Friday, May 13, 2011

Even digital natives feel overwhelmed proving everyone needs to occasionally unplug

The internet has changed our lives significantly. It's extended our workdays by adding time-eating tasks we didn't know existed 15 years ago like checking email, web surfing and social media. News reports describe people who now average less sleep than they did pre-internet because they've added to their daily routine an email check before bed as well as waking up a bit earlier to check email before heading to work.  No doubt the internet has saved us significant time in other areas but I think it's fair to say that a lot of people often feel overwhelmed as the result of living a plugged-in life. The stress of spending so much time online, and the demand for instantaneous responses from bosses and clients, has to be taking a toll on both our mental and physical health, especially when much of that time is spent sitting in front of a desk.

Since the internet isn't going away, each of us is going to have to find an acceptable balance between time spent online and off. We're going to have to set personal limits on how much time we spend plugged in. For lawyers, this isn't going to be easy since many clients expect them to be available 24/7.

Interestingly, a new survey shows that even digital natives, who many of us assume thrive on living a plugged-in life, have a nagging sense that it's taking a toll on them too. Many of them would also like to add a little quiet time to their daily routines.

What follows are the findings of a survey administered to a large number of students at several different institutions about their attitudes and feelings concerning an appropriate online/offline balance. From the Chronicle of Higher:

[W]e have reason to believe that today's students (age 18 and up) have significant concerns about the role of the new technologies in their lives. To be sure, most really do appreciate the power and convenience of the tools they use for social networking, entertainment, and learning; and many are serious multitaskers. But at the same time, when asked about those technologies, many appear to be more self-aware, reflective, and articulate about their concerns and confusions than they are generally given credit for being.
. . . .

To find out . . . we began visiting classrooms at colleges around the country, talking with and informally surveying more than 300 students at six colleges. We met with students from small liberal-arts colleges, large state universities, and secular and religiously affiliated institutions. (That mix included our own two campuses, the University of Washington and Georgetown University, where we also organized focus groups.) We heard the same themes in every setting:

  • Students are aware of, and seemingly frustrated by, the amount of time they spend online. Some talked about spending too much time online, calling it a waste and even an addictive form of behavior. As one student commented: "I don't realize how much time is passing while on my phone and computer. I'm so preoccupied, I'm not paying attention to what else is going on around me."
  • Many students feel pressure from those around them to be continually connected and responsive. They feel this pressure not only from peers but also from parents, faculty, employers, and even the technology companies whose marketing strategies make them feel they must have the most up-to-date gadgets and features. "I don't have a coping mechanism," one student said. "There are so many things: e-mail, high-school e-mail, personal e-mail, texting, news."
  • Students regularly talk about their online contacts as being less "real" than face-to-face interactions. "Talking to all these people, making connections when it wasn't really a personal connection, didn't feel real," one student said.
  • When forced to disconnect for longer stretches of time, some students discover that they enjoy the slower pace of life. Their first reaction might be anxiety or panic—over the loss of cellphone coverage while on vacation, for example. But once they made the adjustment, they were likely to find themselves more relaxed. Said one international student: "When I came to the States, I didn't bring my laptop. ... I have much more time. It's a great feeling."
  • Students hold a range of opinions about the use of personal technologies in the classroom. Some say laptops and cellphones are sources of distraction and shouldn't be permitted; others think that people who use them should sit in the back of the classroom. Still others feel they have the right to turn to Facebook or YouTube if the instructor isn't sufficiently engaging.

My suggestion?  Monitor the time you spend online each day. Perhaps keep a diary and document how much time you devote each day to Facebook, surfing, and checking email. That might illustrate in a graphic way how much time is lost to non-productive web activities.

See if you can find ways to cut back. Do you really need to be on Facebook or Twitter? If not, consider dropping it (one of my students just did that because he finds Facebook too much of a distracting while studying for the bar). Whatever momentary anxiety you may feel from the loss of connectedness you will likely gain twofold in terms of reduced stress and more sleep.

Learn to unplug a couple of hours each day. Resist the temptation to check email before going to bed. Each of us is going to have find ways to bring more balance to our lives because the internet is here to stay.


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