There and Back Again: A Tale of Two Weeks Without the World Wide Web

-by a lovely guest contributor

2 weeks, 5 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes.

Just kidding, but it has been about two weeks since I’ve been sans the world wide web.  I’m not going to lie, it hurts.  It hurts like giving up a cigarette, a Lenten promise, or quitting something cold turkey.  When you grow used to the web…it’s tough.  No internet means:

  • No TV
  • No Youtube
  • No email
  • No news
  • No Google search
  • No online banking (What?  You mean I actually have to keep track of my spending!?!?)

The internet is the gateway, the key to the city, and without it, life is rough out here people.  It’s hard to entertain a brain used to megapixels and Vine videos.  I’ve learned two things on my journey without the web:

1. The real world is out there for you to see, with or without the internet.  It’s like a really confident single woman. If you are into it, that’s cool, but if you aren’t…it’s not waiting around or pining over you.  Sunsets don’t replay or stop and pick up where you left off to watch 6 straight episodes of “The New Girl.”  Relationships don’t have pause buttons or text message breaks or instant replay.

The internet and media give the illusion that you have everything at your fingertips.  When you have access to it, it transports you to a place where this illusion of everything warps the reality of what is around you.  The world is happening when you are glued to your screen, and that screen is promising you something that can never fulfill you and forces you to miss out on Life.

2. The internet and technology make the pace of life so rapid that without it, you have to lag behind, often just enough to see how stupid it is to rush through life.  My job is a constant race to complete task after task, compressing productivity into the pressure cooker that is my 8 hour day.  Why should I spend my afternoon and night tripping over my laptop search button trying to find the quickest, easiest, closest, simplest way to make dinner, look up a phone number, or watch a 10 second cat video?  Why should I attempt to crunch my thoughts into 140 characters when I can journal freely? Why should I catch the Grammy red carped highlights condensed version on Youtube when I can light a candle, sit on my back porch and watch my roommate’s dog run around in the yard?  Technology tricks you into thinking what’s fastest is best, when really you want the best things in life to last as long as possible.

My journey ends here as I have internet again at last.  Will I fall back into old habits (marathon episode viewings of The Only Way is Essex…don’t judge me)?  Who knows, but I do know that I’ve seen the other side.  I’ve been bored, slow, and out of the loop, and for some reason, it was great.

Run and tell that, Charter.


If you keep making that face, it might get stuck that way!

Previously in the Sound Body and Mind series, we looked at how media affects children’s health.  This post focuses on certain detrimental effects of staring at screens. (Which I am doing right now as I write this!)

At some point between the ages of 3 and 5, 97% of Americans have an insatiable desire to make weird, obnoxious faces for no apparent reason.  True story.  Our parent’s cure for this ailment: threaten us with the statement that is the title of this piece.  At the time it was an effective method, as our parent’s word was Law.  But why the heck am talking about this anyway?


While I admit it’s a loose analogy, when we stare at computer, TV, or cell phone screens, our brains actually do get stuck in a certain pose.  The brain doesn’t stick its tongue out and go cross-eyed, but certain patterns of neuronal firing do change when we become screen zombies. This can affect vision, sleep, and how the brain processes all the data that it gets throughout the day.

First, let’s look at vision.  Excessive screen use can cause what is referred to as computer vision syndrome, or CVS, and I promise I didn’t make this term up.  While it usually goes unnoticed, using a computer is like a workout for your eyes; the eye muscles are constantly having to flex and relax to adjust to the changing images, light, and glare that emanate from  a computer screen.  This can cause eye strain, blurred vision, headaches, and neck or back pain.

Being constantly bombarded by screens can also interfere with how the brain learns and interprets the world around us.  When we interact with our surroundings, our brains have to process this information.  Studies in rats have shown that the brain requires “down time” to process new information.  Without being allowed to rest and be devoid of stimuli, the rats weren’t able to form the neural connections necessary to make a permanent memory.


