Manage your technology and social media use

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In our modern, 24/7 connected societies, technology and social media are ubiquitous, demanding our attention throughout the day, and often during the night.

As we have seen, technology and the pressures of modern life can:

  • Put a strain on our nervous systems
  • Disrupt our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns
  • Cause hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances

All of which can lead to mental health issues such as:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Poor concentration and attention
  • Poor memory

Like in the early days of cigarettes, our understanding of the negative effects of technology and social media is in its early stages, and we are only starting to realise the damage they can do.

As we wait for more research and information to become available, we can take certain actions to manage our technology and social media use to preserve our mental health.

 

It may seem simple, but it is important to learn to turn off your phones and computers, take more frequent breaks and limit the amount of time you spend online.

Students are advised to take “tech breaks” to satisfy their cravings for electronic communication:

  • After 15 minutes of uninterrupted schoolwork, students can allow themselves two minutes to text, check websites, and post to social media, before turning the devices off for another 15 minutes
  • Over time, students must try to extend their working time, with the incentive that they will be able to get online as a reward

For those of us who aren’t students, the same advice applies (with variations according to what type of work we are doing): try to work in uninterrupted chunks of at least 45 minutes, ideally 90 minutes without checking email, social media, etc.

Every time your switch from one “brain activity” to the next, you are expending mental energy. Switching from emails to social media to work in rapid succession is very energy draining for the brain. The more time you spend on a task without distractions, the more efficient your use of mental energy will be, and the more productive you will be.

Carve out predictable time for email, social media, and other forms of communication so that you have predictable chunks of time dedicated to this activity several times a day, and carve out predictable time for uninterrupted work.

  • Depending on the type of work you do, this can be every few hours, three times a day, twice a day, even once a day
  • Each person will have a preference for how long these chunks should be, for which activity, and will vary according to what they need to do, however as a general rule of thumb, working on one task uninterrupted for at least 45, 60 or 90 minutes can be helpful for producing substantial work
  • For social media you could allow yourself 30 minutes after two or three chunks of substantial work

This will also help you to develop deeper thought, more focus and concentration, and better attention and memory:

  • Learning to focus on a book, or even a complex puzzle, can teach us to maintain focus and think deeply about matters
  • Flitting from one online activity to the next, skimming articles, and accessing a world of data with the click of a mouse, which we all do thanks to technology, can make our brains lazy, in need of instant gratification, and loathe to delve deep into ideas which require sustained focus
  • Our brains will always choose the path of least resistance and maximum energy conservation, so we have to deliberately force ourselves to focus for longer periods of time, to concentrate, to delve and think deeply

Meditation is a good way to train your brain for concentration, focus and deep though, which can help to counteract the distracting effects of technology and social media.

A Harvard study suggested that meditation can help to rebuild grey matter in the brain and produce long lasting cognitive and psychological benefits such as increased concentration and attention.Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T. and Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. [online] Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191 (1), pp. 36-43. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S092549271000288X [accessed 15 Nov. 2017].

How to meditate. 

Digital detoxes can be helpful to rest the brain and nervous system from the constant over-stimulation of 24/7 connectivity, and give our neurotransmitters a chance to recuperate from the overstimulation, especially of dopamine. Try:

  • A full day without being online or communicating digitally (usually at weekends)
  • Several days without being online or communicating digitally

Make sure to break up time spent online with regular exercise, face to face social interactions, reading books, etc.

It can be addictive to constantly be glued to what others are doing, but it can create dissatisfaction with your own life, an unhealthy obsession with checking social media and getting validation from “friends” in the form of likes, retweets, etc. It can also detract from your “real” friends and your “real” social life.

Aim to limit social media to an hour a day at most.

Most of us need an average of seven to eight hours of restful sleep to fully repair body and mind. However it is well known that technology, social media and online activity are stimulating to the nervous system, and the blue light from computers and screens blocks melatonin production and can disrupt circadian rhythms.

  • Make sure to turn off your TV and computer at least three hours before you go to sleep
  • Regardless of what time you go to sleep, turn off all screens before 10pm, and ideally before 8pm, as this will be more in line with natural circadian rhythms

Never sleep with your cell phone on and next to your bed, or if you must, make sure it’s on airplane mode.

How to sleep better.

We often check or use our phones and computers during mealtimes. This is not only detrimental to relationships and communication between families and friends, but it can also cause poor digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Try to avoid using technology during mealtimes, and instead focus on the food you are eating, chewing and savouring each bite, and enjoying the company you are with.

There is still little research on the effects of EMR (electro-magnetic radiation), emitted by cell phones, batteries, power outlets, wifi, etc.

Preliminary research however is not encouraging, and it seems that EMR can be disrupting to brain waves and cellular health.Raz, A. (2011). Could certain frequencies of electromagnetic waves or radiation interfere with brain function? [online] Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/could-certain-frequencies/ [accessed 18 Sept. 2017].