It’s the addiction du jour and it’s been sweeping the nation for years. When cell phones first came out, I remember seeing a man walking through Whole Foods with an earpiece attached to his head talking on his phone and I thought, “What is he doing? Is he talking to himself?” Now, nobody bats on eye when people “talk to themselves” in cars, grocery stores or walking down the street. And those early cell phones have, of course, exploded into iPhones and all sorts of other extraordinary technical devices.
When I’m working with a client struggling with anxiety, alongside questions like, “How did your parents handle your big feelings as a child?” and “Where did you learn to stop liking yourself (school, peers, religion)?”, I now ask, “How much time each day do you spend on your computer?” And the answer is often a staggering 4-5 hours a day. Most people begin their day by reaching for their phone then check email or Facebook, then continue on to play games, check more email and Facebook, mindlessly surf, and finally lull themselves to sleep to the bedtime lullaby of a television show or movie. Even if screen time is buffered by more nourishing activities like exercise, healthy foods, and meditation, it’s generally not enough to outweigh the life-depleting and soul-sucking effects of the computer.
Like all vices, the substance isn’t the problem. Just like we can approach food as a way to avoid, numb out or fill up or as way to nourish ourselves and even connect spiritually, so we can use screens the same way. In other words, it’s not about denigrating the object or substance and stating categorically that “computers are bad”; it’s about recognizing that we, as humans, have a tendency to become addicted to anything that offers a temporary escape from whatever is uncomfortable in our lives.
I would be quite the hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge the truly life-changing power of computers and the Internet, as they have allowed me to work from home and create a successful business that has given freedom to my family to carve out a lifestyle that is aligned with our values. And I’m acutely aware of the different ways that I can approach my computer: I can use it as I’m using it right now, as a convenient tool that encourages creative expression in a more efficient and often satisfying way than the good old pen and paper (although I love writing by hand as well and still keep a journal to record my inner world of dreams, poetry, and feelings). We can use it to teach our kids about the world and the universe (it’s like having the world’s best library at our fingertips – although I still love taking them to the library and checking out books the good old fashioned way). I’m amazed at what my husband can create on his computer, using software that allows him to paint and draw more quickly (although I love walking into his studio and seeing his latest children’s book storyboarded all over his walls and drafting boards).
But unless you’re approaching your computer with the intention to create, express, or learn, chances are quite high that you’re using it as a way to avoid, numb or escape. And, like all addictions, while it temporarily staves off the uncomfortable places inside, in the long run it only amplifies what you’re trying to avoid. This is why one of my first prescriptions to clients struggling with anxiety is to renounce Facebook and stop Googling.
So next time you reach for your screen see if you can pause for a moment and ask yourself these questions: “Why am I turning this on? What am I hoping to gain by spending time inside this virtual world? Am I approaching the screen to learn, create or express or am I approaching it as a way to avoid, numb out, or escape? What would I be doing if I weren’t on the computer right now? Is being on the computer causing me to disconnect from the real people that are next to me (kids, partner, friends, family, and even people on the subway)?”
And then notice how you feel after spending a lot of time on the computer: Do you feel filled up and satisfied or do you feel empty and numb? This will also help you assess whether or nor your time spent on the computer is serving you or actually exacerbating your underlying emptiness, pain, or anxiety. And if you find that it’s not serving you, make a choice inside to spend less time in front of screens. It will be uncomfortable at first, just as it is when breaking any addiction. But over time, as your focus your attention on more nourishing activities, you’ll remember that we did, indeed, function just fine without screens for most of human history. If your grandparents could do it, so can you.