Spring has slipped by with many people so “plugged in” they are oblivious to its passing, while others have joined the growing “unplug” movement. Various Internet campaigns urge people to periodically sever their links to cyberspace, unplug the computer and set aside the television remote control. An April 2001 San Francisco Chronicle column urges readers to take a “Techno Sabbath.” In 2009, “Global Shutdown Day” was May 2. For the town of Needham in Massachusetts, March is “Unplugged Month.” The rewards of heeding the call include potential ergonomic benefits.
In this 24/7 era many of the “plugged in” have no choice. Cell phones, pagers, and “constant connectivity” to the Internet make it possible for bosses to demand round-the-clock availability from employees.
For others, connectivity is an addiction. Dr. Dave Greenfield, who runs the Center for Internet Behavior in Connecticut, labeled the problem “virtual addiction” a decade ago—back when Yahoo and Google were in their infancy and cell phones were uncommon and only slightly smaller than house bricks. In his 1999 book, “Virtual Addiction,” Greenfield said various studies estimate 1 to 10 percent of the United States population uses technology in a way that negatively impacts their lives, relationships, health or jobs.
These days, the options for addicts are unlimited. Blogging and Twittering are drugs of choice, and cell phones are tiny entertainers that do everything but play the accordion.
Sharon Sarmiento, interviewed in a recent Reuters article about virtual addicts, knew it was time to unplug when she realized she was blogging in her dreams and hearing imaginary instant messages. “It’s like our mind is going in a million different directions all the time,” she said.
A pioneer of the movement in the 1990s, Silicon Valley ethicist Tom Mahon asked people to consider the spiritual toll of the digital revolution.
The spiritual cost is only part of the price for a plugged-in life. “A lot of time you have nothing to show for hours spent online but a hunch back and a sore butt,” said Sarmiento in the Reuters article. In so many words, she is describing ergonomics-related risks commonly associated with prolonged time at a computer. For one thing, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) lie in wait for users not paying attention to posture. And over-absorbed computer users often forget to take eye breaks, leaving them vulnerable to other well-documented ergonomics-related risk factors.
The Reuters article includes text messaging behind the wheel as another province of the virtual addict. Ergonomists, psychologists and other specialists wouldn’t argue. Text messaging and cell phone use while driving have been shown to be major risk factors for accidents.
Sarmiento, a 30-something virtual business owner and professional blogger in Alabama, says she sometimes now unplugs for an entire weekend. “It feels like you are going on a little retreat. It has opened up more quality of life for me.” She looks forward to when technology catches up to the need to unplug. “There will be phones that let you say you don’t want to hear e-mail after 5 p.m. or on Sundays,” she said.
Sources: San Francisco Chronicle; Reuters, City of Needham