Is Digital Media Bad For Your Brain?

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

After I wrote the title and byline for this piece, I stopped to respond to a text from my daughter, noticed that I had three phone messages, called back three people and then returned to write this sentence. Now, with my smart phone safely tucked away in another room, I refocus on sharing what I’ve learned about digital media and the brain. Welcome to the brave new world of techno-distraction.

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Psychiatrist and ADD expert, Dr. Edward Hallowell calls digital media “the newest addiction.” We find ourselves terminally distracted by candy crush, funny animal videos, cute kid musicians, amazing survival stories, tragic never-before-seen-footage, etc. Marriages break up, students fail in school, and health problems stem from excessive use of digital mediaTreatment centers dedicated to technology addiction comprise a new growth industry.

According to studies by The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, the average businessperson sends and receives about 109 emails a day. Every year the email deluge grows by about 7 percent. Email is only one distraction. Add a few shots of texts, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, BlogHer and you’ve got the perfect distraction cocktail.

The Interrupted Brain

If you’re reading this blog post, you are blocking out other noises, or demands on your attention because you’re choosing to read. That is called top-down attention. If you stop to respond to a text or email, you’re responding to bottom-up attention, or the part of your brain dedicated to survival. Top-down attention helps us accomplish complex tasks, achieve our goals or learn new things. Bottom-up attention helps us stop to respond to a fire alarm or a change in the environment that could prove dangerous. Multi-tasking, or switching our attention between a task, and an interruption, messes with our working memory, makes tasks take about 50 percent longer, and increases our irritability and stress.

Dr. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine, studies multi-tasking. She found that the average time a manager spent on a single task before being interrupted was three minutes. Many of my executive clients develop stress and anxiety disorders from the feeling that they can’t keep up with the barrage of interruptions. Many fear that their performance evaluations will suffer because they cannot attend to their primary job duties.

Focus Tools

Dr. Mark recommends that you pick three periods throughout the day to go through email. The rest of the time it should be turned off so that you can focus on your primary goals. One of my clients devised a no-interruption strategy at work. If she had a smiley face on her closed office door that meant she was not to be interrupted unless the building was on fire. If the face was off or her door was opened, staff could interrupt with questions or concerns. She found her productivity increased dramatically while her stress decreased.

Stress management workshops, like those we provide to corporations and those by Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live and Email Overload Survival Kitimprove productivity and morale by giving managers and staff practical tools to prevent burnout. Use your meal times as a media free quiet time to focus on just eating a meal. If you eat three times a day, you will digest your food better, enjoy it more, and feel less overall distress. Maybe you could even have a live conversation with a friend or family member, or co-worker.

Big companies encourage meditation at work for it’s calming, focusing and health benefits. Mindfulness meditation lowers stress, improves concentration and gives your brain a rest from the avalanche of email and communication. It also reduces the irritability that stems from constant interruptions at work and at home. When you create no media time zones at home to pursue something like playing an instrument, reading a book, or learning to play a sport, you feel happier and healthier.

Joe Robinson says that email proliferates like rabbits. Every email breeds three as the communication gets refined and clarified. He says we need to spay and neuter our emails. One way to neuter your email is to use a “no reply necessary” message in the subject line or body of an email. Turn off all the noises on your gadgets so you can focus on the work you want to accomplish.

The average person spends about 4 hours a day fighting impulses. I want to snooze for a few more minutes; I shouldn’t eat that candy; get off Facebook and get back to work… Digital media interruptions tax our impulse control and make us less able to focus on the truly important things that we care about. It helps to develop digital free time zones, and make it a habit, so you can save your impulse control for more important things, like reading this : )

Enjoy quick relaxation and relief from anger and stress with our new Manage Anger Daily Meditation Feel free to  Contact Us for information about our programs and services. We’d love to hear from you.


Photo courtesy of Hunter Langston

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