In the “darkened” cabin on this early morning flight the flickering light from 200 little seatback screens illuminated the faces of the dozing passengers with a faintly greenish glow. Of the few who were awake, most were either watching their TV’s or looking at their smartphones. As far as I could see up the aisle or in my near vicinity, I was the only passenger reading an old-fashioned book. I didn’t particularly like the stage-like spotlight that solitary overhead reading light cast on me in the hushed and gloaming cabin. We were on a JetBlue flight to Atlanta, heading to Auburn University for my youngest daughter’s freshman move-in.
The Zombie Apocalypse has come
I always get a chuckle from the popular storyline in so many of today’s movies and Netflix series about the impending Zombie Apocalypse. It’s not coming, it’s already here!
It seems as though the profusion of screens, ubiquitous wifi, and a smartphone in every palm have already turned many of us into digital zombies.
While I say that tongue in cheek, to my mind at least, it’s a problem, a serious one.
Understandably, this addiction to devices and digital stimulation contributes unequivocally to a more sedentary lifestyle which has the expected negative effect on our physical health. But, perhaps worse is the damaging effect it has on our cognitive health.
The modern human, of practically every age, is so addicted to digital and visual stimulation that this constant exposure is literally rewiring our brains, not only making it increasingly difficult to concentrate and focus, but changing our brain wiring and chemistry in a manner very similar to that of people with drug addictions. We are being literally driven to distraction, and addiction, by our devices and omnipresent digital stimulation.
Neuroplasticity is miraculous
Dr. Norman Doidge, a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, details in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, our brains’ remarkable ability to adapt to the environment and whatever consistent stimulation to which they’re exposed. The concept is known as neuroplasticity. He relates amazing stories of people who have rehabbed from devastating paralytic strokes, overcome debilitating compulsions, and recovered from traumatic injuries or catastrophic emotional trauma. Neuroplasticity is truly miraculous.
But, it can have its dark side as well. The same propensity to heal itself and change for the better can just as likely lead to adverse changes in the brain’s wiring and chemistry. The brain adapts to consistent stimulation that is unhealthy in the same way that it does to consistent stimulation that is beneficial.
In fact, it may be harder for our brains to unlearn something than to learn it to begin with. We experience this with our habits. That’s why we struggle so much to break bad habits and slip so much more easily into them.
This can’t be healthy
Spending an inordinate amount of time feeding our digital addiction cannot possibly be healthy.
Let’s take a look at how much time we spend interacting with various media…
- The average American spends almost six hours per day watching television, according to the most recent Nielson report
- Time spent on social media, across all messaging and media platforms, adds up to almost two and a half hours every day
- “Nearly half an adult’s day is dedicated to consuming this content. In fact, American adults spend over 11 hours per day… interacting with media.”
And lest our Baby-boomers and Gen X’ers dismiss these facts as applicable only to the Millennial generation, here’s a wake-up for you… “older generations generally spend the most time with media, adults 35-49 spend over 11 hours a day on it, while adults 50-64 do so at a nearly 13-hour clip.”
Really??? Thirteen. Hours. Per. Day? And that’s only the average! That would mean that a substantial proportion of the Baby-boomer population spends more than 13 hours every day staring at screens and consuming media.
One can easily grasp how that much time spent watching television, surfing the internet, or scrolling through newsfeeds will adversely affect our physical health. Now, we also know from the field of neuroscience and clinicians such as Dr. Doidge that such consistent exposure to any stimulus, good or bad, will rewire our brains and alter our brain chemistry.
Is it any wonder?
Is it any wonder why we’re contending with epidemics of obesity, diabetes, dementia, and Alzheimer’s? In addition to the many cultural and lifestyle contributors to these epidemics, like diet and exercise, I will assert that we can safely add to that mix our addiction to digital stimulation.
The lone overhead reading light on that packed JetBlue flight might’ve been shining a glaring spotlight not only on the solitary reader out of hundreds on that plane, but also on a larger glaring cultural problem as a whole. We’ve become a nation of zombies, and they are not particularly known for their good health.
Wondering how much you are personally addicted to digital stimulation? Try taking a digital sabbath. See how you do going a full day without access to the internet and your smartphone. And not while you’re on vacation, but instead during a normal work day. If that’s not feasible due to work demands, commit to trying it for a full weekend.
We’re here to help
We’re here to help. We don’t profess to have all the answers and readily admit to our own fallibilities. But if you’re wrestling with lifestyle challenges that are holding you back, whether they be how to proactively manage and preserve your time or how to overcome troublesome habits that consistently undermine your progress, we’re here to support you.
Additionally, for those interested, I want to recommend a particularly useful book, Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life in a Noisy World, by Cal Newport.
“Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies this idea to our personal technology. It’s the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world.”
Thanks as always for your kind encouragement and generous support!
Be strong and have fun.
- Doidge, N. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
- Media. “People Spend Most of Their Waking Hours Staring At Screens.” Market Watch. Market Watch, Inc. 4 August 2018. Web. 13 August 2019.
- Media. “Time Flies: U.S. Adults Now Spend Nearly Half A Day Interacting With Media.” Nielsen. The Nielsen Company. 31 July 2018. Web. 13 August 2019.
- Newport, C. Digital Minimalism: Choosing A Focused Life In a Noisy World. New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2019. Print.
- Salim, Saina. “How Much Time Do You Spend On Social Media? Research Says 142 Minutes A Day.” Digital Information World. Digitalinformationworld.com. 4 January 2019. Web. 13 August 2019