As we spend more and more hours on our computers, it’s time we stop to consider some of the potential benefits and drawbacks of a life lived online.
Social networking: Faces, spaces, and connections
Try envisioning your life as a house, a place to which you retreat after work or school. A social networking site can be like a window. We can throw the window open wide or crack it just a bit. If we want to, we can stick our heads out there into the open air of the online universe and shout, whisper, or speak our messages.
Sometimes many people hear us, like when we post updates to our friends on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes we share our message in the form of images, like on Instagram or Flickr, personal photo- and video-sharing sites, or on Tumblr, a space in which to plop all of the random things admired or inspiring – pictures, songs, videos, quotes. Sometimes our message is light, while at other times it is serious and full of purpose, as on professional networking sites like LinkedIn.
This feeling of connectivity to the wider world that we get from social networking sites is what social scientists call digital ambient awareness. This type of awareness or intimacy is akin to real physical intimacy. A friend shares their cold symptoms in a status update. A high school chum posts photos of their dog. We publicize the results of a personality quiz we took. It can all feel like we’re looking over each other’s shoulders or having coffee together.
The sense of intimacy and connectedness are two big motivations for millions who take part in the whole “social” scene. But our reasons for transmitting parts of ourselves out into the vast social space of the online world are as varied as we are.
We can bridge gaps: Social networking sites can help us to nurture and maintain the “weaker” ties in our lives. Think work colleagues, friends of friends, long-lost high school buddies, or cousins living in other countries. By linking up to these people online we are able to glimpse their lives in ways that we wouldn’t have done before. This access we grant to one another opens doors to future interaction. You might discover that a co-worker you never talk to is as into knitting as you are – or jazz, or a particular TV show. You may be more likely to strike up a conversation with this knowledge, which could be especially helpful for those who are shy.
We can strengthen bonds: Research has revealed that most people use online networks to keep up with existing offline relationships rather than initiate new relationships with people they meet online. For the most part, despite how many friends or followers we have, we still only keep in regular contact with our smaller core group of friends and family. Because of the format of many of these sites, it is simply more challenging to form new, deeper connections. Twitter, for instance, allows only 280 characters to get your messages across!
We can ask for help: Lots of people get wrapped and tethered in our nets. The bigger our net, the farther we can cast it out when we need answers, support, or advice. Among your network, you could find someone who could hook you up with a lucrative job or even a potential romantic connection. Your network might offer tips on great bargains or a new take-out joint you’d never know to try. Students post topics they’re researching for essays. Journalists send out questions to help them flesh out articles and find interview sources. Having a network within keystroke’s reach may also help to soothe feelings of loneliness.
We can create niches: Say you’re passionate about a community issue, or an actor, an artist, historical recreations – whatever! Friends or coworkers can initiate a group weight-loss or stop-smoking challenge. An online community can be forged out of a common cause, shared interest, or a group goal.
We can nurture our creative side: Painters and photographers can scan and display their art. Amateur musicians can upload and share new songs. Many sites out there allow you to archive and share images, quotes, videos, and songs that inspire you. Others can view the creative output and offer their comments and feedback. These sites act as virtual bulletin boards, galleries, jukeboxes, and scrapbooks.
We can scan: Aren’t we busy enough as it is? Why would we want to add more things to our day that we need to look at, update, and address? The thing about most of these social networks is that when we publish our digital ephemera, people are free to pay attention – or not. Unlike an email, which begs to be read and responded to, our friends, followers, or connections can choose to scan our messages and photos and decide for themselves whether they wish to reply or react. If you follow 100 people on Twitter, you’re not likely to closely read each status update or follow every single link they all share. We scan, we peruse, we filter. It’s expected and accepted.
I blog, therefore I am
By now, nearly everyone knows what a blog is: a web log. An online chronicle of anything and everything, a blog is whatever its creator makes of it. Blogs sprouted like weeds in the early 2000s, when blogging software became more user-friendly and accessible. Many businesses have a blog going, and millions and millions of individuals have personal sites that function as anything from a PR tool for a struggling actor or a church group’s info hub to a poet’s outlet for anonymous odes.
