Why do we feel the need to be online all the time?

Joyce Fegan: After a digital detox, her sleep improved and an ongoing feeling of restlessness disappeared. Picture: Nick Bradshaw

After going ’off grid’ for a week while on holiday, a re-energised Joyce Fegan asks why we need to be online all the time.

IT WAS a week in New York that did it. Before the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac in JFK last April, I had made a conscious decision to switch off my smartphone and disengage from Twitter, Facebook, email and text for the duration of my holiday. 

This meant no phone-soothing in bed at night, no arbitrary phone-flicking while waiting in line at a museum and no phone-checking at dinner.

In the normal course of my life the only time I wasn’t aware of my smartphone’s exact whereabouts was while I was sleeping. 

After all — isn’t it imperative to respond to every work-related email as soon as it lands in your inbox? 

Wasn’t it essential to be aware of breaking news at all times? 

And, aside from internet browsing, how else do you fill those empty spaces created by traffic light sequences, check-out queues and the opening credits of True Detective 2?

So after a week spent ‘off-the-grid’ and having witnessed a city full of people with their heads burrowed permanently into little silver boxes, the last thing I wanted to do on my return home was to pick up my smartphone again. 

Why do we feel the need to be online all the time?

The very idea now repulsed me because in just seven days the quality of my sleep had improved immeasurably and gone was that free-floating feeling of restlessness.

While smartphones are part of modern-day life, experts across all fields of mental health warn that their overuse is creating major negative side effects in our lives like decreased self-esteem and empathy, poorer sleep and lesser problem solving skills.

“We don’t yet fully appreciate what the impact on the human brain of being ‘switched-on’ 24/7 is, but we do know that young people are checking their social media, on average 60-120 times a day with some studies citing numbers higher than this,” says clinical child and adolescent psychotherapist Joanna Fortune.

“When I quote this statistic at school talks with 14-16-year-olds, I am commonly asked by one of them if this number pertains solely to Snapchat or all social media as the teens I talk to think it is underestimated based on their own social media use.”

Fortune is at the frontline of this smartphone overuse phenomenon, seeing the effect it has on human development.

Why do we feel the need to be online all the time?

“We can see a clear impact on decision-making skills and not just among young people. Now with Google at our fingertips we tend to over research even simple things such as where to eat. 

"This means we take longer and longer to make simple decisions, leading to a rise in our level of indecisiveness in general and huge struggles when faced with big decisions, personal choices that Google cannot give us an answer for,” warns the psychotherapist.

Another effect of overusing your smartphone and spending inordinate amounts of time on social media is that our capacity to engage in the real world with the people we happen to be with has decreased rapidly, she adds.

This has been heavily researched American psychiatrist Dr Daniel Siegel and his findings are worrying.

When we communicate face-to-face with one another we use seven non-verbal cues like eye-contact, tone of voice and various facial expressions. 

These signals are picked up by the right-side of the brain, the hemisphere that links our bodies with our emotions. When we text, email, Whatsapp and tweet these seven cues are not used.

“The more and more people spend time not using non-verbal signals and instead use mostly verbal ones — text with language that has this linear way of being distributed — the more you’re activating primarily your left hemisphere which in the brain is much more distant from the lower areas that help mediate emotion with the body,” says Dr Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine.

Why do we feel the need to be online all the time?

Dr Siegel has also looked at the negative impact of smartphone screens on our sleep. 

Late at night, when we are meant to be winding down for sleep, if we are checking emails or browsing the internet we are exposing our eyes to streams of photons. 

This, Dr Siegel, explains is telling our brains to stay awake. The light is telling our brains not to secrete melatonin because it is not night-time. 

This one behaviour is causing us to lose at least one hour of sleep a night and so people are not getting the necessary seven hours rest their brain needs for proper functioning.

Another leading American psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry argues that digital communication and social media means we have “invented a world that is relationally different to the one our brain prefers.”

The human brain is not designed for the modern world, he says, because for thousands of generations we lived in small, multi-generational family groups, where there was more touch, more eye-contact and more conversation and these all fed the brain in a “rich way”.

Dr Perry explains that humans feel most rewarded and safest when they are with people they love and respect. And when you are not being rewarded via relationships we turn to unhealthy things like “drugs of abuse” or overeating.

Gerry Cooney, a senior addiction counsellor in the Rutland Centre, believes that some people may overuse their smartphone as a way of avoiding life and people.

“We are working with a lot of people at the moment who would be quite emotionally disconnected, detached from their feelings.

“There is a disconnect with people who are overusing social media or phones or even playing computer games. I would see it as a form of avoidance,” he says.

However, Dr Garrett McGovern, a GP specialising in addiction since 1998, has yet to see a patient challenged with internet overuse.

Why do we feel the need to be online all the time?

“I haven’t seen one case of internet dependence. I don’t even think I’ve had a call to my clinic in all the years I’ve been there for this. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s a problem and it’s a problem for many people. 

"I think one of the problems we have with internet use disorder is that because it’s so commonplace and it’s so acceptable and we use it for very many different functions, a lot of people don’t understand when they’re overusing it, that’s the real subtly here,” says Dr McGovern.

He advises people to at least be cognisant of the time they spend on their phone.

This one simple piece of advice, to be just that little bit more aware of our interaction with our phones, is what led me to step back from the 24-hour-a-day merry-go-round of virtual communication and plug out from time-to-time.

In practical terms my plugging out has seen my productivity double, I can concentrate in blocks of up to three hours, I sleep better, and I even managed to read a whole book in just a week.

As far as relationships go, I haven’t Whatsapped my friends or family in months, instead I talk to them face-to-face and when I’ve missed out on an online notification about an important gathering someone picks up the phone and calls me

 There is no doubt, my life is far more richer and I am far less restless, because I stepped away for a week.


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