We’ve expanded our minds. It’s no longer contained inside our heads — it now includes our devices, social media, and essentially anything digital. While the connectedness available to us today has opened a number of doors, it’s not always a good thing. We no longer have time to think and create our own ideas. In fact, too much digital connectedness can be a bad thing — for our mental health as well as our creative ventures.
Constant surfing and intake of bite-sized information crowds out time for contemplation. Because of neuroplasticity (which is the ability for our brains to change), the more we use the web, the more we train our brains to be distracted. As a consequence, we then rely even more on the net because we have trouble remembering. We don’t need to recollect anything. Most people are constantly attached to a smartphone, which has become a portable brain.
Over-dependence and overuse of all-things-digital not only impacts our capacity for concentration and contemplation, it has changed the way we think. The internet is a fire hose of information, but we can only transfer a small portion of that to our long-term memory. Rather than deep complex thought developed by a coherent stream of one thing at a time, we receive drops of information. All day long. As we invite this scattered information into our minds, the result is less time for reflection.
And the multimedia nature of the information we invite in further strains cognitive abilities. Absorbing text only is thing of the past. Popups, videos, and ads all clamor for our attention, resulting in us feeling worn out. This constant influx of bite-size information makes it difficult to think and we end up too tired to process what we receive anyway.
Let’s talk about how this impacts our mental health. When I worked with clients as a licensed therapist, I often ask about their technology use because it’s part of a whole person approach to treatment. With depression, one symptom is inability to concentrate. Too much time on our browsers going from tab to tab also leads to an inability to concentrate. Are we mimicking depressive symptoms with our online behavior? I think so. Whatever the cause of our trouble concentrating, when focus is lost, the mind fixes on the negative. This symptom is seen in depression as people focus on the negative parts of life.
This also impacts the mind-body connection. Those with depression adopt a defeated posture where they are hunched over, somewhat curved in toward themselves. People constantly on their smartphones adopt the same posture. Since our minds and bodies are connected, we tell our minds we are depressed when we curve inward checking text messages all day.
How about anxiety? Frequent interruptions, such as constant dings notifying us of a new message, can make us anxious. On the flip side, people feel anxious when they don’t have their phone, which is another issue because they’ve trained their brains to “need” constant hits of information. And the continual hits of negative news, whether it’s our presidential election, shootings, or natural disasters, pumps stress hormones through our bodies all day without reprieve.
And if we’re struggling with mental health issues, productivity will decline. Even if a person has not formerly been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, it doesn’t mean immunity to the symptoms of it. Bottom line — overuse of the internet impacts your productivity. Sadly, there are still job postings where “multitasking” is a desired qualification, although it is not an asset. Multitaskers respond to everything, giving it equal weight, so it becomes impossible to respond well to one thing. Yes, it’s a great trait if you’re building widgets all day but not for any ventures dependent on creativity or deep thought. Since multitaskers don’t have a good filter, they are slowed down by irrelevant info and become addicted to inefficiency. Their brains accept constant distractions as normal and as a result have difficulty engaging in genuine deep work. Bouncing from task to task becomes the norm.
So who is to blame? It’s our human nature to look for external sources that cause our problems and in this case, we can do that to an extent. Google is in the business of distraction and trains us to look for the new at the expense of the essential. Every click sends signals back about what people find interesting or view as important. And of course, many publishers and advertisers do the same thing and use that information against us. (Side note: I’m also a digital marketer, certified in Google AdWords, so I’m partially to blame. Walking contradiction. I know). Every time we land on a new site, we make decisions about navigation which distracts the brain from interpreting information. This sense of overwhelm impedes retention and causes our brains to become overtaxed. One way we can prevent this from happening is to have a plan when we go online and be intentional rather than mindlessly clicking on links that contain information we don’t care about or news that will only bring us down. A plan for surfing? Yes.
Blaming Google, and AdWords consultants is legit, but we need to still take responsibility for our actions. The compulsion to be online stems from the same dopamine with other addictions. A constant intake of meaningless information puts us in a dopamine loop and we can’t focus on a single task. We’re always seeking our next hit. And it’s this unpredictability and intermittent reinforcement that stimulates dopamine and encourages compulsiveness.
As we click, click, and click again, something new will eventually show up on our screen and occasionally that something is great. We receive that lunch invitation from a friend. We hear back about the job we want so badly. The internet is one big slot machine which occasionally delivers rewards. It’s the constant checking though — whether that’s social media, text messages or email – that keeps shallow concerns at the top of mind. As a result of constantly feeding our brains garbage, we construct an understanding of life as filled with irritability and triviality.
Here’s the good news — we have a choice. We can control the input. Although digital moves at a fast pace, we generally do not need to keep up with everything, unless of course that’s our industry. And we have the power to change our behaviors. Like any addiction, it’s not easy to make a healthy change. But it is doable and it starts with being mindful about your actions. Ask yourself — Why I am doing this? Why am I reading this? What am I avoiding right now? It starts with a recognition that your internet use may be killing your productivity and a willingness to do the hard work of changing ingrained habits. If you need some help breaking your tech habit, and I promise it is worth the effort, read my five tips from an earlier post. It provides some practical suggestions for developing new, healthier, habits.