Computing today is perverse. Information technology may have freed up our time through computerisation and automation, but it has also encroached on our ability to switch off and relax. Technology is blamed for information overload, inescapable multitasking, the loss of any work/life balance, internet addiction and the abusive behaviour found on social media.
Research shows that internet use releases dopamine in the brain, triggering a reward response and leading to potentially obsessive pleasure-seeking behaviour. We can get so wrapped up in our internet use that we even forget to breathe — email or screen apnea is the effect of taking only shallow breaths or even holding your breath while working or playing in front of a screen.
Computers have infiltrated our entire waking day, so we are nagged constantly by text messages, notifications from Facebook, Whatsapp, or Viber – on top of the usual deluge of email. How we respond to these messages depends on our state of mind at the time, but our state of mind is also affected by them.
Computers stressing us out
As with any innovation, there are always concerns over how the benefits and drawbacks will play out. The rapid and almost total computerisation of society, particularly with the arrival of smartphones, has given us little time to consider how best to use them. History shows a pattern, with enthusiastic supporters becoming euphoric about a technological innovation while at others see the innovation as “the end of the world”.
Could computers be inherently bad for us – is it us, or is it them that turns us into computer addicts? Our relationship with technology has become a love-hate affair, with some taking extreme measures to eliminate or abandon email or social media or smartphones in an effort to stop the disruptions and help them focus on family or work. This sort of “digital detox” has been promoted as the way forward in getting our normal life back.
Computers giving us a break
So while there’s evidence technology has stressed us out, what has it done to improve matters, to introduce relaxation into our lives? There are a number of apps such as Headspace designed to help us relax and unwind, offering relaxing music, sounds of nature, or exhortations to breathe deeply or sleep.
It might seem that using technology to de-stress from using technology sounds oxymoronic, but we’ve previously suggested it’s possible to practise mindfulness to manage digital overload.
One definition of mindfulness is the conscious awareness and acceptance of present experience. Mindfulness promotes presence of mind and awareness of patterns of thought and emotion, and how they affect mood, thought and action. Mindfulness has been used extensively in medicine, psychology and the business world as a way to alleviate stress and anxiety. In the context of business, mindfulness helps executives to see different perspectives and viewpoints, shed assumptions, and find new insights.
But there’s little research on mindfulness and the processing power of computers. A mindful approach to computing could provide us a way to use the technology we rely upon safely without suffering from the burn-out it tends to bring, while keeping our family and “real life” within reach.
Following a mindful approach, some strategies have already been suggested to bring a greater level of awareness to emailing and using social media. For example, a salesman rushes into the office while also responding to a trivial instant message. His stressed mind produces an irritated reaction to his unsuspecting colleague’s message. Had he created a dedicated hour for managing messages, rather than add to his already crazed morning, the outcome may have been different.
Re-writing the rules
There is a larger picture: technology doesn’t exist apart from society. According to Social Construction of Technology theory, a technology is not fully adopted before all interested parties are sufficiently convinced to align around using the technology for a common purpose. Just as traffic laws and etiquette formed around the automobile, we need to agree social rules around what is appropriate phone and computer use.
We need to set expectations at work about interrupting one another in order to protect our focus on projects, or get across how quickly queries require responses. What time should we stop sending or responding to email? Should we stop celebrating multitasking as a badge of honour when really it is a practice in futility? At home, families must decide when and where are screen-free times and places, in order to protect quality connection with each other over the lure of constant access to information.
We can’t do this without a collective conversation about our relationships with these devices and how we use them. Every culture, firm and family will have it’s own answers – but we need to start asking the questions.
Anastasia Papazafeiropoulou receives funding from the European Commission, EPSRC, Royal Academy of Engineering. The views in this article do not reflect those of the Research Councils. She is a mindfulness coach and practitioner certified by the Mindfulness Research Centre in the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA).
Jeremy Hunter is a mindfulness consultant and coach for mindfulness-works.com
Authors: The Conversation