First Center for Digital Wellness battles technology addiction at Liberty University

By Erin Brookshier - Virginia Today Reporter

LYNCHBURG (WSLS10)-- It's the first thing many of us do when we wake up each morning-- look at our phone, checking our text messages, social media and emails. While that constant connection can make our lives easier, experts say it can also have a negative impact on our health, both physically and emotionally. It's a problem that Liberty University is working to address with the first on-campus Center for Digital Wellness in the United States.

The founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Wellness, Sylvia Hart Fregd, says overuse of technology can lead to obesity as well as neck and back pain. When people spend hours working on their computer or phone, their bodies are hunched over-- leading to shallow breaths that restrict oxygen. They can also gain weight, since they're not getting the exercise they need by getting up and walking around. That constant slumped over position can also have a serious impact on our spinal cords, leading to neck and back pain as well.

Frejd says overuse of social media can also have a negative impact on our emotional state.

"We see a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression that comes from the contrasting and comparing and competing that we see in social media," she explains. "Social media can be a wonderful tool to connect us with people we don't normally see, but it can also breed a lot of fear and a lot of envy."

She says that constant inflow of messages and notifications can lead to stress and anxiety, which is a big contributor to heart disease.

Many Americans are never more than a few steps away from their smartphones or tablets. A new study by Forbes Magazine finds that about 100 million people in the United States wake up in the middle of the night to check their phones. That's just one of more than 15o times a day the average American is checking their cell phone.

So how do you know when you've crossed the line from normal use to technology addiction?

Fregd says one of the biggest signs to watch for is blowing off friends and in-person hang outs to spend more time online or in front of your cell phone. When it comes to your kids, pay attention-- if they're spending less time doing the things they used to love so they can play video games or get on the computer instead, that could be a sign of addiction.

"Did they used to love to play the drums and now they don't want to anymore? They start dropping out of real life," says Fregd. "You can look at that in your own life. Are you spending more time scrolling through social media? Do you have more connections online than you do in real life?"

Fregd says one of the best ways to cut down on technology use is to "Check your Checking," which means being aware of how often you're looking at your phone or logging online. Making a conscious effort to take some unplugged time for yourself can relieve stress and help promote real-life relationships.

Those in-person relationships are what Fregd spends a lot of time talking about with students at Liberty University, who have a hard time interacting outside of technology. When they're not sending a text message, Snapchat or comment on Facebook-- many of these teens and young adults have a tough time keeping a real-life conversation going.

"A lot of this generation, they don't now how to-- how to start conversations, how to have eye contact and connect," she says. "They feel a lot safer being on their devices. A lot of what I do is talk about ways to help them and how they can start those conversations."

Fregd talks with the students about everything from how to interact with other students in their dorm buildings or classrooms, how to handle real life situations and even interviews. She explains students that have learned simple communication skills, like how to hold a conversation and make eye contact, are head and shoulders above their peers when it comes to job interviews. Experts say many of the students who are now graduating have never lived in a world where they have to make phone calls or hold conversations, as text messaging has always been their main form of communication.

Experts say scans show that smartphone use can actually reprogram and change our brains. Each text, vibration, ping and ding that comes into our phone acts as a shot of dopamine to our bodies-- giving us a constant series of highs and leaving us waiting for the next buzz to come in.

"There's a reason why we're so drawn to these devices. They've been created to be addictive," she says. "That's what I want people to know. You're not crazy for wanting to look at your phone, we've been conditioned to do that. That's why these devices are so addicting."

The Center for Digital Wellness realizes the best way to reach people who spend a majority of their time online is to speak their language. That's why the center uses social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, to spread its messages and provide tips for healthy use. Ten Steps to Digital Wellness:

1. It's not "I tweet, therefore I am." Think twice before you post, tweet, text, or upload it.

2. Watch your digital footprints, because they are permanent.

3. Unplug. Take a digital "fast" once a week or once a month.

4. Invest in relationships. Real people trump virtual ones.

5. Establish digital boundaries. Limit when you use digital devices and how much time you spend on them.

6. Find things you enjoy doing in real life and do them.

7. Get outside. Take walks, feel the sun, and breathe fresh air.

8. Power down and get some sleep. Your brain can't thrive without it.

9. Cultivate your "Godspace" Take time to be still and know that He is God. 10. Be a good steward. Use technology for God's glory.

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