Originally published in March 2011
Food is a necessity in life. But keep over-eating (irrespective of nutritional value), and you can become overweight and obese. Eat unhealthy, fatty foods, and you get high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and other nasty illnesses and diseases. The Internet can be compared to our relationship with food. It is a great tool that provides us innumerable benefits. But if we over-indulge or keep ingesting unwholesome pieces and quantities, it can ruin our physical, spiritual and mental health.
With the plethora of content in cyberspace, it’s difficult to maneuver without feeling overwhelmed and virtually claustrophobic. It’s a challenge to be selective in what to read, who to talk to, and what activities to engage in. It’s a struggle to even turn off our electronic gadgets that constantly beep, flash and vibrate with new e-mails, updates, and instant messages. Someone or some group always wants to show and tell us something—always wanting immediate attention. If we comply—all the time—we’ll be hooked for good, and always waiting for more.
The Internet will gladly consume our thoughts and time, if we let it. Our unhealthy online habits can detract from nourishing our real-life interactions, from excelling at work or in school, from reading beneficial books and publications, and from spending quality time with friends and family. We can develop a horizontal approach, broadening our exposure to numerous people and information while developing little to no depth in any of our relationships or knowledge of certain subjects. Our incessant perusal through other people’s pictures, videos, and blogs can make us aimless consumers, and distract us from leaving our own meaningful footprint in cyberspace. Worse, our online sins can develop into addictions that violate our moral code, eat away at our soul, translate into real-life sins, and sever our relationships with spouses and loved ones. If we find ourselves developing any of these problems, we might consider doing the following:
1. Unplug. Log-off. Disconnect. Give your eyes (and ears) a break. Go to a park, or watch a sunset. Enjoy the solitude. Listen to the chirping birds, rustling leaves, and the streaming rivers and creeks. Praise God for the beauty in His creation. Bond with your spouse, children or siblings. Talk about your hopes, dreams, fears and needs. Have a cup of coffee with real friends, and connect in person. Catch up on all the unread messages in the Qur’an. Reflect on their meanings, and on your purpose in life. Try making these daily or weekly habits. Be present with your heart, mind, body and soul.
2. Minimize. When you’re back online, think small. Take bite-size portions you can chew. Be selective. Choose quality over quantity. Read only some posts, watch only some videos. Maybe read an e-book instead. Remember to leave room for breathing space, and digestion. Try not to multi-task online. Don’t toggle between so many tabs and conversations, or jump from wall to wall, and post to post. Focus, process, reflect. Ponder on how you can apply new lessons in your life. Then take time away to implement.
3. Refine. Think of your activities online. Evaluate your surfing, speaking, and spamming. Is it useful, appropriate, and modest? Is it impulsive or superfluous? Choose your words wisely, cautiously, courteously. If they’re with the opposite gender, make them kind but modest. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Try expressing thoughts and feelings in words, rather than using emoticons. Use proper grammar. Take the time to infuse your communication with excellence. Don’t abbreviate, abridge, and shorten where length is valued. Don’t expose, reveal and elongate where concealment is needed. Before you share, post and forward, check if you’ve benefited and reflected.
Remember, from all the online struggles, addiction to viewing pornography can become a clinical problem. It is complicated by changes in brain chemistry, which are difficult to reverse. Don’t let it happen to you. If it already has, seek professional help to prevent further harm to you and your loved ones.
Finally, I’d like to share a passage from Elias Aboujaoude’s Virtually You: the Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality [p. 289 – 290]. It sums up the dangers and hopes for the new virtual phenomena quite eloquently:
Virtualism, as enabled especially by the Internet, is a major signpost in our journey through history. There can be no doubting that it has opened windows and brought opportunity—for social connection and outreach, for liberation from anxiety and doubt, for financial and personal success, and for self-realization and fulfillment. Similarly, there can be no doubt any longer the big experiment we are conducting with our psyches. To offer a psychological read of the virtual age is to offer a candid assessment of an encounter between humankind and a new type of machine—one that is not entirely inanimate; that can be alluring, deceptive, and addictive at the same time; and that can efficiently prey on our basic instincts and impulses, our need for amusement and information, and our never-ending search for longing, and self-betterment. Yet for all the problems and “for the worse” changes this machine might have introduced into our lives, we are not lesser for it; only much more complicated…I hope that we will someday be able to measure the World Wide Web’s legacy beyond gross domestic product indexes, efficiency gains, and the number of smiling emoticons flying through the ether. Only then can we honestly rejoice in the Internet’s many real bounties.