The amount of individuals connected to the internet has skyrocketed in the past decades and is still steadily increasing. In the year 2000 a mere 5% of the global population had access to the internet compared to over 50% of the population in 2017. The incredible rise of the internet has brought many fascinating innovations with it, which we would not want to miss today. The instantaneous access to huge amounts of data has allowed us to become aware of global issues, that could have remained unnoticed, if it wasn't for the internet. At the same time it provides a platform for sharing information and connecting like-minded individuals and collectives with each other, which encourages collaboration and may lead to positive action. In my opinion this process has moved the world towards a brighter future. But as with all things in our dualistic reality, there is a flipside to this development.
With our lives evolving more and more around the internet, we are at risk of loosing touch with the grounding, physical reality around us. Instead of going for a hike through nature, we watch motivational videos of people doing that for us on Youtube. Rather than having a face to face conversation with our loved ones about how we are feeling, we rely on instant messages as means of communication and barely ever breach the limits of superficiality. In place of expressing ourselves authentically to the world in our real life, we cherry pick only the greatest moments to share with our friends on Instagram. Behind all of this, more often than not, hides an underlying anxiety about not living one's life to its fullest potential.
Research has confirmed that excessive use of, and reliance on, the internet can lead to a dependency, which manifests itself very similarly to other behavioral and substance-related dependencies. The characteristic symptoms of an internet addiction illustrate that similarity nicely. If you are addicted to the internet, you may feel like you have lost control over your behavior. In this sense you may have difficulties disconnecting from the internet, even though a part of you would like to. This is linked to the experience of intrinsic personal conflict and cognitive dissonance. The conscientious part of yourself wants to pursue other more productive or wholesome tasks, while the part of yourself that seeks instant gratification wants to keep on watching videos on Youtube. Apart from causing internal tension, internet addiction can also lead to interpersonal conflict and strain your relationships with other people. But the most obvious parallel to other addictions is probably the experience of withdrawal symptoms, which can occur as one is disconnected from the internet for a prolonged period of time. Most of us won't experience withdrawal since we rarely spent more than a couple of hours disconnected from the internet, but if we are experiencing prolonged periods of time offline, we might feel restless and uneasy.
Not surprisingly internet addiction has been linked with depression and is in fact a good predictor of both depressive symptoms, and anxiety. But you don't have to show all of the above symptoms in order to be negatively impacted by excessive use of the internet. Even if you feel like a specific online application – whether it's gaming, social media, videos or pornography – prevents you from pursuing more meaningful endeavors once in a while, it makes sense to become more mindful of this issue now as an early preventative measure to live your life more fully.
There are some helpful browser extensions that you can use to become more aware of your screen time. WebTimer (Chrome) measures the time you have spent on your taps and depicts in a pie chart, which websites get most of your attention. This can be a great tool to get a general idea about the websites, on which you may be spending a little bit too much time on. Another way to help you manage your internet usage is to set a timer for however long you want to be online for and then be reminded to disconnect in time. This prevents you from unconsciously drifting off into the depths of the web, where we have all been before. You can do this by a browser extension like countDown (Chrome), or using the timer on your phone. Either way make sure to be persistent! This useful habit ties in well with setting a clear intention before using the internet. You want to research a topic of interest, watch a specific video that was recommended to you, or listen to a podcast? Set your timer, and use the internet mindfully, so that it can work for you, instead of against you.
This article would not be completed without mentioning some positive activities that can effectively replace some of your unwanted online habits. For starters I want to recommend shifting your awareness from the virtual reality of the internet to the physical reality of the world around you. Take a moment to look around and try to see things for what they are instead of taking them for granted. Slow down, focus on your breath and appreciate the space that you are existing in. Go outside into nature, the nearby park will also do, and fill your lungs with fresh air. Allow your body to move as we were designed to do and enjoy taking an active part in the constant flux of reality that is happening around you. Going out for a walk, and changing your environment, is a simple method for boosting your inspiration and gaining momentum for whatever goals you are trying to achieve. Finally spend some quality time with your loved ones. Regardless whether you want to share that time with your friends, your family, or your partner, embrace being disconnected from the internet by connecting authentically with the people you care about. Allow yourself to open up, which will strengthen your relationships and contribute to a sense of emotional fulfillment.
Whether you are dependent on the internet, or simply using the internet a little more than you would like to, becoming mindful of your behavior is the first step to positive change and can make all the difference. I know how it feels to have a hard time disconnecting from the internet and I've personally suffered from guilt and anxiety related to this dependency. Luckily the two remedies for overcoming internet addiction are readily available to us at any time: mindfulness and genuine connection. In this spirit do not forget to disconnect, enjoy and take care of our beautiful planet, and reconnect with your tribe!
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