Screens floating around Caucasian woman in forest

I post, therefore I am. Is technology ruining your life?

Do you link in, log on, like, hook up, blog, Instagram or tweet? It’s likely that during the course of reading this article you will be pinged or poked or receive a pop-up. It’s even more likely that you will allow your attention to be diverted by a screen just in case you miss out on something important.

The smartphone or tablet has become a part of the human anatomy — virtually. In a time when people would prefer to lose a wallet or, even worse, a wedding ring rather than their beloved device, isn’t it time you logged off from your virtual life and had a reality check?

I post, therefore I am

There is no doubt that the internet and its spawn — social media — have revolutionised the way we interact with others. It’s a wondrous virtual world where you can create connections with a mere click of the finger. People from all over the globe with marginal interests, from solving the Rubik’s Cube to finding the Loch Ness Monster, can come together and share solutions and theories. Communities are formed and bonds created.

For many, this has been a game-changer; for others, a life-saver. But there is a dark side to this marvel. It’s not called the web for nothing and once entangled in it you could find yourself ensnared, not knowing how to crawl out, or, worse still, not wanting to leave this enchanted world.

The 16th-century French philosopher René Descartes proffered the proposition, “I think, therefore I am.” He theorised that self-awareness separated us from other species, which led to our propensity to contemplate our own being in order to seek meaning in our lives. It seems now we have surrendered self-reflection, an intrinsically individual pursuit, for deflecting our every thought so that others can reflect back to us who we are.

It’s not called the web for nothing and once entangled in it you could find yourself ensnared, not knowing how to crawl out or, worse still, not wanting to leave this enchanted world.

Do we exist because we recognise our own existence or because others click their acknowledgment? If you are not on line or are absent from any of the multitude of social-media platforms or Forums, then effectively you may indeed not exist. Cyberspace has replaced real space.

At last count, there were 1.5 billion active Facebook users and this number is growing. So, if we exclude children under 13 and those without internet access, just about everyone else is on it. This is neither a good nor a bad thing but it does show that our lives play out in the main through virtual rather than real communication. We have all exchanged intimacies, images, confessions, admissions, secret desires and dreams with people whom we may never meet.

Social media in its purest form is better than benign — it is inclusive and welcoming. But so often it takes on a proprietorial role where we no longer use it to serve us; rather, we become slaves to it, unable to switch off or tune out. Before you think this is all too dramatic, how long has it been since your last post?

Ditch Facebook for face-to-face

The Buddhists tell us that everything in moderation, including moderation, is a sound approach to life. So this is not an article disparaging social media — social media has, in fact, been a wonderful addition in many ways to human existence.

When you think of the Arab Spring streaming messages and images out of Iran and Syria, you must give the devil its due. Further, for those in crisis or incapacitated in some way, social media forums can be a way back to meaningful contact with others. For instance, people suffering from agoraphobia can open up a new world of friends in the online world. The downside is, of course, that this diminishes the need to address their debilitating illness.

Online communities can be emancipating but they can also be mediums for anonymous trolling, bullying and stalking where the victim can never escape or find respite. This can have tragic consequences, not excluding suicide. Social media is dual-edged: a force for good can be a weapon in the wrong hands. The pen may be mightier than the sword but click-through can be devastating.

You constantly check and recheck, creating a heightened state of anxiety as you track your popularity and endeavour to keep up with the online Joneses.

As well as its darker side, social media is highly addictive: like any drug, it’s a tough habit to kick. You can see children as young as two utterly compelled by the images on their iPad. We time-poor parents think if it’s educational it can’t hurt — but research shows it does, affecting and rerouting neural pathways. The damage is further compounded by the fact that viewing is an inherently passive activity. Moreover, have you ever tried taking an iPad away from a toddler?

The dinner table is now a place for touch-typing rather than talking. Alongside dinner plates sits a buffet of devices and it’s commonplace to see family members riveted by online conversations as opposed to engaging with the people next to them with whom they have real connection.

