The Scourge of Electronic Living: Losing Your Identity

“Be careful of how you use your tools as you can become the tools of your tools.” Henry David Thoreau

***

My boss told me I need to do a presentation next week at our company sales rep meeting, on my personal philosophy on closing sales. Geeze, just because I was the leading salesperson for the year, my first year, doesn’t make me any expert on winning customers over. I mean, I can do all that power point crap until I’m blue in the face. But standing up in front of a group of veteran salespeople to share my personal secrets on how I do it, that’s a whole different story. What do I know about philosophy? Isn’t that just a bunch of BS anyway? I guess I’ll just have to go to my man in the sky, my old college roomie, who is the new head honcho at his tech firm for ideas. He’s the master of crap, better known as motivational speaking. Or maybe I’ll check out my buddies on Facebook. Somehow I’ve to pull this together ASAP. Don’t people know that I just tell people what they want to hear? It’s not more complicated than that is it?

***

My wife Barb texted me this morning, “Dave, get a clue. It’s your eldest daughter’s 16th birthday today. Get her an i-Pad and be done with it.” In between the buzz on my screen of financial transactions and my cell phone paging me, I sat back in my chair and asked myself, “Now why didn’t I know that?” I began to wonder when all of us in our family stopped knowing much about each other. Where had all the years of loving that sweet little girl gone? Then it dawned on me that between Barb’s high stress job and my gig at the brokerage firm we haven’t had a family meal together in years. At home everybody goes their separate ways and orders out on-line. Heck, Barb is no help. The idea of just being done with my daughter’s birthday by giving her yet another screen toy makes me sick. I haven’t even begun to know my little girl. We don’t even know each other. I barely know myself and wonder whatever became of me.

***

Most of us already know that identity theft on the Internet is not such a good thing. For-going our financial security and personal well-being in this way is a real nightmare. However that’s not the only nightmare of too much electronic living. Many of us don’t know that excessively using electronic devices can alter our brains and rob us of our sense of self, as the examples above illustrate. When we’re plugged into machines too much we lose ourselves and we lose our capacity to be authentically close to others. Like it or not, when it comes to electronica, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

How do we lose our identities through electronica?

Obviously going on a gadget to transact our daily business can appear innocent enough and often is when done in moderation. But what happens when we overuse electronica, say, spend several hours each day on our computers, cell phones, video games and TVs beyond our normal work hours? Several bad things happen. First, new research shows that our devices unconsciously retrain our brains to do a different kind of thinking than what we did prior to the electronica age. We learn to skim information quickly, jumping from one source to the next, in a rapid but shallow learning mode and we can’t stay focused. We expect information to come to us quickly and we lose patience with the slow process of self-reflective learning inherent to reading a long novel or listening to a long lecture about the meaning of life. As long as information is so easily available on the net it becomes less important to internalize the in-depth understanding of what we are learning. Screen information generally engages our neo-cortical or thinking brain and under utilizes our limbic or feeling brain where long-term information is sorted out, integrated and stored. Too much screen time makes us shallow and superficial. We become less original thinkers. Where this really hurts us is when we are asked to present our own personal analysis on the meaning of information. Many of us techies can readily repeat other people’s ideas but we have a hard time articulating our own original thoughts. We lack mentation—the ability to know our own thoughts, reflect on our feelings, and articulate why we act the way we do. Overusing electronica rewires our brains and makes us shallower, less self-reflective and less confident in ourselves.

The second bad thing that happens with overdoing devices is that our relationships with others suffer and our identities are weakened. We hide from life with our machines. If you’ve ever seen a toddler crying and bouncing off the walls when its mother in tow is constantly talking on her cell phone or is rapt on her computer you know exactly what I mean. After all, how does it feel when your quiet dinner with a friend is constantly interrupted by cell phone calls or constant texting? That’s right, you may feel invisible and disconnected from the very person you need to be close to. You may feel easily replaceable and discounted. Obviously, if you’re a toddler who cannot discern the context of why you are being shut out by your parent, these feelings get internalized and forever affect your sense of self. Even we adults lose a sense of who we are to each other by overdoing electronica. When family members don’t spend face-to-face time with one another they become strangers to each other and strangers to themselves. We continue to alter our sense of self throughout our lifetimes mainly through interaction with loved ones. If we primarily relate to things instead of people we don’t expose vulnerable parts of ourselves to others, we neglect to learn nonverbal cues and we never learn to accept less favorable aspects of ourselves. That’s why people who overdo social media and are constantly addicted to external validation on the net have greater problems with social phobias and social anxiety. They are too used to hiding who they really are on-line, have little ability to self-validate, and find it intolerable to be publicly exposed in crowds, particularly if they can’t read nonverbal cues. The fact is we need other people and we need to expose our flaws to have an accepting view of ourselves in both our positive and negative aspects. We need to publicly participate in these relationships, not passively hide out. That’s why people go to 12-Step groups! It’s the exposure and the love itself that makes us whole.

