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Being online – is it bad for your health?

If you’re reading this post while you’re eating lunch – don’t! Or breakfast or dinner. Please, pay attention to your food and then go for a walk, if you can. But do come back and consider some important and, yes, challenging thoughts and research about the way we spend time online.

***

Dr Lareen Newman and Kristina Dryza write:

Many Westerners have jumped on the Digital Bandwagon in buying into the assumption that using digital devices and riding the Internet super-highway is predominantly a good thing. It gets us connected, gives us access to new opportunities, something interesting to do with our ‘free’ time, makes banking more convenient, and enables us to take more control of our own healthcare. For others there’s no real choice in the matter – their employer demands they be online so they can fulfil their job description.

The Australian Government is also encouraging the general population to get online for the benefit of our health – to set up our own Personally Controlled Electronic Health Record (PCEHR), open a MyGov account to deal with Medicare, download the QuitBuddy App to quit smoking, or to visit the E-Mental Health Portal.

But on the other hand, being online can also give increased access to negative influences on our wellbeing, like the high number of hours children spend sitting in front of screens instead of playing outdoors, as well as the rise of cyberbullying. There’s also quick, easy access to gambling, pornographyand cyberfraudchannels,to name but a few. In more extreme cases it can lead to Internet addition.

These are all potentially negative impacts on health and wellbeing for those who don’t need more negatives in their lives. Our research shows, for example, that adults living in disadvantaged circumstances don’t necessarily feel confident online, and when services encourage them to “visit our website” they feel stressed and vulnerable.

Those who aren’t online (or aren’t very often) are often construed as “being left behind”. They supposedly “miss out” on the benefits of what others see as being connected, but they are also not being exposed to the increasing negatives. And our social media connections can further fuel FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out), whereas people are starting to argue that we should instead focus on JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out). Enjoy what we’re doing in the here and now, rather than on social media seeing what everybody else is doing and sometimes feeling from that that we just aren’t keeping up with the Joneses.

But are we ready to turn our gaze to our own behaviour and criticise the time that we as adults spend online? One daily action and “disgusting habit” criticised by the UK Health Minister is eating lunch at the computer – which some of you may be doing right now!

Valid excuses may be that lunch breaks are only long enough for a quick walk, or that the workplace doesn’t provide an appropriate or attractive lunchroom. Being physically present but NOT mindfully present is now linked to mindless eating, which can lead to overeating (particularly for boys on computers).

In response, the concepts of E-Free Weeks and Digital Detoxes are gaining traction. Arianna Huffington, President of the Huffington Post Media Group, recently spoke out on the importance of Digital Detoxes, while the British Gas company’s Smart Meter Challenge aims to benefit customers’ power bills as well as their personal relationships and sleep patterns. In a broader health sense, this company aims to achieve a win-win outcome for health as much as one that benefits the wider environment.

Similarly at the recent Wisdom 2.0 Summit, Eckhart Tolle, author of ‘The Power of Now’, and Karen May, Vice President of Learning at Google, discussed how to ‘Awaken in the Digital Age‘ and become more present with our actions – especially those who feel no escape from the speed and velocity of new technological advances. This summit aims to support the merging of wisdom with technology by being connected in a beneficial way. We are getting reminders from thought leaders from Silicon Valley, venture capital industries as well as spiritual communities to return and merge with the more traditional and natural ways of communicating so that the digital world doesn’t completely encroach and overrun us. It’s crucial to maintain interaction with the earth and people directly through the five senses and to not completely lose ourselves in a digital artifice.

Social connection is a key social determinant of health. Our deep need for social connection has developed over eons but being online can interfere with this. Often people can end up with no-one close to sit down with to have a meaningful conversation and instead have to join the Facebook community called “I have 400 friends on Facebook but no-one to chat with online”.

Today we’re being encouraged by the media to turn off our digital devices over dinner to benefit our relationships andstudies show how older people are intentionally using technology for emotional connection. Our project for young people with disabilities also supports online social connection which results in positive wellbeing benefits. So while we focus on improving our health through increased physical activity and healthy eating, let’s also focus on improving structures and mechanisms that support “digital hygiene” on a daily basis. Only then will Being Online Be Good for Our Health.

Dr Lareen Newman is a Senior Research Fellow investigating the impact of digital technologies and the digital divide on wellbeing. She works at the Southgate Institute for Health Society & Equity at Flinders University. Twitter: @LareenNewman

Kristina Dryza (BA, GradDipComm) is an international trend forecaster who has worked with corporations including Sony Ericsson, Vodaphone, Unilever and IKEA to create new strategies and products. She is the author of Grace and the Wind, an allegorical novel on the rhythms of the natural world. Twitter: @KristinaDryza

 

 

Comments 1

  1. Lesley says:

    I have actually finished my lunch, however, I nearly sprayed the screen with tea upon reading the line “In more extreme cases it can lead to Internet addition.”
    If this is a cut and paste from the researchers, one wonders at their acuity in other areas….

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Australian Palliative Care Conference