We can extrapolate and apply this to humans.  Whenever you have to wait in line or get a moment alone, with nothing imminent at hand, what do you do?  Whip out the phone, check email, text, play games, the list goes on.   I’m as guilty as anyone.  If we apply lessons from the rat brain to our own, it seems that this time may be better spent by doing nothing.  Relax, take deep breath, stare mindlessly out the window.  This may be just what the brain craves.

Lastly, studies have shown that screen time before bed may affect sleep. Just in case you aren’t sick of neuroscience already, here’s a little more.  Melatonin is a hormone released in the brain during the evening and night, and it is important for regulating the sleep cycle.  Exposure to light inhibits melatonin production.   This makes sense evolutionarily, as you wouldn’t want to fall asleep while running away through the jungle at high noon to avoid a meeting with a friendly tiger.  However, humans have recently evolved a strange trait; reflexively checking our phones and computers before bed.  It turns out that phones, tablets, and computers emit a very potent light, which is capable of suppressing melatonin.  Checking your email one last time may seem harmless, but it may in fact disrupt sleep.


In conclusion, all of you should turn off your lights, your TV, sit in the dark for two hours before bed, and check your cell phone only twice per day.  Candles are allowable.  All joking aside, the verdict seems to still be out on the extent that these occurrences affect our health.  Most of the studies do seem to make sense though, and think we take some good practical advice from them:

  • Try to cut off screen time about 30 minutes to an hour before bed
  • Turn down the brightness on a tablet or computer screen at night
  • Turn the iPhone off, and just take a little time each day to sit and relax (it may also help in other ways)
  • When using the computer for long periods of time, take a break and look away every 20 minutes or so

Overall, if you use modern technologies in a responsible, moderate manner, I think the problems discussed in this post can be avoided.  And I hope our brains don’t get stuck that way!


Images from:,, and

A Sound Body and Mind

On Children and the Media

If something becomes an integral part of life, to the extent that we possess it at all times and use it for work, communication, recreation, and entertainment for the majority of each day, would you say that it impacts us?  Would you say that it affects our relationships and health?  If we reflect even for a few seconds, I think it’s clear that it would and does.  For this reason, we are starting a series to examine how the integration of modern technology into our lives affects our physical and mental health, beginning with the health of children.

Disclaimer:   Unlike some of you, I don’t have children.  I don’t pretend to have the slightest understanding of what it’s like to raise children.  My aim is not to offer an opinion on parenting, but to present the research and recommendations of experts on the subject of children and media.

In our society, children grow up in a world where media and technology use have been weaved into our lives to an extreme extent.  Media today is not limited to one TV in the living room; most kids have a smart phone by high school (if not earlier), allowing constant unsupervised internet access throughout the day.  The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report on this subject last October, and here are some of their stats:

  • Children age 8-10 average 8 hours per day of media exposure (includes internet, TV, texting, video games etc.)
  • Older kids and teenagers average over 11 hours per day
  • 71% of children and teenagers have a TV in their bedroom.  1/3 have internet in their bedroom.
  • 75% of kids 12-17 own cell phones

Some of these stats may seem surprising, some may be expected.  Either way, it’s indisputable that the new generation of kids is growing up in a climate saturated with technology.  As most of us likely grew up with the only media being TV, imagine being your ten year old self sitting on the couch for 8 hours a day.  I loved Rugrats and Hey Arnold as much as the next 90’s kid, but I can’t imagine staying glued to the screen for that long–or my mom letting me!

hey arnold

The article cites many ways in which media use can be harmful children.  These include exposure to sexual or violent content, substance abuse, tobacco, and the obvious–if a kid is staring at a screen, it’s not likely that she is running around outside with friends.  The panel did note some positive aspects of media exposure, such as educational programs for young children and “prosocial” media positively influencing teenagers.  They also give recommendations for parents:

