In a University of Maryland study, students were asked to go without digital tools for 24 hours. The result? Symptoms of withdrawal. Students reported: "I began going crazy." "I went into absolute panic mode." "I felt paralyzed." "I ... stared blankly. I had nothing to do." "Unplugging ... felt like turning off a life-support system." "I felt dead."
Which made me think a little more closely about my technology use, primarily Facebook, which has been a favorite in the last few years. And I started to wonder, "Is this really serving me?"
Because the truth is, I could see a little of myself in those uneasy-feeling students. Maybe it was that urge to scroll, view, like, and update I was having oh so often. Maybe it was the weird feeling that something didn't feel right, or real, or even healthy about it all. It was time for a personal check-in.
So, harmful or benign, what is it?
When I started to take an honest look at my newsfeed, I noticed that besides a few interesting articles shared, fundraisers promoted, or words of encouragement from a few "friends," the majority of what "feeds" us is grandstanding, approval seeking and ego. Been there, done that. Takes one to know one, as they say.
And the truth is, the more I stand back and just notice, myself, and others, the more I wonder, "What's real?"
Our news feeds are also scattered with an overwhelming amount of stimulation in the form of hundreds of status updates, links to follow, ads to click on and a separate streaming feed of other people's likes and comments.
And all this hyper-stimulation, all this voyeuristic viewing of others, all this posting of our personal moments in search of likes, favorites, and such, has its impacts.
Our social media is dumbing us down
I do recall a time before Facebook and mass immersion into short bites of information associated with chaotic and inattentive thinking that is rewiring the very synapses of our brains, that we actually read books, for learning and for fun.
In university we debated arguments based on research from stacks of these relics. Books with pages to turn, corners to fold, words to underline and paragraphs that we would flip back and forwards to in an attempt to find that one thought we wanted to quote for a paper.
It didn't seem unusual, then, to focus our attention on an issue long enough to see past the headline. The whole point was to try to understand the complexity of what was in front of us.
Contrast this with our newsfeed, full of short bites and quips. Post anything too long and we lose our audience's shortened attention spans.
We're boring ourselves to death
At the mercy of cookies that follow our every click and algorithms designed to serve us more of what we already like, we are destined to believe even more of what we already think we know. This is the equivalent of surrounding ourselves in a cloistered bubble of homogeneity, conformity and group think, which spells boredom.
It becomes difficult to expand our understanding, awareness and aptitudes if we are only being served up more of what we already believe and agree with.
Conversely, plunging ourselves into the unknown and deepening our learning by extending ourselves into that Vygotzkian zone of proximal development where we have an underpinning of knowledge but still have to awkwardly leap up to that next level, expands our awareness and brings novelty and challenge to our lives. This is just one delightful and expansive antidote for boring and dull.
I don't feel so great
I was running with a friend of mine, who is a top athlete, turned trainer. She said to me, "When I'm training people for marathons I teach them that the moment they notice the other person and look over their shoulder, they've lost it."
What my friend was talking about is comparison. Gone awry, it messes with our minds, our emotions, our confidence, and has us second guess even our well-developed abilities.
In a world of 7 billion people where we rub shoulders with at least a handful of other humans, there is bound to be comparison. We watch how others live, love, serve, achieve, play and more. And some of those people just give us something amazing to aspire to.
But here's the problem with Facebook and social media streams. We're comparing ourselves to the one percent of people's lives they actually want to show us. It's kind of like watching the replay of a hockey game, where only the goals are highlighted. It's not the whole picture.
Besides, that snippet of something we do see, that one percent, is it something real? Or is something photoshopped and filtered into near perfection? Real life manufactured to look like real life.
And about all those moments, those status updates, those goals in net we're jealously viewing, drooling and stewing over, remember this. We weren't beside that person the 99 percent of the time they spent getting there, screwing up and failing as humans are apt to.
Contrast that with the live person beside us in real time. We compare ourselves, imperfect as we are, to the imperfect human they are.
So why do we do all this dumbing down, boring ourselves to death, and provoking of our own insecurity? On balance, it certainly doesn't feel good, does it? And it seems like it does the opposite of improve our lives, when we could be climbing a mountain, swimming in a lake, cuddling up with a book or huddling over chai with friends.
So why are we sitting on our computers, watching other people live their lives?
For one, we're afraid of being left out. Without our continuous availability of responsive liking, commenting or sharing we may no longer belong to the group or have a presence.
We have a human need to belong and in the absence of real community, the one just outside our front doors that we shuttle past with little acknowledgement, we'll take a filler, even if it may mean tricking our brains into believing we are authentically "connected with friends."
But that's not the only reason.
Why do we keep indulging in any addiction that damages our lives?
For the same reason we gamble again, take another drink, have another cigarette, or drain the last dollars from our bank account for a pair of Gucci strappy sandals.
Because we get a hit from it.
Yes, that's good old dopamine, our pleasure chemical, and it feels juicy. The reward centers of our brain are lighting up, and like Pavlovian trained mammals we're continually throwing ourselves at the mercy of these rewards despite the gravity of the consequences.
Some of the impacts of Internet addiction include: cybersexual addiction, where users are involved in online pornography and role play chat-rooms; online affairs and relationships that replace or cause discord in personal relationships; Internet gambling and purchasing resulting in significant loss of money; and excessive web surfing and searching associated with obsessive compulsive tendencies and reduced work productivity. Addicted Internet users may feel preoccupied with the Internet, make unsuccessful attempts to control or cut back use, and become restless, moody and depressed when trying to cut back, lie about the extent of their use, jeopardize a relationship, job, or educational opportunity due to Internet use, or rely on the Internet to relieve a dysphoric mood.
As neuroscientist Frances Jensen notes, "dopamine can be triggered just as easily by the release of the latest iPhone as by alcohol, pot, sex, or a fast car. In some ways, technology is a drug."
So you be judge, and notice yourself. How you connect. How you disconnect. How much is too much? With the limited hours of life time available to each of us, are we spending them in a way that aligns with our highest aptitudes, greatest desires, and optimum health and vitality?
Because the answer to whether our social media use is harmful or benign might just lie in the question we need to ask ourselves:
"How good do I really want to feel?"