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Do our computers, gadgets and online activities necessarily cause stress—or is the internet a place where we can find ways to relieve our stress?

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That’s the question I found myself asking as I read Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg, a new book that is designed to help parents cultivate their kids’ capacity for self-regulation as a path to improved behaviour, learning capacity, and happiness. But Shanker’s book is just as useful as a guide to how adults can build their own self-regulation capacity—by which Shanker means not self-control (in the sense of mastering one’s impulses), but a fundamental inner state of calm and balance.

It’s a state that often eludes us when we get online. Whether it’s the chime of an arriving email or the sight on someone else’s vacation photos on Facebook, there’s no shortage of ways in which our increasingly technologize lives can make us anxious, insecure, or emotionally fragile. Even those of us who have some capacity to regulate our emotions when we are offline often find that capacity chipped away by the speed, intensity and sheer volume of stimulation that comes at us when we pick up a device or log into a given website. No wonder so many people seek solace by silencing their phones, going on “digital fasts,” or taking remote vacations in which the lack of connectivity is seen as a benefit, not a drawback.

But what do we do when duty calls and we need to reconnect to the Internet and all its stressors? That’s when we need to draw on what we know about self-regulation offline, and apply it to the challenges of regulating our emotions when we go online.

In their useful overview of cognitive-behaviour intervention for students with emotional and behavioural disorders, Mayer et al. quote the definition of self-regulation provided by Karoly (1993): “Self-regulation refers to those processes, internal and/or transactional, that enable an individual to guide his/her goal-directed activities over time and across changing circumstances (contexts).” They note that there are three pieces to this capacity:

  • “Self-monitoring refers to purposeful efforts at observing, identifying, and attending to one’s own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, or behaviours.”
  • “Self-evaluation…self-evaluates his/her behavior relative to the standard(s) in place.”
  • “Self-reinforcement involves the self-delivery of some desirable outcome contingent upon the completion of a successful action.”

Each of these components of self-regulation are processes we can pursue online. Indeed, it is only by adapting these processes to our online lives that we can develop a less pathological relationship to technology, and start to feel replenished by our time online instead of (or in addition to) being stressed by it.

What would that look like? In the case of self-monitoring, it begins with actually looking at how we respond to different kinds of online activities—not just intellectually, but emotionally and even physically. What do you feel when you look at your phone—anticipation, dread or both? If you’re one of the many people who gets shoulder or neck pain when you’re on your computer, do you notice that it’s worse after some activities (like online shopping) than after others? Are there particular online activities that leave you feeling inspired and energized, and which you could make more room for when you sit down at your computer? Stepping back to look at these reactions is the first step to acknowledging your reactions to online life instead of simply experiencing or repressing them.

Self-evaluation is the next step: evaluating your own behavior online, and seeing how you feel about the way you spend time online, and the impact it has on your life, growth, and happiness. All too often, our devices and tools prompt us to evaluate ourselves in ways that may actually be counter-productive to self-regulation: it’s easy to get neurotic when you’re getting daily updates on how many Twitter followers you have, or where you’re at on the scoreboard for an online game, or how many people favorited your latest Instagram snap. It’s far more useful to evaluate whether your online behaviors are leading to the kinds of experiences and relationships you care about: what kinds of activities make you feel like you’ve contributed or learn something, and what leave you feeling a little embarrassed or icky? Using online tools like RescueTime, which tracks what you’re doing over the course of a day online, or using a mood tracker app to log your daily ups and downs, may help you recognize the relationship between what you do online and how you feel.

Self-evaluation is also about evaluating the beliefs that underlie your online behaviors. When you say that you “have to” go online despite those physical or emotional reactions, what is that belief based on—that you “have to” check your email at 11 pm in order to keep your job? When you get fixated on posting a certain number of social media updates, or responding to text messages within a certain length of team, or replying to everyone who mentions you online, is that based on any underlying ideas about what is socially expected—and are those ideas accurate? Re-evaluating these assumptions can may help you see your online activities in a new light, and may free you up to make different choices about how and when you use different networks or devices.

Last but not least, self-reinforcement is a key component in addressing any insights you have as a result of self-monitoring and self-evaluation. If your reflection process has helped you to recognize which kinds of online activities leave you feeling restored, and which leave you feeling drained, you may wish to change how you spend your time online — but it can be hard to break habits like compulsive email checking, game-playing, or porn-watching. When you want to change some aspect of your technology usage, write down your goal, and think of how you will reward yourself for achieving or working towards it. Perhaps you can allow yourself a leisurely hour with a book once you’ve stopped “wasting time” on a web activity you’ve vowed to give up; maybe you’ll buy yourself a new computer once you’ve written a blog post every day for three months. Rewarding yourself will help turn a new online intention into a long-term habit, and a different relationship to technology.

By practicing self-monitoring, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement, we can consciously change the role of technology in our lives, so that we have the opportunity to experience the same kind of calm and satisfaction online that we seek in offline meditation or retreat. Yes, there will still be moments when we panic at seeing 40 unread emails in our inbox, or feel a twinge of regret when we see a bunch of friends posting about a party to which we weren’t invited. But by borrowing what we know about self-regulation in the offline world, we can embrace the tools and practices that support self-regulation through technology, rather than in spite of it.


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Behavioral Disorders , Vol. 30, No. 3, Special Issue: Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions (May 2005), pp. 197-212
Council for Exceptional Children