(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:
iCrazy 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.”