Tech Check: The Cons of “Staying Connected”

What texting, emailing and social media are doing to your health—and how to prevent it.

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Charged and ready to face the world. That may not sound like you in the morning. However, if you are like most Delawareans, it describes perfectly the smartphone you have in your pocket as you head out the door. For you, going anywhere without your smartphone or a tablet may be a thought too foreign to comprehend.

Here in is the dilemma. Staying connected to friends, family and work is so simple these days thanks to social media, texting, emailing and devices that travel with us anywhere. Loved ones, coworkers and business associates are accessible when wanted and needed. And that, of course, makes us accessible to them. This accessibility comes at a price.

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The questions you should ask yourself are: Just how high of a price am I paying for that accessibility, and is it worth it to me?

Those personal and quite subjective questions are ones only you can answer. While uncovering those answers, know that you are not alone in your attachment to technology. According to a 2012 study conducted by Leslie Perlow, Ph.D., the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership at the Harvard Business School, 51 percent of managers and professionals use their wireless devices to continually check in with work while on vacation. Does that mean that the vacation we are taking to rest and recharge can’t effectively fulfill its duties? Absolutely.

The constant ding, bell or chime from an email, text or voicemail distracts us from the task at hand. It doesn’t matter if we are relaxing with a book on the beach or drafting a presentation for work. When technology interferes, it doesn’t discriminate.

Furthermore, even without making a sound, technology can influence a quiet moment. A nearby smartphone or tablet has us always at the ready for the next email from our boss, text from our teenager, or call from our spouse, doctor or contractor. Along with our devices, we are always “on.”

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The constant use and presence of technology prevents us from settling our minds, reflecting, thinking and being creative, says Michael Peterson, Ed.D., a professor at the University of Delaware and chairman of the university’s department of behavioral health and nutrition. Peterson, who also leads a health promotion campaign,, adds that people can’t get away from work today. “As work is coming home with us, the line between our private time and our work time is blending,” he says.

Consider the gentleman at his son’s soccer game who responds to an email from his boss, or the wife who checks her Facebook page while riding in the car with her spouse. Although they are likely doing these things simply out of habit, these people are failing to engage in the moment. They are failing to completely enjoy nature, failing to communicate, and failing to take care of their own health and well-being.

Minutes spent outside (perhaps at that soccer game) speaking on a cell phone would be better spent simply breathing in the fresh air, says Mike Considine, Psy.D., a therapist at Mid-Atlantic Behavioral Health in Newark. “No matter what the conversation, that time on the phone likely carries some sort of underlying tension. Ending that call allows the body to release tension and stress.”

Wendy Danner types a message while hitting full stride at the Central YMCA in Wilmington.

Furthermore, he adds, it means giving nature the opportunity to calm us. As some of nature’s critical roles are to reduce stress and boost our outlook on life, experiencing it has been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure. Long-term and often-cited research by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, authors of “The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective,” indicates that nature improves interest and concentration while reducing fatigue and the stress of daily life.

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As many are well aware, chronic stress can lead to long-term health issues. And, says Dr. Stephen Kushner, D.O., president of the Medical Society of Delaware, chronic stress carries with it the potential for depression. A family physician at Hockessin Family Medicine and preceptor to the department of family and community medicine at Christiana Care Health System, Kushner finds that an overabundance of technology in a person’s life can lead to chronic stress, mental health issues and even sleep disorders.

In fact, Kushner points to recent research by the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that indicates that the use of backlit devices, such as tablets, smartphones and computers, for the two hours prior to bedtime can dramatically reduce quality of sleep. According to the study, melatonin, a natural hormone required for sleep, is reduced by 22 percent if a person’s nighttime routine includes online pastimes such as surfing the Internet or updating a Twitter account.

Furthermore, when your night extends into the wee hours thanks to your tablet or other devices, your morning is sure to be dreary. “If you don’t get as much sleep as your body needs,” Kushner notes, “you can find yourself fatigued, stressed and irritable the following day.”

Your mind is not the only thing that needs a break from the constant use of technology. Hands, backs, necks, shoulders and eyes are also victims of constant texting, emailing and Googling. “If we don’t take a break from these things,” Kushner says, “they can lead to inflammation of the tendons in the hands, carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow, as well as stress tension in the muscles. Vision problems can also arise, which can lead to migraine headaches.”

Is that third game of Words with Friends really worth it?

Even if you don’t answer no, your friends and family members might. The reason is simple: interpersonal relationships often suffer when technology becomes too involved. Considine refers to it as emotional disconnect. When he is helping couples bridge the gap between them, the issue of technology usage often arises. “Typically, the use of technology has become an unconscious habit. And it is a symptom of an overall disconnect within the relationship,” Considine says.

Mark Haislett rides the Y’s Express Bike.

Establishing guidelines for technology use can help rebuild interpersonal relationships and restore our overall well-being. If one or both people involved in a relationship are uncomfortable with how much a mobile device or computer enters into it, the couple may want to agree upon some parameters. “These rules can include things such as not bringing cell phones to restaurants or only bringing one phone for use in an emergency,” Considine says. “Some couples agree to shut off their phones during dinner time or to take a day off periodically from technology.”

Although it may prove challenging initially, taking such a sabbatical from technology is a key way to balance your life, especially if you find that the constant use of technology and its associated accessibility isn’t worth the price you are paying for it. Peterson recommends turning off smartphones, tablets and all other devices for 24 hours one day each week. “You’ll find that time goes by more slowly and that you are the one in control of your day.”

Making a pact with someone to take a break from technology is a great way to get started, Peterson says. “That social support can be extremely helpful.”

As Kushner notes, technology is not going away. People simply need to find a way to make it fit within their lives and not allow it to take over their lives. So take that quest of self discovery and ask yourself if you are losing sleep, if you are spending less quality time with your family, and if exercise has taken a backseat to your tablet.

“Proactively analyze these things,” Peterson suggests. “If you are aware, you can change.”

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