The verdict is real: we cannot live without the Internet. Therefore, defining well the mechanisms to counteract its negative effects are key to our mental health.
You got up like any other day: the alarm went off at the same time as always. You turned around and tried to sleep another five minutes. Until you remember that you have to be at 9:15 in the classroom.
You took a shower while the smell of coffee filled your apartment. Then you made a simple ham and cheese sandwich to carry with you to the bus stop. You brought the book for the 30-minute ride on public transportation. Except for a little distraction from the disaster your cat made the night before, you had no delay. In fact, everything worked perfectly that day in 1997, when you barely had a 56 KBPS modem to connect to the Internet.
Let’s compare that moment with any day in 2020: you woke up alarmed and very tired after spending 5 hours doing a «marathon» on Netflix the night before (of which 1 hour was looking for what to see).
As soon as you open your eyes you pick up the phone and start receiving your first doses of dopamine thanks to notifications from instagram and gmail. You burned the coffee while reading the article your boss sent you at midnight, and you were almost late for the bus. Along the way, you answer emails from work, hoping to advance much of your work before you get to the University to teach.
The price we pay
Without awareness of its use, the Internet can be a great detractor in our lives. But giving up your access would put you at a disadvantage.
Many people believe that the internet «is just a tool» that we can all control at ease. When it really is a double-edged sword we have to learn how to handle how a Samurai wields his katana. A katana that without sufficient care will wreak havoc without us realizing it: in our relationships, in our careers, and in our mental health.
Simple things like the buzz from our mobile phones are training our brains to be «good» at multitasking and rewarding a short attention span. As with cigarettes or alcohol, the more we do an activity that rewards us with dopamine (checking email or facebook), the more likely we are to do it next time again and again and again.
If our mind is overwhelmed by infoxication, not only does it lose the ability to discern the relevant from the irrelevant, but we cannot retain new information, see patterns, or establish new neural connections. In short, our learning abilities are greatly reduced.
The Internet is a social pact that will not go away
Constant distraction is part of everyday life, but it is also relevant for a stable life: solving the requests of your coworkers, asking your partner you he can go eat later or answering the teacher’s email are not tasks that we can avoid.
The problem is when these daily and innocuous tasks are carried out in a context of «infinity pools» of information that bend our will and our attention.
What we feed our body is reflected outside sooner or later. The same will happen with our brain. We will reflect how we feed our mind through our digital fingerprint.
I hope that, like some rituals popularized with the Digital Age, such as Meatless Monday or Throwback Thursday, we will soon see hardcore fans of concepts to overcome the digital challenges –such as “Digital Minimalism” or «Sunday Disconnected»– grow in the mainstream.
A balanced digital diet
I have been fighting against digital vices for more than two decades, and as with food, it is something that I must always keep an eye on.
As a knowledge worker, one of the big challenges you have is to maximize your output while minimizing your input. It is not easy, unless you have mechanisms and awareness of what you do.
We can fall into any black hole of information without realizing it.
Suppose you open Facebook to make a status on your client’s page and you realize that your neighbor bought a Tesla. «But how did he do it? Ah, she is a neurosurgeon ” you tell yourself, but how much does a neurosurgeon earn? We’ll see…. Hmm interesting, this post about jobs of the future tells me that I can earn more than a neurosurgeon if I invest in Bitcoin and ETH. But what is Bitcoin? …” When you realize it, you have spent 35 minutes consuming irrelevant information, exhausting the few mental resources you have for the day.
You are just reinforcing the wrong neural path when you go down this route.
We have to take good care of our body, but also of our mind. For my body, I use food consumption trackers apps or a scale to control my weight, for my mind I use tools such as a digital activities monitoring app like RescueTime or alarms to know when it’s time to disconnect. We need tools to actively monitor ourselves and make sure we haven’t gotten out of the lane.
But it is not enough to maintain control, we also have to program activities that allow us to develop deep concentration: activities that allow us to focus on one thing for long periods of time, to rewire our neural pathways and counteract the effects of easy dopamine bursts. Doing puzzles, knitting, drawing or reading books, are some of the activities we can do to ease the mental distress that comes from constant distraction.
The kind of activities will counteract your self-interruption patterns significantly, helping you go into deep activities easier. You will feel more in control of your own will in the face of procrastination.
If we already know that we cannot live without it, then we must make an effort to control our relationship with the Internet. Have well defined mechanisms to counteract digital distraction to keep your own willpower in charge. The reward will be a healthier brain and a better life.
The photo was taken by me in Barcelona, September 2018.