The mental health impact of the Internet

Nina Hersher holds Master of Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis with an individualized degree in Digital Culture and Program Development. She is the CEO of The Digital Wellness Institute.

Digital wellness helps to bring us back together. It helps to wake up, it’s really about creating the conditions for success, both in your own life, and with your communications, so that we can all flourish both online and offline.

I know that it’s been such a year of everyone being online more than ever before so I’m excited to be teaching you all just some tips on how we can be healthy tech versus anti-tech and really achieve wellness and happiness in this increasingly digital era of ours. This crash course is really your playbook on how to survive in the remote work era

I also want to give you all a little bit of context on me. 

I’ve actually been in speech therapy since I was about four years old and, growing up, I had a very hard time talking and I used eye contact to let people know that I was trying to connect with them. When I was trying to speak, I would notice that sometimes people didn’t even know I was speaking to them because they were texting and so I was seeing this shift having to do with presence and engagement. It really fascinated me and it formed a lot of my professional journey, which looks at the norms of connection and how our changing norms of connection are truly reconceptualizing how we develop as humans.

What are we all experiencing together? 

There are some amazing images from Erick Pickersgrill that show contemporary situations where technology has won everyones’ attention over human connection. And so maybe you all can kind of relate to some of these things when you intend to have quality time and we get kind of pulled away by these distractions and notifications in different ways. 

Some words that might come to mind for me are, of course distraction, in a phrase maybe “lack of presence”, but also people want to be physically near each other and that’s of course what we miss so much right now. 

As we’re at this inflection point in history it’s really time to see a change and the question is not about how we adjust to the new normal but it’s how we can make the present even better than before because, especially right now, no one’s looking to be ashamed about their screen time usage we’re looking to adapt we’re looking to flourish so we’re calling this “The Great Reset”.

What is digital wellness?

Very simply put, “digital wellness” is the optimum state of health and well-being that each individual using technology is capable of achieving. This concept of “digital flourishing” essentially says how can we enjoy everything that technology has to offer us and flourish online while avoiding some of the associated harms of being informed, like tech neck, avoiding some of that social comparison that we feel deeply on social media, so you can see how these things are connected even down to communication. Are they letting different people in their household know when they need that deep work time so that they’re not interrupted? We have an expression in which we say “Clear is kind”, we are telling people what we need so that we’re creating that environment for us to flourish.

How to integrate the Digital world? 

How can I embody these positive digital boundaries when the culture around me is demanding otherwise? There are two concrete tips I can give you right now. 

The first is this idea of a flexible routine. Something that we’ve heard from a lot of folks in terms of a presenting problem is: “Hey, I used to have this great routine and now I have kids at home doing school and it’s hard for me to get to the gym or to take that walk around the block”. Letting old norms go and updating in present time what we can do to practice self-care to support our own happiness so that we’re not filling from an empty cup. You can make a list of short breaks, medium breaks and long breaks. Having that list on hand allows for you to more easily take a break when you’re feeling overwhelmed.

You can know how to increase your connectedness with your co-workers by having, not only a flexible routine, but also by learning how to write a communication charter, this is the second tip. It’s a helpful exercise to say “What is your preferred method of communication? Because I’m on Instagram, Slack, Google Hangouts, Clubhouse”. It’s just so many different things, so what do I check to connect with my people? You can support your employees with intention setting around what time do you want to be off work and what are the extenuating circumstances when we make the exceptions.

Create a personal method

One of the biggest changes I’ve made in my life is to take half an hour in the morning and the evening to reclaim my peace of mind. I think sometimes we wake up and we’re tempted to check our phone immediately or we feel like “Oh, I’m awake. I have to start responding to emails”, but you can wake up and wait half an hour it’s up to you to make such a difference in terms of setting the tone for your day. 

Something that I don’t think has been talked about nearly enough is: when we go to sleep, we’re actually in a light state of hypnosis so anything we expose ourselves to, such as the news, is going to trickle in that much more, have an impact on our mood and potentially on our mental health. So leaving my phone helps with that collective accountability, it helps to bring us back together, it helps to wake up, to have that morning ritual carved out and to have your phone in a place where you don’t see it immediately so you’re not even tempted to reach for it. It’s really about creating the conditions for success both in your own life and with your communications so that we can all flourish both online and offline.

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