Online time: how much is too much?

December 13, 2010

Family preoccupied with electronics

Connect, process, disconnect (and then process some more)

"Our computers and mobile devices do wonderful things for us. But they also impose an enormous burden, making it harder for us to focus, do our best work, build strong relationships, and find the depth and fulfillment we crave."

So says the website of William Powers, writer, critic, and the man behind a book called Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building A Good Life In The Digital Age. This book is just one of a growing group of essays, articles, and studies about how much online time is too much. Everywhere, people are wondering how to deal with what some are calling "overconnectedness." That means being so "wired in" through things like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and all kinds of Internet sites that we've lost touch with the world where our bodies live.

So how much connection is too much? When does being online put things like our personal connections with family and friends on the line?

It's different for different people. But experts agree that there's a line for everyone.

What about the kids?

The Kaiser Family Foundation offers a number of reports and studies about online time as it relates to young people age eight to 18. One study says that children in this age range spend an average of seven hours and 38 minutes a day with some kind of electronic media, which adds up to 53 hours a week. This represents an increase of an hour and 17 minutes each day over the last five years. But when you consider that online media is available 24 hours a day and that more than 66 percent of today's kids have cell phones and 76 percent have digital music, or mp3 players, is this really a surprise?

Needless to say, this comes with problems. For one thing, experts like the Kaiser Family Foundation and Dr. Michael Rich of Children's Hospital Boston say that all this online time means kids are sleeping less. And if you've ever found yourself up in the middle of the night on a chat board or looking at friends' Facebook pages, you know kids aren't the only ones who lose sleep due to too much time online.

Letters, books, and iPhones: how are they alike?

They all need to be put away sometimes.

A few years ago, William Powers was thinking about how to deal with the flood of information we have today, not to mention what we'll see in the future. When he couldn't find answers in the present, he turned to the past. And in history he found that information "breakthroughs" (like the birth of the alphabet and written language, the inventions of the printing press, telephones, etc.), and people's reactions to them were a lot like the way life is today.

After studying these and other times in history where people feared they'd drown in information, Powers says in a recent Diane Riehm Show/National Public Radio interview that what people did back then is also what we should sometimes do now - to "disconnect" from all these things because disconnecting is what gives us balance by letting us reconnect with the other things we need to be healthy.

What is disconnecting?

Simply put, disconnecting is not being online. Disconnecting is turning off the computer, letting the phone calls go to voicemail, even unplugging the TV. The main reason for it is simple: we have to rest. Our health depends on it. Studies show that we need exercise to get tired, which lets us rest, which we have to do to recharge. Sitting in front of a computer isn't usually very physical, and staying up all night chatting online doesn't help us recharge.

So how do you know it's time to step away from the computer?

Whether it's you, a friend, or someone else in your family, you may know a "media addict." It's a growing problem, and it's a real one. Here are 11 signs of media addiction from the Seattle-based [reSTART Center for Internet Addiction]. (http://www.netaddictionrecovery.com/) It's safe to say these tips also apply to video and computer games, texting, and other media use, even TV. According to reSTART, three of these signs mean a problem, and five can mean addiction.

  • Does browsing your favorite sites make you feel better than anything? If so, watch out. Too much joy while on the Internet is a sign of addiction.
  • Are you spending more and more time on the Internet?
  • Do you have less self-control than you used to? Not being able to control your behavior is also a symptom.
  • Are you choosing time on the Web over time with family and friends? Be careful: That's another sign.
  • Have you lost interest in other activities other than time on the Net? Withdrawal from other activities is trouble.*
  • Do you lie about your online time?
  • Is the Internet getting in the way of your job and school responsibilities?
  • Do you crave more time online? Or do you get restless when you're away from a computer? You may be addicted.
  • Do you feel guilty or ashamed about how much you go online?
  • Do you stay up through the night or find yourself sleeping in? A change in how you sleep could mean something's wrong.
  • Have you gone through a weight change, or had backaches, headaches, or carpal tunnel syndrome from your computer time?

If you said "yes" to more than five of these things, it's time to get offline for a bit. Turn off the computer, put the smartphone in a drawer, and try a face-to-face chat with someone.

We sometimes forget how many ways there are to spend our time when we're not spending it online. Taking a walk, writing a letter, keeping a journal, talking to a friend or family member, playing a game, sketching, watching the birds, petting the dog, catching up on a little housework or reading - often, once we've stepped away from the computer or turned off the smartphone, we're happily surprised by how much free time we really have.

And discovering you have more free time than you thought can be about the most relaxing thing of all.

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