  • Total screen time per day should be less than 1 or 2 hours
  • Children under 2 should have NO screen exposure
  • Keep TV and internet devices out of the bedroom
  • Make a home plan for media use, including a “curfew”

I think it’s very important that doctors are looking at media and technology use as a medical issue, and that they are expressing their recommendations to the public.  However, I think the current research is extremely lacking.  The recommendations for use are based on the criteria we talked about earlier (violence exposure, substance abuse, etc).  There is no data about how the drastically increased media use affects children in less tangible ways.  Does being raised in front of a screen affect how a child interacts with other people?  How are relationships being affected?  What about creativity, focus, and attention span?  What about empathy and compassion?

Overall, I think the pediatrician’s recommendations are very helpful to parents, but much more research needs to be done.   In the mean time, we all need to be vigilant about the world of media in which modern children are being raised.


A New Zeitgeist

“You affect the world by what you browse.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee

I don’t quite remember the first time I used the internet to search for something. Odds are it was sometime in middle school, when I was loaned my older brother’s AOL desktop computer over a summer. It ran on dial-up but allowed me to Instant Message, which is really all that I cared about at that time. However, I had no idea how significant that simple act would be in the shaping of my world. I, like many of you, grew up during the boom of the internet.

Contrary to popular belief, Al Gore isn’t the man credited with creating the internet. The man from the quote above is. Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the man responsible for the invisible machine we call The Internet. Whilst researching for a post to write I came across this quote. Almost as instantly as a Google search, the light bulb for this post lit up. What about a brief look at this quote by the man we should at once praise and curse?


I, again like most of you, get a majority of my information from the internet. I am a product of my generation. During high school, college, and beyond I use the internet to gain access to this unlimited information, and completely waste my time in the form of social media, cat videos, and other nonsense. One thing I have managed to learn through my limited experience is that all of my actions have intended and unintended outcomes. The same is true for anything online. The Google searches (No, I don’t know anyone who uses Bing), time spent surfing, and items shared on Facebook are all tracked by multiple entities. Whether it be government, corporation, employer, like it or not our time spent online is tracked and used for various means. For example, search for car dealerships in your area, see car ads on your Facebook.

So where does the quote come into play? It is a simple question of basic supply and demand. As demand for a certain type of product increases, the supply will increase with it. The entities that monitor internet usage take advantage of the information stored to guide their business practices. Take for example, Grumpy Cat. The popular and hilarious captioned photographs have been transformed from a meme into a recognizable brand. You can now buy grumpy cat merchandise, drink Grumpy Cat coffee drink (Grumppuccino), and soon see the Grumpy Cat movie.

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 9.28.59 PM

Secondly, take a look at google’s Zeitgeist, their annual list of what was most popular and trendy from the previous year. The word Zeitgeist literally means “spirit of the age or time” in German. The trends on this list are a typical conglomeration of pop culture and events from the year. In typical fashion, it mostly lists things that are, in my opinion, insignificant. Just look at the screenshot of the most searched people throughout the year. It is clear that a large amount of the internet users’ priorities do not lie in pursuit of knowledge, truth, or self-improvement. Through the Zeitgeist, Google has provided businesses around the world easy access to what the world currently demands. All that remains is for businesses to begin supplying us  more information about Miley Cyrus and friends, which is exactly what we asked for this year.

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 9.05.42 PM

I know, I know…here we go again. Another rant about how pop culture is ruining everything and blah blah blah. Thankfully, No. I don’t think pop culture is evil. I’m not going to tell you to abandon all of your TMZ searches or insomniac meme browsing. The goal of this blog is to engage people in a critical analysis of their use of technology. This means taking a close look at how we utilize this amazing tool that we have at our disposal. If you find that you can better balance your internet time between informative texts and videos as well as grumpy cat, great. If not, it’s not the end of the world (hopefully). I do however wholeheartedly agree with the words of Berners- Lee. We as consumers affect the world more than we realize.

