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You, Unplugged

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You, Unplugged

By Courtney Helgoe, Experience Life

There’s a lot to love about the techno-world these days. Our computers, cell phones and handhelds allow us to get work done outside the office and outside the country. The Internet lets us track our fitness progress, catch up on favorite TV shows, play Scrabble with strangers in Spain and balance our checkbooks.

While the rewards of technology are great, our fondness for it can just as easily disconnect us from what’s most meaningful in our lives. This is what happened to Ariel Meadow Stallings, a Seattle author and popular blogger who realized her electronic habits were out of control. Next to a picture of herself with friends on her Web site Electrolicious.com, she writes, “I’m the one fiddling with my phone. There I am, out with friends, ignoring the good times because I’m too busy sending a text message and checking my email.”

Sharon Sarmiento, an Internet business consultant who hosts the blog eSoup (www.esoupblog.com), describes the dilemma of hyperconnectedness in one of her recent posts: “We lose our quiet time, we lose our privacy, and sometimes the technology that is so great at connecting us to folks far away acts as a wall between ourselves and the people in our real, everyday life.”

Even for those of us who aren’t full-time techno-addicts, the effects of our multiple devices can be insidious. The cell phone ringing during dinner or rounds of weekend work emails can erode relationships and personal time. Some studies have suggested that sustained exposure to electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) can threaten our health. What’s more, our electronic habits have become so commonplace that we rarely think twice about their effects.

But some people have started to wonder — and to experiment with routinely “unplugging” from their devices. Their experiments show that a regular break from electronics can help us plug into some important sources of energy we may have been missing.

Why Unplug?
New York Times columnist Mark Bittman is a dedicated technophile. But even Bittman has admitted that he needs a “virtual break” now and then. In a March 2008 column, he describes keeping his laptop next to his bed so he could check his email right before falling asleep and immediately upon waking. “At that point,” he notes, “the only other place I could escape was in my sleep.”

Bittman’s not alone. Most of us are plugged in more than we realize — and this can have real health consequences. According to a 2002 study at Tokyo’s Chiba University, workers who routinely spent more than five consecutive hours in front of a computer screen experienced problems ranging from headaches, eyestrain and stiff shoulders to depression, anxiety, fatigue and sleep disturbances. Still, since so many of our regular activities take place online these days — from shopping to communicating with friends to reading the newspaper — it’s all too easy to sail past the five-hour mark.

Our overuse of cell phones could also affect our health. Ronald Herberman, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, recently released a memo to more than 3,000 hospital employees that recommended reducing cell-phone use until more is known about the potential effects of electromagnetic waves on the brain. Last July, Toronto’s public health agency released a similar recommendation for children and teens, following earlier warnings by the governments of France, Germany and India.

Even if the potential health consequences don’t worry you, it’s tough to deny that a constantly plugged-in state can be incredibly distracting.

Brain-imaging studies at Johns Hopkins University have shown that when we’re listening intently, the visual parts of our brain become less active — which can set us up for trouble if we’re driving while talking on the phone, for example. The reverse is also true: When we’re staring at the incoming text message, newsfeed or stock ticker on our handheld, engaging the visual part of our brains, we’re not really listening to what our partner or colleague is saying to us. Our distraction is unintentional, but the consequences for our relationships are all too real.

The solution to our various electronic addictions is not to demonize our gadgets, but simply to become more mindful of how — and how much — we use them. And that’s just what some of the most wired-up people are learning to do.

A Time of Rest
In orthodox Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is a day of rest when no electronics are allowed. Many bloggers are borrowing this idea to implement what they call a “technological Sabbath” — a weekly vacation from electronics to help restore balance to their lives.

Mark Glaser, host of the PBS show MediaShift, writes that his experiments with unplugging have allowed him to “stretch my time, spend more hours outside and be with more people in face-to-face settings.” And Stallings notes that her weekly “unplugged” evening has inspired her to become more mindful on the other six days.

If you’re ready to try a techno-break, eSoup’s Sarmiento suggests the following guidelines:

Pick a time that works for you. You may want to unplug everything at 8 p.m. each day to guarantee a regular dose of quality downtime, or you could follow the Sabbath model and take a whole day — or two — on the weekend.

Make your own rules. Some people go whole hog and unplug the clocks, TV, landline and toaster, while others just turn off the computer and the cell phone and still watch a DVD with the family. What and when you turn off is up to you, but Sarmiento suggests that if there’s a device you feel you absolutely can’t live without, it’s a good sign that you could use a break from it.