The simple act of disclosure – sharing our thoughts, ideas, and feelings with others – can make us feel better. That’s probably why so many people pay psychotherapists for their services. It’s why so many people write journals, love letters, and books. And it could also be why so many people write blogs.
Writing about emotional topics has been linked to reduced stress and improved academic performance. Physical health also saw an upswing – some research showed that after a period of regular writing exercises, people may take fewer sick days off from work, require fewer medical appointments, or experience better immune function.
Journaling is a method some people encourage for those going through a difficult diagnosis or medical treatment. Writing offers patients an avenue for focused self-expression and a place for venting the surplus of emotions and sensations that often accompany living with a disease or condition. Move these journals online to a blog format, and the writing gains a new dimension, a new power: it becomes accessible to others in similar situations who can then reflect, react, and respond. The opportunity to build a new community based on shared experience opens up.
It is this social element that really sets blogging apart from writing for oneself. Blogging combines the cathartic experience of writing with the “social capital” – friendships, community ties – you can gain by linking online to others. And when you gain social capital, you may increase your overall feeling of well-being.
Considering launching yourself into the blogosphere? Consider the pros and cons first.
- Blogging is belonging: People who blog and share their thoughts and feelings with an audience enjoy an enhanced feeling of belonging. In what can feel like an increasingly isolated world, blogs can pull together likeminded individuals to form a new kind of community that allows for friendship and social support.
- Blogging creates friendships: As a person blogs and fields comments and gains “readership,” their social network can grow and become stronger. This can mean strengthening ties to existing friends or creating new ties to people who may become friends. And the friendships forged online can become as real, as binding, and as supportive as offline relationships.
- Blogging is inclusive: The online platform isn’t just for extroverts and those seeking attention. You can choose to be open and out there on your blog or maintain your anonymity. It’s a safe space where the usual social constraints – awkwardness, insecurity, shyness, hesitation to talk about tricky topics – don’t have to get in the way.
- Blogging can become addictive: Once you get the blog buzz, you may never want to go without it. No doubt about it: it’s fun to get feedback, to meet new people, and to watch traffic to your posts grow. But in the 24-hour news cycle of the internet, bloggers can become compulsive about posting frequently enough or about getting the scoop on fellow bloggers. Blogging binges can cause sleepless nights, stress, and precious time away from offline relationships.
- Blogging can open you up to criticism: This is a risk we run whenever we open ourselves up to others. The tech twist to this vulnerability is the “comment” function. Reveal your emotions or unleash your opinions on your blog, and you may receive comments attacking, scrutinizing, or dismissing what you’ve written. The good news is that since people seek out blogs based on common interest and read them voluntarily, most comments and interactions are positive.
Stuck to the screen?
While there are lots of ways that social networking can potentially support our mental, emotional, and even physical health, there are warnings to heed.
Especially at risk are young children, who are now exposed to screens at younger and younger ages. Some kids even have an online presence from infancy, as parents post baby photos, personal stories, and progress reports online. And we used to be scared our parents would bring out our old baby photo albums or home movies. Now kids have to worry about someone Googling their name and finding YouTube videos of them in diapers!
In terms of screen time, the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends:
- for kids under 2 years of age, screen time should not be permitted.
- for kids 2 to 5 years old, screen time should be limited to less than 1 hour a day.
- for kids older than 5, screen time should be limited to less than 2 hours a day.
Compare that to the numbers reported by Statistics Canada: about 76% of children aged between 5 and 11 years get more than 2 hours of screen time per day.
It’s not unheard of for a child to get home from school and spend their entire afternoon and evening switching their attention from one screen to another until bedtime: text messaging, scrolling on social media, computer game, TV show, online chat, and sleep. Who knows? They may then fall asleep and dream about getting to the next level on their current favourite video game. Aside from possibly restless sleep, what’s the harm in a life lived stuck to the screen? Here are a few potential online-living hazards that apply to both children and adults:
Pain: Ergonomics is the science of healthy workspaces. When we sit at a computer workspace that has poor ergonomics, the result can be back and neck pain, as well as wrist and hand problems.