Thankfully, I think people are realizing this. NPR reported recently that there was an increase in educational Youtube videos from summer 2012 to summer 2013. Hopefully people are already jumping on the trend of using the internet to better ourselves mentally a little bit more. As for myself, I am making it one of my goals to engage with information online at least once or twice a day.  Websites such as Youtube, Wikipedia, and iTunes podcasts are great places to start. For those few who go above and beyond, you can now take open source college classes via podcast, including a list of texts that go along with the course. Currently I am in the process of going through a 24 episode podcast on the history of Ancient Greece from Yale University. Perhaps we can influence those around us to do the same and get this trending.



A State of Distraction: Camera Phones and Experiencing the Present

So far, the State of Distraction series has looked at how technology distracts us from self-reflection and from engaging in the reality of life. This post focuses on how the prevalence of camera phones affects our personal and cultural experiences of the present moment.

Last fall I saw Mumford and Sons perform an outdoor concert, and it was an incredible show.  The band had high energy, great onstage chemistry, and for the most part the crowd was really into it.   However, I was constantly surrounded by people texting and taking pictures or videos.  Instead of dancing or singing, the crowd around us preoccupied themselves with attempting to document and share this moment.


Is this harmful, or harmless?  Am I bringing up a legitimate concern, or am I just old fashioned and out of touch?  Either way, it can’t be ignored that the presence of camera phones is changing how we experience the present moment, and I would like to argue that it profoundly affects us on a personal and cultural level.

First, let’s look at this issue from a cultural or social perspective.  I’m almost certain that any person who has attended a concert can relate to the above scenario.  The immediate reaction is to just say who cares?–ignore the people on their phones and have a good time!  I did exactly that at the Mumford concert; I wasn’t about to let an iPhone ruin the show for me.  On a personal level, I experienced my favorite band to the fullest extent.

While we can look past them personally, camera phones do detract from the cultural (or communal) experience of an event.  Picture a concert, college football game, wedding, or any social event you want.  If your image is accurate, it will include many (if not most) people texting or taking pictures of the event.  Now imagine the same event, but this time no one has a phone or camera.  Everyone is fully present and engaged: the whole crowd dancing madly at the concert, connecting with family at the wedding, cheering like a painted-up crazed college kid at the football game.  A much richer, meaningful cultural experience is created when people engage completely in the present moment.

A similar effect occurs on the personal level, and this is beautifully demonstrated in a scene from the Ben Stiller movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  (As an aside, this is a great movie, and there will most likely be a whole post dedicated to it!).  In the scene, Walter (Ben Stiller) finds the eccentric photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) deep in the Himalayan mountains, where O’Connell has a perfect view of the elusive snow leopard in his sights.  What happens next is that he does not take the shot.  He explains to the much dismayed Walter that some moments are too valuable to try and capture; you must experience them fully in the present.

Scene from movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'

Taking the picture would have distracted O’Connell from an incredible moment.  Instead of  appreciating the leopard’s beauty and being grateful for having seen it, he would be focused on the future–on capturing an image to prove to others what he saw.  I think Stiller uses this scene to show how our desire to capture every important moment lessens the extent to which we experience these great moments.

I think many people here will object to my claim.  You may say that it’s harmless to snap a quick photo, and it makes up for any distraction by creating a valuable picture to help remember something.  I agree that sometimes there is zero harm in taking a picture.  But I would like to make a distinction between taking a photo now and then, and trying to document every event in your life.  It seems that through Facebook albums, Instagram, and Twitter, our society as a whole is trending towards the latter, and this is dangerous.

Each time we try to document every party, game, dinner, hike, or anything we do, we take ourselves out of the moment.  Instead of being present, we are thinking about the future: about how we can post the picture, who will see it, who will like it.  We can have a much richer and more satisfying experience by not focusing on preserving each moment for the future, but by being fully there in the present.

