Replacing Wi-Fi with human connectivity

Pinned to a tree somewhere in the middle of a nature trail outside Bard College in upstate New York is placard that reads, “As of 12/16/08 this area is free of Wi-Fi.” Although most likely a tongue-in-cheek statement about our unreasonable reliability on a strong signal in the most unlikely of places, our dependence on the internet is affecting our health and some businesses are taking notice.

Less than ten years ago, only 1.4 billion people used the internet worldwide. This number almost doubled in four years to 2.4 billion in 2012 and the number is increasing daily. Although research in the area is relatively new, the ever-expanding availability of Wi-Fi in our homes, cars, and even on our bodies, indicate that internet addiction is a severe problem, according to numerous studies.

Overindulging in the internet can cause a sedentary lifestyle and can increase illicit drug use and gambling. It may also increase the risk of cyberbullying, and has been linked to several notable deaths. The more we stare into our devices, the more likely we are to alienate ourselves, causing or increasing depression.

To make matters worse, the medical professionals to whom we turn for care are finding it harder to do their jobs because of the increase in internet-based self-diagnoses. It is estimated that more than one-third of Americans use the internet to self-diagnose before deciding whether to visit a doctor. Perhaps the first step is to recognize that the internet itself may be causing health problems while at the same time limiting our propensity to seek effective treatment.

The owners of HotBlack Coffee took notice of the atmosphere in their Toronto café one day, realizing that the low murmuring, laughter, and camaraderie that once defined the coffee shop scene was now replaced by people silently typing on their laptops or buying a single item and occupying a space for several hours.

HotBlack Coffee management took a stand by limiting Wi-Fi in its cafés and shortening the width of some tables to limit laptop space to encourage customers to converse with one another rather than maintaining a state of isolation with their phones or laptops.

It may be that HotBlack’s decision to increase sociable behavior in their clientele may benefit the coffee drinker’s health. Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports on the health benefits of strong relationships, noting that they provide necessary happiness, but “also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.”

The report continues: “Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer” and even those people who have unhealthy habits tend to live longer if they have strong social ties.

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