List some real-time activities. Note the things you like to do that don’t require technology. Check the list when you feel the need to plug back in.

Prepare for resistance. Don’t be surprised if unplugging is more difficult than you expect. It can take a while to lose the nagging sense that you’re missing something important.

Consciously reap the rewards. Notice how fun it is to play a game on the floor with your kids instead of sending after-dinner emails. Appreciate the calmer feeling of getting into bed with a book instead of your laptop. Staying focused on the positive aspects of unplugging will keep you on track.

When we carve out the space for hands-on creativity, solitude and intimacy, that’s when we begin to feel truly connected. And isn’t that what we wanted from our devices in the first place?

Next: Reduce your cancer risk: learn about EMFs!

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Megan, selected from Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

6 comments

+ add your own
2:30AM PDT on Oct 11, 2010

thanks

10:00AM PDT on Apr 13, 2010

We love to get away to a retreat resort in Belize where there are no technological distractions (just tvs which you are not tempted to watch, and not even phones or internet connection except at the lobby). It is interesting to see the people who are addicted to the internet as they spend time in the lobby. We love the retreat aspect of our vacations because it is a time to rejuvenate and relax and get away from the hubub of our busy lives. I highly recommend it to anyone.


What struck

4:02AM PST on Feb 13, 2010

I was forced off the internet this weekend. The RIAA accused my roommate of downloading a Taylor Swift song (he denies it). So the university shutoff our network drop, hopefully we can get them to turn it back on today. This no internet and no online gaming in my room has made me something something...

r4 sdhc

12:57PM PDT on Aug 14, 2009

As a stay-at-home mom whose family is on a tight budget, I describe us as "semi-unplugged" on a regular basis. Our internet access is dial-up (believe it or not, I don't even have a page on Facebook or MySpace!), our cable TV is merely expanded basic, and my cell phone is for the sole purpose of phoning-I don't send text messages on it, nor do I receive any except when my firehouse is getting a call (it costs an extra $15 a month to have unlimited text attached to the phone, and I never use it anyway). No iPods, no MP3s, and our video game systems consist of a Sega Genesis/CD and a used classic Nintendo courtesy of eBay. No DVD player in the cars for road trips, either-that's what looking out the window is for!

Does it bug me that I'm not connected to the latest trends? Nope. Do I miss them at all? Not a chance! Between raising kids, tending the vegetable garden and flower beds (or handcrafting things in the winter), keeping the house up, and volunteer firefighting, I barely have time to get online! And like Deborah Latter said, there's not all that much that's really entertaining on TV anyway that can't be had on VHS or DVD. It's more fun to pass the time conversing with my neighbors on my trips around town or haggling over prices at yard sales on the weekend. Society has been getting by without being constantly "plugged in" for generations, and why should our generation be any different?

12:56PM PDT on Aug 6, 2009

People are too 'connected', there are always new gadgets to grab your attention & steal your time.
I personally unplug everything that's not required at that moment (my refrigerator being the only exception) even to the point of using a 'wind-up' alarm clock & dumping the microwave oven! My cell phone is for my convenience & not others, e-mails checked once a day then the pc is turned off, t.v. is a distant memory & not missed at all!
Without the constant attack of EMFs, I'm sleeping much better, rising earlier & feeling more alive. I have time for chi qong & to meditate before work meaning that I can cope with the demands of my employer without 'losing it' ,Altogether, I'm much happier, people have noticed & respond differently towards me. It can only be a good thing.
Hopefully your article will inspire others to have at least one day a week free from the matrix so that we can rediscover 'real life'. Many thanks & Much love

10:20AM PDT on Aug 6, 2009

I switch my cell off when I'm at work or at home. I have intentionally installed a land line attached to the wall at home so I can a) find the phone after my teens have been on it and b) force myself to stop what I'm doing and really focus on the person at the other end of the line when I'm on the phone.
I also haven't had a t.v. for almost two years.
Don't really miss it either.
Many shows are available on the internet if I really need a little alpha wave 'down time'.
My kids and I can watch the occasional DVD on our laptops.
But there's a lot of value in going out to the movies together and sharing an experience in the real world instead of the cyber world.
I've found peace in my garden, in my home and with the people I care about. Life outside of technology is not only possible, it's quite wonderful (and, just FYI, I develop software for a living).

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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