Finally, too much electronic time ruins our health. Research shows that people who spend more than half their working hours away from work with screen activities have chronic musculo-skeletal problems, difficulties with vision, are prone to obesity, have persistent mood disorders and depressed immune systems. Humans are wired for activity and social interaction, not staring at machines. Most of these effects are accumulative. We may get away with too much screen time in our youth but inevitably we pay the price later in life. Ideally humans ought to be active and socially engaged the majority of time and have screen time as a lesser way of enhancing their real-life activities. Research tells us this is the pattern for optimal learning and mood regulation. Machines are tools, not a replacement for real life.

Why do we overuse electronica?

Some of us are simply unaware or only vaguely aware that too much technology can hurt us. All these machines are so idealized in advertising as the wave of the future and our key to social status that it may not even occur to us to question whether our computers and cell phones are even good for us. The convenience, pizzazz and immediacy of these gadgets may mistakenly offer to fulfill our every need and be like personal friends to us. After all, who cares about wisdom and intimate love when you cuddle up with your iPad? Also, many of us are already not too keen on our own real-life identities so that living on-line gives us a way to hide from life and possibly a way to give ourselves a second chance at living where we can be in control and escape our doldrums, however artificially. The trance state of screen time may give us a perfect escape from real life, like going to another planet. Many over users of electronica have persistent problems with dissociation (spacing out) even when they are well away from their screens. It enables such people to be on-line and off-real life even when they are not in front of their screens. Such zombiness comes at a high price as over users of electronica become insensitive to those around them even when it is normally in their hearts to be caring.

Finally, media advertising and social pressures only make us more addicted to electronica. Being told that you have to have the newest 4G smart phone just to keep up with the pack (at least until the 5G phone comes out) makes us be impulsive and not even question if the upgrade is really worth it. Electronic companies who make billions in profits have a huge investment in making us believe we can’t live an unwired life, especially when we see that our friends can’t. When we hide from life we become less able to participate in it. Ironically, if we’ve ever tried to unhook ourselves from our devices by going on a wilderness experience with our loved ones we would find it is actually quite easy to do so and really more pleasurable to live without our gadgets. The problem of overuse recurs when we return home and become desperate once again to check our text messages. Our social context makes us crazy even when we aren’t crazy to begin with.

Holding on to ourselves in our electronic age

Realize that the unexamined life is really not worth living. It’s best to develop discernment in how and when we use our devices. Ask yourself, “is this machine really enhancing my life or am I being sold a bill of goods?” Even if the answer is “yes I need it” it’s probably better to use the least amount of electronica to get the best benefit and do a lot of real life living. Let us not be misled into believing that to be cool we have to own a piece of machinery. The novelty of such a device may score us points in the short run but intangible aspects of our character like dependability and integrity may rate considerably more with friends in the long run. Being uncool is often the best way to be cool.

If you insist on electronica in the home, take charge of it. The American Academy of Pediatrics, through its research studies, says that elementary school children should spend no more than one hour of total screen time per day and high school kids at most two hours of total time at day in after school activities. Problems develop when parents allow their kids to go beyond this limit. Electronica should never be used as baby sitters  or escapes from reality. Children need the real-life interactions with parents and peers for their brains to grow healthily. They don’t grown with machines.

According to the American Medical Association, never have TV sets in the bedrooms of children under the age of three as their brains and basic identities are not solidified until age three and there is a grave risk that their brain wiring will be permanently set by the TVs instead of the loving attention of parents. Beware of secondary harm from electronica. If parents ignore their toddlers by getting absorbed in screen time, then such children may have chronic speech delays, attention deficits and chronic mood disorders.

Obviously, what’s not good for kids isn’t the best for adults either. What is best is that our life revolves around real-life activities off-line with a smattering of on-line activities to enhance the depth and meaning of our lives. It’s better not to hide from real life. In fact there is no escaping it.


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul. He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article was first published in the November / December 2011 issue.

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