Have we lost our balance when it comes to technology?

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The walk home from school was a short one, about 10-15 minutes, and even less if I ran back which I often did. If it was summertime and still light in the evenings, I’d disappear off to play football with my mates from Atcham Close and the surrounding streets. You could always be guaranteed of good numbers for a game, often way too many leading to a good pile of jumpers for goalposts. Occasionally we’d mix it up with ‘acky 123’ (a bit like tig/tag) or ‘tracking’, both great childhood games, or exploring on our bikes and climbing trees. It mattered little if it rained; you just got wet. 

It was only in the very worst weather and during the darker months that we needed to occupy our time indoors. And that’s where the legendary Spectrum ZX came in to its own…well, sometimes. Games were all on cassette tapes and took an age to load, I’m not sure exactly how long as time seems vastly different when you’re a child, but in my mind, it seemed to take 20 minutes or more, watching the multi-coloured stripes roll across the screen, changing constantly like some sort of psychedelic art display. Quite often, towards the end of the lengthy loading process it would error, and my mom would say ‘never mind, it’ll have to wait until tomorrow’. The disappointment was short-lived as it normally meant it was time for tea!

Computers at school were limited to Acorns, where we’d be given a sheet of commands to type in that would draw shapes on the screen. Outside of these ‘high-tech’ experiences, there was very little interaction with technology, except the original Atari and Sega video games in the arcades of Britain’s seaside resorts. They were fun but to be honest, we always ended up veering back towards the 2p slot machines, reserved these days purely for contestants on the decidedly average ITV gameshow, Tipping Point.

Family holidays were instead spent walking, playing any number of sports, exploring castles, on the beach or if confined indoors again because of the less than reliable British Summertime, playing cards, board games, reading books or watching one of four TV channels.

 

Today's tech-filled world

 

Fast forward to 2018 and how different the world has become in just one generation. I suppose every generation says that, but I wonder how our technology legacy is affecting the physical and mental health and wellbeing of the current generation and those to come? 

Don’t get me wrong; there are many wonderful things that technology has brought for society. The ability to keep in touch at a distance, business communications, medical advances, environmental benefits from the reduced need for paper, and assisting in running our increasingly busy lives. In fact, I recently read that 90 per cent of the jobs we have today didn’t even exist 30 years ago, largely because they’re so heavily reliant on new technologies, which must be good for the economy right? I do wonder though if we haven’t lost our balance in recent times. Technology once felt like it helped in our daily lives; now it feels like it runs them.

Take a recent train journey home I was making from Birmingham as an example. I’d been teaching a Personal Trainer course and had walked to Fiveways station to jump on the train, avoiding the busier New Street. Stood on the platform I looked across at those waiting to head in the opposite direction and it is not an exaggeration to say that every single one of the roughly thirty people stood there were looking down at their phone screens. I considered the irony of pulling out my own phone to photograph the scene and decided against it. Now I doubt very much, that in times gone by, this group would be merrily chatting away to the strangers they stood next to; they’d likely have had their heads buried in a book or newspaper instead, but it seemed to me as if we’d lost touch with our surroundings and our ability to sometimes just stand and take in the moment.

Technology, particularly our phones, is often credited with bringing us together, helping us live more sociable lives. We certainly can keep in touch with more people, or rather we can ogle the filtered versions of each other’s daily lives presented in the form of posts, photos and videos on ‘Twittergrambook’. 

I’m a user myself, a self-confessed addict. Social Media is a huge part of my business and the main way I seek to reach and help people. Most likely you’re reading this because you clicked the link from the Facebook page so I’m certainly not preaching going off the grid completely. I just wonder if we’ve lost our balance a little; if we could spend more time disconnected. I know I certainly could. Did we once have better balance and better relationships with the fewer people we kept in touch through the ancient arts of letter writing and telephone calls? 

The effort of writing a letter, card or postcard, scripting it, locating an envelope if needed, and back in the day licking the stamp, then making time to post it represents a huge amount of thoughtfulness on the part of the sender. Once sent you were content and certainly didn’t expect an immediate response; you simply got on with life and then one day had a pleasant surprise when you received a reply.

