Over the past two decades, the time that we spend in front of the computer has skyrocketed. One study conducted three years ago estimated that the average person in America spends approximately five hours per day interacting with their computers or their phones. Between social media, blogs, instant news access, games and the ability to look up and research absolutely anything, the attraction the internet holds is undeniable. It’s safe to say that our lives have been enriched by the easy access that we have to this amazing resource.
Computers have broadened our horizons and made our world larger. The time we spend engaging with them has positive effects such as connecting friends and family, instantaneous access to information, tools that make our work and personal lives easier and easier communication. Unfortunately, too much of good thing can become a bad thing, and have negative consequences for our physical and emotional health.
While we have plenty of mobile access to the internet, we still spend a great deal of time sitting, hunched over our computers or other devices. There has been quite a bit of research that has been conducted about how all of this sitting affects us physically. One of the most interesting findings has been that when you sit for extended periods of time your body acts differently on a molecular level. It turns out that mild movement such as standing and walking turns on certain functions in your body, including the mechanisms responsible for regulating insulin. You have likely heard that regular exercise is one way to reduce your chances of developing diabetes, but did you know that sitting for hours at a time every day can increase your risk of heart disease, obesity and certain cancers? While the increased risk of disease that looms somewhere off in the future might not be enough to pull you away from your computer today, perhaps some of the shorter term health effects might.
We are a sore and achy society. Back pain is the leading cause of disability and one of the most common reasons for missing work. At any moment more than thirty million Americans are suffering from some type of back pain. Now, stop and consider that forty percent of back pain issues occur in people that have spent long periods of time sitting at a desk or table. When you sit the disks in your spine are compressed, resulting in a loss of flexibility, muscular weakening and damaged nerves. Additionally, we suffer neck, shoulder and leg pain as a result of unnecessary pressure, poor posture and lack of circulation.
As if the physical effects of too much computer and internet time weren’t enough, we also suffer from numerous emotional and psychological issues as well. People who spend five or more hours per day in front of their computer or other connected device are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. We can only theorize on the many possible causes of this. To begin with, time spent with your computer is usually equal to time spent in solitude. Our craving for technology has diminished the amount of time that we spend interacting with other people. Furthermore, it isn’t just about the amount of time we spend being social, but also the way that we interact with each other that is affected. It has been shown that excessive internet usage causes a feeling of disconnect from the rest of the world and a change in the amount of empathy that we feel towards each other as a result of forgetting how to interact on a face to face level. We also have easier access to the negative side of humanity, including toxic friends, internet trolls, and an endless supply of news that is devastating and sad. After a while this type of exposure can change how you personally view other people and the world around you.
Excessive computer usage also results in a number of other unhealthy habits and side effects which include:
- Weight gain or loss
- Sleep disturbances
- Malnutrition or a negative change in eating habits
- Neglect of personal hygiene and self care
- Promotion of other addictions such as online gambling or shopping
- Less fulfilling personal relationships
- Eye strain
- Carpel Tunnel Syndrome
- Anxiety, depression and stress
You might think that the only way to have a healthy relationship with technology is to cut it off completely or severely limit your “screen” time. The truth is that this approach is not only impractical, but for most of us it simply isn’t possible. We are at a point where we depend upon computers and the internet for some of our most basic daily tasks. The good news is that healthy internet use is about balance, not deprivation. There are things that you can do to make your time with your computer healthier for both your body and your mind.
Steps to Protect Your Body During Extended Computer and Screen Usage
- Make opportunities to fit in extra movement during your day. Park far away from the entrance to work or the grocery store, take the stairs instead of the elevator, walk into your coworkers office rather than messaging them and take the long way whenever you get up to do something. Is the bathroom just a few feet down the hall? Try walking around your home for ten minutes every time you get up.
- Be aware of your posture when you are sitting and resist the urge to sit slouched over in a chair or on your sofa. You can purchase desk chairs that are designed to give physical support to those that are required to spend long periods sitting down. You can also try sitting on a large exercise ball when you are at your desk or have your phone in your hand. Sitting on an exercise ball encourages proper posture and balance.
- Do a few simple exercises while you are using your computer. These can include neck stretches, back stretches, hip stretches and shoulder shrugs. There are websites and videos that can show you quick desk exercises that can be done in the office. Aim to do a few of these at least once for every two hours that you spend sitting.
- Keep things out of reach. If you are at work, keep your files more than an arm’s length away so that you have to get up to reach them. If you are at home, keep your drink at another table or across the room.
- Make the environment that you are in a little less cozy. Keep the thermostat turned down a few degrees so that you are more likely to get up and move around, even if it is to dig through your closet for a cozy sweater.
- Develop healthy routines that are tied into your internet or computer time. Download a fitness app and then use it, create a weekly meal plan using healthy recipes from your favorite blog and then actually make them, or find accountability in groups that have the same healthy goals as you and interact with them whenever you are online.
- Reduce eye strain with the 20/20/20 rule. Every twenty minutes choose and object that is at least twenty feet away and focus on it for no less than twenty seconds.
- Get a physical. Get checked out by your medical care provider on a regular basis and make sure that includes things like diabetes, cancer and heart screenings. Also address issues such as back and muscular discomfort, leg pain and eye strain.
Steps for a Healthier Emotional Relationship with Your Computer and the Internet
- Take an honest look at how much time you spend on your computer, even if it means keeping track in a log for a few days. Most people are surprised by the actual amount of time that that they spend on their computer or phone. You might check social media in the morning while eating breakfast; check your favorite blogs real quick a little later in the day and then catch up on news and current events. These quick “check-ins” can add up much more quickly than you think.
- Once you are aware of how much of your time is spent on the internet, decide if that amount of time is appropriate for you. You might really only spend one hour a day, which for you could be perfectly acceptable in terms of time spent on recreation. Or you could realize that you are more like the average person that gets caught up and idles away precious hours. Set a goal or time limit for yourself and make a commitment to stick to it.
- Allocate your computer time to things that are constructive or that you truly enjoy. Resist the temptation to get caught up in negative activities such as interacting with trolls.
- Disable unnecessary and distracting notifications. Do you really need to know the very instant that one of your friends posts something new on social media or when you get an email alerting you of a sale next week at one of your favorite sites? Turning off your notifications will prevent you from stopping what you are doing and logging in every time you hear a bell.
- Be selective in how and when you reply. Not every post needs a comment from you, and not every message or email needs an answer. Respond only when necessary or when something truly speaks to you.
- Make the time that you spend with your phone or computer more about quality rather than quantity. Stop visiting any sites that mindlessly take up your time or cause you any type of stress. Remove toxic “friends” from social media and stop accepting any type of spam emails. Instead choose sites that provide you with information or entertainment that is more meaningful for your life at this time.
- Try calling or visiting someone rather than corresponding via text or email.
- Do something else. Make a list of all of the things you would like to spend more time doing, but feel there just aren’t enough hours in the day. Rather than spending an hour with your computer, try taking up that new sport or visiting your aging grandparents. What if you can’t think of something else to be doing? Go for a walk, take a long bath or simply sit and experience the quiet.
- Realize it will still be there when you return. Are you so tuned into the online world that you are afraid you will miss something if you step away for even a moment? I dare you to not log into a single site for an entire day. I promise, the world won’t stop and you will realize that there is nothing so important on your computer that it can’t be put aside to enjoy time with your friends, family and doing other activities that you love.