Social media taken in small doses is what any mental health practitioner would prescribe. So manage it, rather than let it manage you.

Get hacked!

Privacy is not as cool as it’s cracked up to be. Until it’s gone, that is. In September this year, the technological behemoth Apple discovered its devices are susceptible to hacking after Chinese users bypassed Apple protocols and downloaded apps from an illegal provider. This in turn infected legitimate apps and unsuspecting consumers found their phones hacked when they downloaded those apps. Do you have an iPhone? What did you download today?

We are seeing this invasion of privacy more and more with supposedly secure sites being plundered by hackers. The questionable dating site Ashley Madison was a victim of malicious hacking, leaving its unsuspecting clients in a real pickle. At a more insidious level, many platforms mine individuals’ data and even share it with third parties. The moment you click “accept” to their “terms and conditions”, you forfeit your right to your own self-created content.

Anonymity never looked so good, perhaps. You have to weigh up what matters to you. Undoubtedly, as we broaden our digital footprint, we also invite greater access into our digital lives that may have unintended consequences in the real world.

Speaking of the real world and the power smartphones have over our lives, many of us can’t even go to bed without being within arm’s length of these pet devices. Research shows that the backlit screen is hazardous to sleep patterns as it doesn’t allow you to produce the hormones which induce sleep.

More sinister than that, you may find yourself inadvertently reliant on your devices. You constantly check and recheck, creating a heightened state of anxiety as you track your popularity and endeavour to keep up with the online Joneses. A new pathology with the acronym FOMO (fear of missing out) has become an ongoing torment for people who feel inferior to their online contemporaries. Most prevalent in people aged 18-33, it means they need to be continually connected and as a result can become detrimentally blinkered to what is going on in real life. They’ve been sucked into a cyber vortex where they only relate to a virtual version of themselves and others.

There was a time when what we didn’t know didn’t hurt us but now not being in the virtual loop renders us as anonymous or worthless. Sadly, for some this is a fate worse than death.

It’s time to get a life, not a profile

More and more people are presenting in therapy now with a truly 21st-century problem. They find themselves chronically despondent with their own lives, which pale in comparison to the digital lives of their Facebook friends who are all smiles and likes.

Jane, a vibrant and funny liaison manager in a thriving company, found herself becoming more morose and dejected. At the behest of her partner, she found herself in a therapist’s practice wondering how she got into this situation. After all, there had been no major life event that could have triggered this change in her emotional state. Digging into her lifestyle, it was unearthed that Jane spent much of her free time on social media, extensively Facebook and to a lesser extent Instagram. Even at work, she would steal a peek when her smartphone pinged, alerting her to yet another fabulous moment in someone else’s life.

The 20th-century American intellectual, commentator and writer Gore Vidal famously made the utterance, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Inside this simple quip, there is an uncomfortable truth. No matter how supportive we are of those who orbit our lives, being inundated with their wins only serves to reinforce what losers we are. Of course, when Vidal coined that phrase, social media didn’t exist; you could shut the door on these people. But now they inhabit our every waking moment through screen technology that has pervaded our lives at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Is there anything better than a walk in a rainforest, playing touch footy with your kids in the park, sharing a latte with the girls or turning your face up to the sun rather than putting your head down facing a screen?

For Jane, she not only lamented her own lacklustre life but harboured negative thoughts about her cyber friends — some of whom she had very little face-to-face contact with. For those with whom she had more intimate relationships, she began to avoid them as she felt inadequate and not interesting enough.

An intervention was required. As part of her “homework”, she had to drastically reduce her screen time. She was further encouraged to see her actual friends in real time. Gradually, it dawned on Jane that what she was regarding as real life was merely the highlights reel of other people’s lives. People only post the good stuff and even that is heavily edited and sometimes even Photoshopped. Like Jane herself, most of her friends had problems or felt unfulfilled in some way and felt that real life could never measure up to the cyber version.