My challenge to each of us (including myself) is the next time you want to take a picture of something, don’t.  Instead, focus on the time you are in, the people there, the beautiful things you see; be grateful for all that is around you.  I think by making an intentional effort to try this, we can make life a richer experience for ourselves and others.


Jack Kerouac on Television


“…You’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels….Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye.  But neither was Japhy…his thoughts the only thoughts not electrified to the Master Switch.”

Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums

Keep in mind that this excerpt comes from a book published in 1958.  Is it accurate?  Excessively biting? Unnecessary?

Either way, it makes you reflect about the state of our culture, even over half a century ago.


A State of Distraction: Getting Back to Reality

In the previous post on State of Distraction, we looked at how cell phones distract us from self-reflection.  In this post, we examine how technology distracts us from fully engaging in reality, and how this affects our quality of life.  

 Giussani writes in Religious Sense about what makes our elementary human experience.  He argues that at the core of our humanity, the core of ourselves, lies a hunger for answering the ultimate questions.  Who are we?  What is our purpose?  What is the meaning of life?  These questions burn inside us, and to live a fulfilled life, we must devote ourselves to answering them.  Living fully requires that we are engaged with all aspects of our life–engaged in all aspects of reality.  “This includes everything–love, study, politics, money, even food and rest, excluding nothing, neither friendship, nor hope, nor pardon, nor anger, nor patience.  Within every single gesture lies a step towards our own destiny.”

To sum up the previous paragraph, in order to live a full life, we must be completely engaged with the reality of life.  In more modern language, we must be fully present in everything we do.   It’s easy to lose sight of this in 21st-century life.  For one, most of us live very busy lifestyles, constantly running from one activity to another.  However, I think we can still live rich, fulfilled lives while being busy.  A more eminent problem facing us is how we have become distracted from reality.  I would like to argue that the increasing presence and vividness of technology is causing us to lose sight of reality, leading to disengaged and unsatisfying lives.

This may seem a bit extreme at first, but let’s look at some specific examples.  Compare the video games of the 1980’s with those of today.  Ms. Pac-Man and Galaga were (and still are, in my opinion) a blast, but they consist of moving a pixilated figure around a 2-dimensional, black screen.  In modern games you navigate entire worlds, playing the part of well developed characters in vivid, often violent scenarios.  Television has progressed from a few black and white channels to thousands of channels in HD, containing movies and shows of any genre possible.  Entire seasons of new shows are being released on Netflix and Hulu, enabling the habit of binging on shows for hours at a time.  (Who doesn’t love a 3-hour marathon of 30 rock!)  Lastly, phones and tablets allow complete connectedness to the internet at all times.

You may wonder why this matters, what’s inherently wrong with these things? I’m not going to say that the progression of video games and television are evil.  But think about this; how long could you spend playing pong or Pac-Man, or watching shows on a 15-inch, box TV with basic cable channels?  I can’t picture myself being entertained by these things for very long. We would enjoy them for a while, then get bored and do something else–talk to family, read a book, take a walk outside, make some tea and think about things.  In other words, we would get back to living in reality.


The problem with entertainment technology today is that it has become so vivid and real that we don’t get bored.   We don’t realize that we’ve been staring at a screen, watching fake characters or moving a joystick for hours.  The distractions are so powerful and convenient that we choose to be spectators of an artificial reality instead of engaging in our own.  This causes us to lead only a partial life, one that leaves us feeling empty and longing, instead of fulfilled and satisfied.  I like to come back to how I feel after a marathon Call of Duty session.  My eyes are blurry, reality is a haze, and having a conversation is difficult.  Not to mention the underlying anger at having wasted hours of my life.

How does one get past this in the 21st century?  The answer is simple, yet putting it into practice will be the greatest challenge.  We need to start being present and living all aspects of our lives with sincere interest, as Giussani said in the opening quote.  It won’t be easy. But if we do this, we may rediscover humanity in the midst of our technological age.