- In general, a monitor should be positioned just below eye level and at an arm’s length away from you. Wrists should be positioned parallel to the keyboard with elbows at about a 90-degree bend. Feet should rest comfortably flat on the ground.
- Consider the main parts of a workspace and make them suit the person who uses it most. Fitted back supports can be purchased and used to discourage slouching.
- If it’s a child’s workspace, invest in a kid-sized chair, mouse, and desk. That way, a small child will not strain their neck to look up at a monitor placed at adult eye level.
- For children, set limits on how long they can sit in front of the computer and encourage breaks.
- Be a good role model, too, by setting reminders for yourself to get up from your workspace now and then for stretch-and-move breaks.
Eyestrain: Our eyes were not designed to stare at flickering screens all day long. And yet that’s how many of us spend most of our waking hours. Although it’s true that digital screens emit blue light, many eye issues that are caused by prolonged screen time are not due to blue light, but rather something called computer vision syndrome. Computer vision syndrome can be a real strain. Eyestrain occurs when your eyes simply get tired from too much use. Eyes that simply feel sleepy and slightly sore can become dry, watery, and itchy. Blurred vision, headaches, and trouble shifting focus can develop.
- Give your eyes regular breaks away from the screen. Schedule a timer on your computer to go off every half-hour or so to remind you to rest. Every 20 minutes, look about 20 feet away from the computer screen for at least 20 seconds.
- While working on the computer, people have a tendency to forget to blink! The resulting dry, irritated, and tired eyes can be prevented by consciously remembering to blink your eyes, encouraging tear formation, and keeping your eyes moist.
- In addition, sometimes lighting changes, glare-reduction, and adjusting the brightness settings on your computer can help to lessen the strain.
- Experiment with display text size and background colour to find a setting that works best for your eyes.
Obesity: According to a large survey done by Statistics Canada, 25% of people who spent their leisure time watching 21 or more hours of television were also classified as obese. Men and women who spent 11 hours or more per week online were more likely to be overweight than those who spent 5 or fewer hours. And among children, computer use has been linked to higher levels of body fat and excessive television-watching has contributed to the increase in childhood obesity. So, as our hours in front of screens increase, so do our waistlines and other associated health risks, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
- Start a screen time log for yourself and for your family. You can use your smartphone to log this, as most smartphones have a feature to track screen time. Record how much time you spend in front of screens over the course of a normal week – you might be shocked at the number of hours sucked away! For every one of those hours, imagine how many other activities you could have been doing that would support your health.
- Make a plan to substitute at least a few of those hours with physical activity.
- Additionally, think about your eating habits in relation to screens. Do you snack while you’re channel- and net-surfing? Screen-time eating can become mindless, and all of these extra calories can suddenly sneak into your day. Make meals and snacks screen-free activities.
Mental health: It’s probably not the first time you’ve heard that social media can harm your mental health. You may even be tired of hearing this, but it’s because there have been many studies that show a link between social media use and numerous mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Now that it’s almost impossible to avoid social media in our daily lives, we need to rethink how to utilize it without falling victim to the risks.
- Limit the time you spend scrolling each day. It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re scrolling down on Instagram – but a study has shown that people who limit their time spent on social media to under 30 minutes per day report happier moods.
- Follow people and pages that encourage you or bring you joy. If you notice that particular types of social posts make you feel anxious or depressed, you’re not alone. Unfollow or mute content that bothers you, and instead follow the content that make you happy.
- Consider a social media detox. Just like any other detox, you can choose to set a period of time and stay away from social media. It’s easier to quit something when you already know the advantages of quitting. If you benefit from a social media cleanse, you may feel more comfortable reducing your time spent on social media in general.
All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2022. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: www.medbroadcast.com/healthfeature/gethealthfeature/Online-Life-Is-It-Healthy