You, Unplugged

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Feeling caught in the electrical current? Maybe it’s time to connect to the real world.

There’s a lot to love about the techno-world these days. Our computers, cell phones and handhelds allow us to get work done outside the office — and outside the country. The Internet lets us track our fitness progress, catch up on favorite TV shows, play Scrabble with strangers in Spain and balance our checkbooks.

While the rewards of technology are great, our fondness for it can just as easily disconnect us from what’s most meaningful in our lives. This is what happened to Ariel Meadow Stallings, a Seattle author and popular blogger who realized her electronic habits were out of control. Next to a picture of herself with friends on her Web site Electrolicious.com, she writes, “I’m the one fiddling with my phone. There I am, out with friends, ignoring the good times because I’m too busy sending a text message and checking my email.”

Sharon Sarmiento, an Internet business consultant who hosts the blog eSoup (www.esoupblog.com), describes the dilemma of hyperconnectedness in one of her recent posts: “We lose our quiet time, we lose our privacy, and sometimes the technology that is so great at connecting us to folks far away acts as a wall between ourselves and the people in our real, everyday life.”

Even for those of us who aren’t full-time techno-addicts, the effects of our multiple devices can be insidious. The cell phone ringing during dinner or rounds of weekend work emails can erode relationships and personal time. Some studies have suggested that sustained exposure to electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) can threaten our health. What’s more, our electronic habits have become so commonplace that we rarely think twice about their effects.

But some people have started to wonder — and to experiment with routinely “unplugging” from their devices. Their experiments show that a regular break from electronics can help us plug into some important sources of energy we may have been missing.

Why Unplug?

New York Times columnist Mark Bittman is a dedicated technophile. But even Bittman has admitted that he needs a “virtual break” now and then. In a March 2008 column, he describes keeping his laptop next to his bed so he could check his email right before falling asleep and immediately upon waking. “At that point,” he notes, “the only other place I could escape was in my sleep.”

Bittman’s not alone. Most of us are plugged in more than we realize — and this can have real health consequences. According to a 2002 study at Tokyo’s Chiba University, workers who routinely spent more than five consecutive hours in front of a computer screen experienced problems ranging from headaches, eyestrain and stiff shoulders to depression, anxiety, fatigue and sleep disturbances. Still, since so many of our regular activities take place online these days — from shopping to communicating with friends to reading the newspaper — it’s all too easy to sail past the five-hour mark.

Our overuse of cell phones could also affect our health. Ronald Herberman, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, recently released a memo to more than 3,000 hospital employees that recommended reducing cell-phone use until more is known about the potential effects of electromagnetic waves on the brain. Last July, Toronto’s public health agency released a similar recommendation for children and teens, following earlier warnings by the governments of France, Germany and India.

Even if the potential health consequences don’t worry you, it’s tough to deny that a constantly plugged-in state can be incredibly distracting.

Brain-imaging studies at Johns Hopkins University have shown that when we’re listening intently, the visual parts of our brain become less active — which can set us up for trouble if we’re driving while talking on the phone, for example. The reverse is also true: When we’re staring at the incoming text message, newsfeed or stock ticker on our handheld, engaging the visual part of our brains, we’re not really listening to what our partner or colleague is saying to us. Our distraction is unintentional, but the consequences for our relationships are all too real.

The solution to our various electronic addictions is not to demonize our gadgets, but simply to become more mindful of how — and how much — we use them. And that’s just what some of the most wired-up people are learning to do.

A Time of Rest

In orthodox Jewish tradition, the Sabbath is a day of rest when no electronics are allowed. Many bloggers are borrowing this idea to implement what they call a “technological Sabbath” — a weekly vacation from electronics to help restore balance to their lives.

Mark Glaser, host of the PBS show MediaShift, writes that his experiments with unplugging have allowed him to “stretch my time, spend more hours outside and be with more people in face-to-face settings.” And Stallings notes that her weekly “unplugged” evening has inspired her to become more mindful on the other six days.

If you’re ready to try a techno-break, eSoup’s Sarmiento suggests the following guidelines:

Pick a time that works for you. You may want to unplug everything at 8 p.m. each day to guarantee a regular dose of quality downtime, or you could follow the Sabbath model and take a whole day — or two — on the weekend.

Make your own rules. Some people go whole hog and unplug the clocks, TV, landline and toaster, while others just turn off the computer and the cell phone and still watch a DVD with the family. What and when you turn off is up to you, but Sarmiento suggests that if there’s a device you feel you absolutely can’t live without, it’s a good sign that you could use a break from it.

List some real-time activities. Note the things you like to do that don’t require technology. Check the list when you feel the need to plug back in.

Prepare for resistance. Don’t be surprised if unplugging is more difficult than you expect. It can take a while to lose the nagging sense that you’re missing something important.

Consciously reap the rewards. Notice how fun it is to play a game on the floor with your kids instead of sending after-dinner emails. Appreciate the calmer feeling of getting into bed with a book instead of your laptop. Staying focused on the positive aspects of unplugging will keep you on track.

When we carve out the space for hands-on creativity, solitude and intimacy, that’s when we begin to feel truly connected. And isn’t that what we wanted from our devices in the first place?

Courtney Helgoe is a freelance writer in Minneapolis.

Cut Down on Electronic Dangers

A 2008 review of research by the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute concluded that living tissue is vulnerable to electromagnetic radiation. While no study yet shows that electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) are specifically harmful or specifically harmless, many experts assert that it is wise to err on the side of caution and reduce exposure while further long-term research is conducted. And it can be easier to reduce these risks than you might think:

  • The head absorbs the largest portion of radio frequencies emitted by cell phones. Reduce your exposure by using a wired earpiece, keeping conversations brief, sending text messages and returning calls on a corded landline. To avoid passive exposure, keep your cell phone in your bag, not your pocket.
  • EMFs can disturb sleep, so use a non-electric alarm clock and consider removing TVs and radios from your bedroom. (Battery powered devices tend to generate weaker EMFs and can be a good alternative.)
  • To avoid the eyestrain, headaches and other problems associated with “computer fatigue,” experts recommend the three Rs: Readjust your computer screen so your eyes look down; Refocus your eyes on distant objects periodically to rest them; and, most important, Remove yourself from your workstation for frequent breaks.

The World Health Organization has an informative section on its Web site about EMFs and their associated health effects. Visit www.who.int/peh-emf/about/WhatisEMF/en. And while cancer isn’t the only potential health effect of overexposure to EMFs, the book Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber (Viking, 2008) is a great primer on lifestyle changes — including reducing exposure to EMFs — that promote health and reduce cancer risk.

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