Modern technology gets a bad rap these days. There are plenty of critics of social media (“It’s a waste of time!”), television (“It rots your brain!”), and cell phones (“You’re missing out on real life!”). There is so much noise about the detrimental effects of technology, in fact, that it’s easy to come to the conclusion that technology is bad and has harmful effects on wellbeing. But is that actually true?
The answer is: it depends.
Harmonious or obsessive?
Technology itself isn’t a bad thing. But how we choose to engage with it can have a powerful effect on our wellbeing. According to psychologist Robert J. Vallerand, we engage with the activities in our life in one of two ways: harmoniously or obsessively. Harmonious passions don’t conflict with other parts of your life, can be done without any contingencies attached, and create positive outcomes—such as a sense of joy or freedom. Obsessive passions, on the other hand, override other priorities in life, creating stress and conflict, and are hard to let go of. People with an obsessive passion often rely on it to provide a sense of self-esteem or self-worth.
For example, playing a game on your phone before you meet up with friends can be a harmonious activity—gaming can bring about a sense of autonomy and competence that is satisfying and fun. But deciding to bail on your friends because you’re frustrated you haven’t won the game yet is a sign of obsessive passion.
Likewise, connecting with a good friend via text messaging can be harmonious. Being unable to sleep at night because you’re up sending messages in order to impress someone is not.
Obsessive use harms relationships
One reason it can be easy to slip into an obsessive relationship with technology is that our minds are naturally restless. And there are plenty of distractions in technology—pop-up windows, notifications, newsfeeds, and all the chirps and whistles of cell phones, tablets, computers, and FitBits. Getting swept away mindlessly in these distractions can create obsessive habits, like compulsively checking your email, that create stress in personal relationships.
A recent study found that those who had an obsessive passion for the internet also had more conflict and less satisfaction in their romantic relationships. Conversely, the harmonious internet users felt happier in their partnerships and experienced less conflict.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that using the internet will destroy your relationships. What it does mean is that the way you engage with technology is a good indicator of how you engage with other main areas of your life—and the more you pay attention to your own habits and choices, the better you’ll be able to understand how to experience greater joy and more wellbeing in life.
Tips for using technology harmoniously
Developing a harmonious relationship with technology means being intentional about how, why, and when you use your devices. Here are some tips that can help you develop a more harmonious relationship with technology.
- Avoid using your phone, computer, or television for 2-3 hours before bed. The blue light from screens can disrupt your sleeping patterns, leaving you tired, stressed, and irritable.
- Pocket your phone while driving, biking, or walking in public. Keep your body safe by staying fully present with your surroundings when you’re out and about.
- Watch less than 2 hours of television per day. An enjoyable Netflix session can relieve stress and cultivate positive emotions like humor, interest, and awe—but binge-watching undermines those benefits and can actually make you feel stressed out and unhappy.
- Use social media actively. People on Facebook are much happier if they use the site to connect with real-life friends and family (like messaging, commenting on photos, or posting birthday wishes). “Surveillance” users—those who simply lurk without posting—generally miss out on the positive benefits of social networking.
And finally, the most important tip: Know when to log out. If you notice any signs of obsessive passion when you use technology, such as an agitating urge to check your phone regularly, then it might be time for a digital detox. Sometimes leaving the technology behind and taking a walk in nature is exactly what you need.