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We live in an instant world. On a given day I’ll have text messages, emails, voicemails and Facebook messages all piling up, awaiting my reply. Even if the sender doesn’t intend it, you feel pressure to respond quickly, as if you’re being rude by not doing so. At its worst points, this has led me to check my phone almost constantly, concerned that I’ve missed a message from someone, and I’ve even suffered from ‘Ghost Phone’, that sensation that your mobile is vibrating in your pocket with a message from someone, when in fact it hasn’t. 

Vicky has rightly admonished me on more than one occasion for checking my phone for news, football scores or messages whilst we’re out and about, at dinner or on holiday. It has become so endemic that we have a name for it; absent presence. It means we’re there in body, but our mind is away in our digital world. Take this current TV ad from Tesco mobile which states ‘Your phone is more than just your phone…it’s kind of your life.’

‘So what?’ you may ask. Well, overuse of technology can lead to a wide range of issues:

 

Illness and injury

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  • Postural, muscular and joint problems. Spending too much time sat at a desk can lead to tight hamstrings, hips and shoulders, pulling you out of your natural alignment and creating pain and injuries everywhere from head to toe. Overuse of a phone and other handheld devices has led to the creation of a whole range of new injury terms including a few years ago ‘Blackberry thumb’ and more recently ‘Text Neck’. 

 

  • It’s not just your musculoskeletal system that can be impacted; your eyes can too. Computer Vision Syndrome covers a range of eye issues that are caused by too much screen time, with various studies reporting than between 50 and 90 per cent of us have been affected. 

 

  • In the news this very week has been the potential link between mobile phones and brain tumours. At present the stance of major organisations such as Cancer Research UK and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) say that there is no clear evidence of a link between phones and cancers, but that more research is needed for a definitive answer to be given.

 

Mental health

It’s not just physical ailments we need to be wary of when trying to find the right balance, there are mental health considerations too:

  • Loneliness and self-esteem issues have both been linked to the use of Social Media, but the picture is complex. Some studies show increased issues with greater use of Social media sites, whilst others show the opposite. The real answer as always likely lies somewhere in the middle, in finding the balance right for the individual. Studies have suggested that viewing others social media whilst not getting involved yourself, known as ‘social snacking’ may cause feelings of loneliness to be exaggerated afterwards, whilst comparing yourself with others can affect self-esteem. 

Comparing yourself to others is not a new phenomenon and certainly not exclusive to social media. Before the popularity of YouTube and Instagram, it was magazines who courted much of the attention for airbrushing celebrities and publishing unrealistic lifestyles that youngsters tried but failed to copy. Wanting to be like others has always been an issue creating envy and self-esteem issues, technology now just heightens it through its ability to reach almost the entire planet.

It’s not all bad though. Research in elderly subjects has suggested that having contact with others through social media helped to lessen feelings of loneliness and very recent studies have suggested taking a smiley selfie can boost mood and confidence.

 

  • There’s no off-switch. Phones and computers so allow us to connect with others, to take our work out with us wherever we are and to keep up with the latest news around the world, that can also mean we never truly switch off. It’s no coincidence that the boom in technology has also seen a growth in techniques like Mindfulness. Our brains are deluged with so much information on a daily basis that we desire, and need, the ability to shut down and process it all.

 

  • Read about any ancient culture, tribe or civilisation and one of the most common themes is an awareness of your own mind and body, and an inter-connectedness with nature. Yoga, tai chi, any number of martial arts, the practices of Shaman and wise tribal elders the world over are all evidence of a once strong connection between people and the nature which surrounded them. Just one example of how this has changed in modern times is the map. Once we studied these on pieces of paper, planned our routes and used them to guide us along when needed. This progressed to the printing of multiple pages of written instructions in the late 90s and early 2000s from the AA or RAC, where you’d sometimes forget how many roundabouts you’d gone straight over at and have to stop (or not) whilst you attempted to count them on the page to work out where you are. Today we don’t even bother to navigate at all; in cars we type in our destination and are told where to go, completely oblivious to our surroundings, whilst on foot we run the risk of ‘text neck’ and head-on collisions with others as we focus on the blue dot as it moves around the map.

 

  • Anger. This is one I definitely need to work on. The pace at which technology has developed has left many of us behind, meaning what we think it can do versus what we're capable of making it do don't always match up. Add to that the fact that technology is made by humans and we should realise it's as prone to error as anything else, yet when we can't get it to work it can lead to 'tech-rage'. As with all stresses, this stems from a lack of control and is a response to just how much we rely on technology to live our daily lives.

