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Peter Griffin: Obsessively absorbed in a digital world

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Peter Griffin, scores 75 on the 'virtual weight index' devised by Daniel Sieberg. Photo / Hagen Hopkins
Peter Griffin, scores 75 on the 'virtual weight index' devised by Daniel Sieberg. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

What is your Virtual Weight Index? How burdened are you by gadgets, emails, social networks and phone calls? New Zealand's most connected man, Peter Griffin, attempts to go offline for 24 hours. The phone, the BlackBerry, email, Facebook, Twitter - all switched off. How does he cope?

Of all the weeks to try to go cold turkey on technology, it has to be this one. I'm moving house, a logistical nightmare that involves liaising with furniture movers, utility companies and letting agents, most of whom want to do business via phone or email.

I run a busy science blog network and a couple of websites, so the digital stream to my inbox is constant. To top things off, this week the biggest technology fair in the world takes place in Las Vegas, so I should be glued to my news feeds to see what gadgets the consumer electronics industry is coming up with.

Going offline for 24 hours doesn't sound like much, but to someone like me, whose business and life are to a large extent conducted online, it's a big ask.

I've never been on a diet regime of any kind.

My virtual diet starts well enough. I unplug from the internet world at Tuesday midnight. For the first eight hours, I don't miss much. Waking on Wednesday, I reach for the phone to check messages that have piled up overnight. The BlackBerry is not in its usual place on the bedside table and it dawns on me that I face an entire day disconnected.

Moodily, I turn on the TV, but as I scan the satellite channels for news out of Vegas, I get an overwhelming urge to press the remote button that brings up Twitter and my TV's internet browser. It's too tempting, so I switch off.

I kick back and listen to music on the iPad, but it too is internet-enabled. The music sounds dull and lifeless as I try to calculate how many messages I've already missed. I consider going for a walk, but want to stay near my inactive gadgets - as though they don't have to be turned on to talk to me.

* * *

The fall comes just after lunch, a chicken sandwich that I pick at and leave half-eaten. I turn on the BlackBerry, just to see if there are voicemail messages waiting, nothing more. Then the pulsing red light indicating waiting messages catches my eye and I take a sneak peek at the screen. After all, there could be something requiring urgent attention.

Indeed there is, or so I tell myself: an incredibly important task that demands my immediate attention and which requires me to go online immediately. I open my laptop. As I'm online again, I may as well scan Twitter. In Vegas, LG is launching a 55-inch TV that is only 4mm thick!

A colleague pops up on Google Chat: "You call this 'off the grid'?"

I close the laptop guiltily. The experiment is over, a fail after only half a day.

Not since a couple of years ago, when my girlfriend Sue dragged me on a hike of the Queen Charlotte track, have I been offline this long. Even then, I'd managed to break cover when we hit the summit and pick up mobile coverage wafting across the Marlborough Sounds.

Sue barely raises an eyebrow when she learns of my failure to abstain: "It was never going to happen."

According to the formula devised by Daniel Sieberg, author of The Digital Diet, I have a "Virtual Weight Index" of 75. That means my digital consumption "could be totally life-altering". I feel a shiver of pride. I like being this connected. Granted, the sound of a phone ringing sends a chill down my spine, but I can happily receive and answer emails all day, surf the web, text, tweet and Facebook 'til the wee small hours, which is actually when I think best.

Some psychologists might suggest I have an internet addiction disorder (IAD), which is characterised as an inability to control internet use. This is fairly controversial territory: diagnosis of addicts of the digital kind has largely relied on psychological questionnaires - until now.

Last week, a small study released in the journal PLoS ONE and employing MRI scans of adolescents' brains revealed that internet addiction may be associated with abnormal white matter connections in the brain, which can cause behavioural impairments.

The study suggests IAD may share psychological and neural mechanisms with other impulse-control disorders and substance addiction.

"We are finally being told what clinicians suspected for some time," said Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, a psychiatrist and lecturer at Imperial College London, who says the research is groundbreaking. "White matter abnormalities in the orbito-frontal cortex and other truly significant brain areas are present not only in addictions where substances are involved, but also in behavioural ones such as internet addiction."

Such research is in its infancy, but some companies are already taking preventive measures so employees don't suffer the effects of over-immersion in the digital world.

Late last year, German carmaker Volkswagen said it would shut off corporate email after hours for some staff. The BlackBerry service would be blocked 30 minutes after the end of the working day and resume 30 minutes before the next started, but workers could still use the phone at any time.

Such restrictions will become more common, particularly in workplaces with strong unions.

Personally, I couldn't think of anything more oppressive, or just plain inconvenient. But, as Sue reminds me, the key to quitting is accepting that you might just have a problem.

- Peter Griffin

* * *

Three steps to kicking the high-tech habit

A friend told me recently that her 5-year-old son was suffering night terrors. One night, she went into his room to comfort him, patting his head and soothing with gentle words. In his sleep, her son said: "Mummy, Mummy, put your BlackBerry down. Put your BlackBerry down."

If that's not a wake-up call for all of us, then I don't know what is. Let's hit the virtual pause button for a minute and consider what our digital lives have become.

Many of us now spend our days with our head in the high-tech "clouds". We text and drive like it's a matter of life and death, which, I'm sorry to report, it is. And then there's that nagging voice telling us that despite our unprecedented connectedness, we sometimes feel more overwhelmed and, ironically, disconnected, than ever before.

While it's easy to blame technology for taking us away from the people and things we love, in truth we're often our own worst enemy. As a quick barometer of your digital life, ask yourself these questions: Do you sometimes feel the urge to pull out your phone while someone else is talking to you? Have you ever realised that you were texting or reading email while your child was telling you about her day and later couldn't remember her story? Have you ever felt that something hasn't really happened until you post it online? Do you feel anxious if you're offline for any length of time? Does a ringing phone trump everything else?

I'm guessing you grudgingly admitted a "yes" to at least one or two. I know, because I've been there. I've covered technology for several TV networks over the past decade, but in late 2009, while visiting family and friends, I realised I had lost touch with the people I cared about in real life.

I've spent the past couple of years trying to improve my relationships and make technology work for me, not the other way around. I've worked to create a four-step "digital diet". It's about illuminating our tech demands and dependence in the short term and instilling an over-arching awareness and strategy for the long term.

My digital diet begins with a brief detox. Spend a day or two without your technology. It's not meant to torture you, but to instill awareness of what you have been missing. Step two is to reboot and calculate your "Virtual Weight Index" - a formula that measures how weighed down you are by gadgets, emails, social networks and phone calls.

After that, you are ready to reconnect - but, I hope, with a new awareness about how you spend your day. Consider when it starts, and, just as importantly, when it ends. Those company devices have gone from being a nifty distraction to an invisible tether. Set boundaries for when people can expect to hear from you. Re-establish friendships. Make coffee dates instead of just "liking" a friend's photo online. Rediscover the art of conversation.

The diet is about seeing your technology in a whole new light. Loving it again, not wanting to put it in a blender. Going on a digital diet is also about reconnecting with people. It's not a "digital fast", it's about indulging in a healthy manner.

No one is forcing you to become so overloaded and overwhelmed. There is a way forward and the answers are literally in the palm of your hands.

- Daniel Sieberg

- Herald on Sunday

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