By switching off, Jane found perspective and discovered real life had more to offer on every level.

The superhighway takes the fun out of discovery

Peta is a planner. There is not a destination, hotel or activity that she hasn’t fully researched online before getting on that plane. Trip Advisor is her best friend and she freely admits that she will trawl page after page of reviews, cross-referencing with images and related websites.

Now, this is of course a sensible thing to do but, inevitably, when she does book the perfect place and arrives only to find that it’s not as amazing as the pixelated version, she is thrown headlong into disappointment, righteous anger and even self-recrimination for her lack of due diligence.

Her expectations not met, Peta’s holiday is inevitably spoiled. Added to that, she is suddenly deprived of her opportunity to show off her grand holiday to the punters back Home.

Many of us are so busy recording our lives rather than living each moment. After all, you haven’t been on holiday until you’ve posted the sun-soaked happy snaps.

There was a time when you relied on a Travel agent, a word-of-mouth referral or a meagre line reference in Lonely Planet — or even took pot luck. You followed the road and hoped for the best, knowing full well that there were many unknowns. While this approach is fraught with issues, the level of disappointment is considerably less. Furthermore, with this approach you’re more likely to accept what comes your way and adapt accordingly. This makes us much more resilient as well as resourceful. The net has made spoiled brats of us, as opposed to a kid who has to find another way to look at life when it’s raining on their birthday: “We’ll have a water party instead.”

We live in a time when we research things to the nth degree so we know exactly what to expect. We’ve seen a zillion Photoshopped images of our chosen destination, so much so that it takes all the fun out of it. We deprive ourselves of being surprised. There is no wonder any more.

In contrast, the “book and go” approach allows for terrible and fabulous surprises. We rely on humour and stoicism to get through the disappointing moments, which makes us more resilient and adaptable.

The conscious life vs the virtual life

The 5th-century-BCE philosopher Socrates warned that the unexamined life is not worth living. Two and a half thousand years later, this sage observation still rings true. He was of course imploring us to have an internal life and to consider what really matters to us. We live in a time of all-consuming distraction where there is very little self-contemplation. We externalise and are constantly seeking validation from people we will never meet. Is this a life worth living?

We instantly post photos of soufflés we have only just extracted from a hot oven. On our own, we can’t enjoy or take pride in the fruits of our labour unless given the thumbs-up from our online peeps. We wait eagerly for that first sign of approval — and God forbid the derisive post. This can send us into a psychological tailspin. Our self-worth is contingent on this validation.

Post-WWII existentialist French writer Jean-Paul Sartre stated categorically that “hell is other people”. That epigram could be modified today as “hell is other people in cyberspace”.

If you subscribe to the teachings of Socrates and you seek self-acceptance, how much happier can you be? No doubt, social media is a major part of our lives and it can enhance the way we interact, learn and communicate. Of course there can be meaningful connection but relationships formed on line are no surrogate for real relationships. Moreover, when you find yourself addicted to arbitrary online connections it’s time to review how you use these technological platforms. From social media to online gaming, there is no substitute to life in the real world.

To live your life in a conscious way where you are not passive but engaged in life means that you become an active participant. You also come to value the quiet, the still, and can be present in the moment. Is there anything better than a walk in a rainforest, playing touch footy with your kids in the park, sharing a latte with the girls or turning your face up to the sun rather than putting your head down facing a screen?

Now, more than ever, it’s time to think about the role social media and technology has in your life. Can social media in any way live up to the purposeful life you want to lead? Can it provide comfort and love in the same way as those who matter to you? How do you spend your time?

Microsoft launched a global campaign a couple of years back with the tagline, “Where do you want to go today?” They of course wanted you to spend all your time trawling the web. But why not shut down, log out, disconnect and discover where you really want to go today? You might just discover yourself.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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