don’t realize that, then we are slaves to addiction.
As a teacher I have to be extra careful when I see children reaching the limits of internet addiction or gaming addiction or TV addiction, not to mention of course the parents that don’t see the signs yet (or choose not to see them being busy with their works and financial problems e.t.c. Not to mention a very small percent of parents who feel secure knowing that their child is sitting quiet in front of the screen).
Love these thoughts and am wrestling with the tension of social media addiction constantly, especially as an author trying to “build my platform” through the very vehicle that can become all-consuming.
In the beginning, before there was GUI, there was The Word, all we had was text and slow modems, bulletin-board style dial-up networks, like ‘The Well’, one of the earliest and what ‘Wired Magazine’ named the most influential network in 1993. It was chock-full of burning-brains–writers, geeks, artists, unrepentant hippies, the constant sojourners on the continual path from Beat to Hippie to Punk to Grunge to Baby It’s A Brave New World. The print-outs I have from some of the conferences there are so rich, so open and generous of thought, manifesting in some of the key technologies and publications of what I now think of as Internet Hell.
The medium has devolved.
Where once I came online to escape the imprisonment of self — anonymity in a temporal world, free of visual context, able to interact on that same free plain, the Electronic Frontier, with others of like mind, where thought and patient communication replaced the noise and distraction of the meat-world — I now retreat from. It has become that which I sought to escape, all the yammering substanceless ‘information’, the crowds, and my God! high-school all over again, 24/7–it’s like being in the cafeteria at lunch time. And that was Zuckerberg’s model for ‘Facebook’–the high-school yearbook: a deep subject for such a shallow mind.
I quit all social media (except Twitter,) even my blog. As a writer for over thirty years, just because someone thinks they can write doesn’t make them a writer. The first umpteen years as ‘a writer’ I did what most of us did: lined shelves with rejection letters and re-typed dog-eared manuscripts to re-submit, ever hopeful that one of three always-in-circulation manuscripts would garner me an acceptance letter. Eventually one did, from P.J. O’Rourke, then-editor of ‘National Lampoon,’ and I felt like a ‘real writer.’ I never thought I’d say I miss magazine editors, but here we are online trying to curate’ our information–and that is called ‘editing’ imo. The law of entropy affect everything–that which is amassed has a tendency to break apart, and that which is in pieces tends to coalesce. Maybe that’s why magazines in all formats are a big deal again and self-publishing has a new image. Self-curation.
Remember the Internet is for surfing, not drowning.
Watch out for sharks.
Wait thirty minutes after eating before entering the current.
Oh my, did I need to read this, Callie!
I too have to battle ALL THOSE time-consuming, shallow Internet distractions. From my favorite online news sites, to product reviews of stuff I may or may not buy, to FB, to my favorite blogs, blah, blah, blah.
Seriously, thank you for the reminder. Because when I ease up, and go off the grid, I feel better. This is just the shove I needed.. THANK YOU!
Oh my, guilty as charged. The only thing I don’t do much of is Social Media. I have a Face Book page that I check maybe once a month. No Twitter, no Instagram. But I am online a lot. I’ve had to force myself to close my browser and shut down my email during writing time, but after reading this, I can see that I need to do more unplugging in my life. Thanks for always giving us something relevant to think about Callie!
P.S. One antidote to this crazy rewiring is daily meditation. It will help rewire your brain towards contentment and creative focus. A great book for skeptics is Dan Harris’s “10% Happier.”
Agreed–I loved that book as well.
The new mantra with apologies to Timothy Leary
With the good comes the bad. Immediately I think of Air Traffic Controller’s, they have to multi- purpose at any given minute or the screaming, barking faces on the floor of Wall Street generating the pulse of economy in a snap- whip of the tongue. Soldiers covering each other’s- back- home safely….Could go on but won’t, you figure it out, use that brain! Isn’t tnat the point? Use it or lose it? It’s too late- we’re all tech” junkies” like the man said. Lol. BGB
I gave up FB for Lent for two reasons: 1) I’ve grown increasingly concerned about the negative impact of social media and its intrusion on my serenity and creativity and 2) I’m in the middle of a romantic break up and need to be away from the FB domain to truly heal. Your post (which I received via email) could not have been more timely.
I also want to personally thank you for your writing tips. I have stimuli overload from most of the junk that finds its way into my inbox, but I cherish every word of your newsletters. You are incredibly generous with the lessons you share. Thank you.
Good timing. Kelly and I were just talking about the whether or not we should increase our social media for our event. Double-edged sword.
Resistance, my personal brand of it, is DISTRACTION. I have to turn off all ‘alerts’ incoming email, ‘nudges from apps’, phone is always on vibrate–and I still feel the pull to check out the news, read a favorite blog…
The other problem I’ve found is that because I can choose where to get my news–I have to be very careful of ‘confirmation bias’–by only reading what I want to. It sure makes me feel good to read something scathing about someone I don’t particularly like, or an editorial that I could have written myself–but there is no growth, nor true news there. Even knowing that–I am still pulled…
I played outside as well, but Atari! We’d play a new game for 36 hours straight until Mastery–then back outside to play wiffle-ball, or the appropriate seasonal sport.
I exclude this site from the above. I am generally stretched here, both by the Black Irish Team and the other readers.
All this concern about electronic media puzzles me.
I am a former computer programmer and present writer who has spent most of my days in front of a screen and online for forty years. I am an avid book reader (both paper and e) reading at least 3 or 4 books a month. My wife and I watch TV moderately. I am not a big social media fan, but I look in a few times a week.
I write both fiction and technical books. While working on my technical books, I am online constantly, fact-checking as a I write, researching. When I am writing fiction, web sites like this are a distraction that I have to ration myself on, but I find books on writing to be just as much of a distraction.
I guess I am in front of a computer screen 80 to 90 hours a week.
I don’t think forty years of a constant diet of electronic media has done me any harm or changed my mode of thought. I enjoy an evening reading Aristotle’s Poetics as much now as I did in 1970. I still love to listen to Erik Satie.I read Victorian novels with a passion. The sound of middle English enthralls me. And I haven’t noticed my colleagues who have worked as I have are any different.
This puzzles me. I just don’t see a problem, and I expect I would have one if anyone would. I have had occasions where I needed to get away from the grind, but I attribute them to job and personal pressures, not the way I work.
Maybe you youngsters haven’t been online long enough to get good at it…
I love these reminders. This one is especially good to re-send since we’re heading to the snow this weekend, and everything you said is so relevant. I too, try to get in and get out, and I’m better for it.
Thank you for re-posting. Now if I can just remind my husband too. : )