 

  • Safety and security. You can't have escaped the news headlines of recent times about the improper use of our personal data. Add this to online bullying, trolling, hacking and cyber-crime and there's a strong movement towards getting our identities offline for fear of the above. The pressure caused by recent events has led to changes for the better but many people are still fearful of the consequences of their online presence.

 

Fitness and Energy expenditure

Technology has affected our exercising too. When I started working in gyms I’d often notice people moving incredibly slowly or sometimes even stopping on the cardiovascular machines and standing stock still whilst starting at the screen, before starting again at a very laboured pace. I’d go over to chat and discover that the machine was telling them their heart rate was too high and they were moving out of the legendary fat-burning zone. I’d ask how they were feeling and they’d always reply to say they felt fine, not in the slightest bit breathless at all and I’d try my best to get them to ignore the data and go on how they felt, working to a point where they were warm and slightly breathless.

More recently I’ve become a slave to fitness devices, evidenced by the Garmin on my left wrist and the Fitbit on my right. The Garmin is fancy and suggests how many hours of recovery I need before I can exercise again. Whilst useful, I know my own body and can disagree with Mr Garmin’s suggestions not to exercise for the next three days. I do however make use of the resting heart rate tool, knowing full well that when this is elevated by a few beats I’m a bit tired and if five beats more than normal, it’s definitely time to ease back. Again, it’s all about striking the right balance.

The increasingly easy nature of our lives is most certainly connected to a decrease in health and fitness and increase in waist sizes across the planet. Gone are the days of walking miles to work in a job that involved hard graft and carrying our shopping home from the supermarket. One wonderful childhood memory I have is of Saturday mornings when I’d visit my nan and grandad. Their back garden had a gate that led right out onto the canal and from there we could walk along to the local shops, my nan with her trusty black leather and tartan trolley in tow, me racing along with the dog, stock up on supplies and make our way back in time for Grandstand.

Today it’s different. Technology allows us to reduce calorie burn at every opportunity. We can order almost anything online and have it delivered to the door, drive to and from work and spend the whole day sat down, enjoy hobbies that involve nothing more than flicking our thumbs around a game control and even our cars these days save us the bother of turning on lights, windscreen wipers or lifting the handbrake. 

We have learned to be lazy. Survival of the fittest has become more survival of the tech-savvy, or has it? All of those little calories we would previously have burned add up over weeks and months to weight gain and precede further health issues. Muscles become weakened and waste away, or to give it the fancy term, atrophy due to the lack of challenge they receive. This includes the most important muscle of all, your heart.

 

How can you find a balance?

Whilst my intention is not to paint a picture of some sort of dystopian science fiction future Earth where technology has taken over, it is to present an argument that we might need to make some changes and that these involve rediscovering things from times gone by, simpler forms of living. Here are my top tips for a balanced lifestyle when it comes to technology. I shall be working hard to practice some of them myself.

1)         Make a stand. Avoid sitting all day at work; if you can, get a standing desk. The fancy ones allow you to lift and lower them as desired, so you can mix sitting and standing. If not, be sure to take regular breaks away from your desk and walk around. Speak to people across the hall rather than email them, make a drink, get out to buy lunch or walk in the park, anything that keeps you moving.

2)         Set technology boundaries. This might be times of day when you won’t look at your phone or laptop, or maybe even ‘tech-free days’ for the whole family where you can enjoy active hobbies or relive times gone by with cards, board games or whatever takes your fancy. You can set most technology these days to silent or to power down between certain hours, so use the fancy features to help you find a better balance.

3)         Consider how you communicate. Could you call or visit someone rather than text or email? Or if you’re feeling really nostalgic, write a letter or send someone a postcard.

4)         Think about how you use social media. Is it a positive influence in your life or do you feel it affects you in a negative way? I’ve had positive experiences in the past by reducing the number of social media sites I use and also by vastly reducing the time I spend on my particular addiction, Facebook. 

5)         Escape. Get out in the great outdoors, somewhere you’re surrounded by nature and just take in the present moment. Listen to the birds singing, the wind in the trees, the sound of the river flowing by and refresh and reinvigorate yourself. It’s also a great way to get your exercise in which is a sure-fire way to help you feel balanced.

 

Yours in balance,

 

Paul

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