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Canadians find it hard to unplug but is it necessary to ‘go off the grid?’

Global News with Ada Barlatt 14 July 2019

With our smartphones almost perpetually in hand or pocket, the concept of “going off the grid” seems like exactly that — a concept.

Canadians are increasingly connected and, according to a new survey, more people are finding it harder to log off.

The Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) found that more than 85 per cent of Canadians had not spent more than a week offline in the last year. The study polled more than 2,000 Canadians in March and looked at the vast number of ways people are accessing and behaving online.

Among the findings, 20 per cent of participants admitted they had not disconnected for eight consecutive hours.

“The internet is a central part to virtually everything we do,” Spencer Callaghan with the CIRA told Global News. “It doesn’t really matter what walk of life or where you’re from, it’s going to impact what you do and how you do it.”

But is that really so bad?

Part of the study looked at ways Canadians are using the internet to improve their lives, from finding a job (22 per cent) or a spouse (10 per cent) to buying homes (16 per cent) and finishing degrees (nine per cent).

It also illustrated the economic impacts of connectivity, with 64 per cent of respondents saying they prefer making online purchases from Canadian retailers.

Plus, more Canadians are joining the handheld side of the World Wide Web. Fifty-seven per cent of baby boomers say they are accessing the internet with a mobile device in 2019, compared to 44 per cent in 2017.

Staying connected

Unplugging completely isn’t essential or all that bad, according to Ada Barlatt, a professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo.

“The national parks in the U.S. have Wi-Fi now,” Barlatt said with a laugh.

“Canadians are taking advantage of all the amazingness that is the internet — being able to access information 24/7, to be able to have the speed and convenience to go to the bank not during banking hours, to go to school after you’ve come home, I think that’s great.”

Barlatt, who founded a digital consulting company aimed at striking a work-life balance with technology, said those who stay dialed-in may not be doing it to themselves — at least not completely.

“People are spending a lot of time on the internet not because they want to, but because there are some unspoken — and sometimes spoken, depending on the workplace — pressures to stay connected,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary (to unplug). What I do think is necessary is for us all to take a look at how we’re using the internet and how it’s serving us.”

There is a range of ways Canadian spend time online, according to the CIRA study, with most spending at least three to four hours daily doing everything from shopping to social media.

The most common activity was emailing, which 90 per cent of Canadians do. Banking was second at 71 per cent.

The tendency to stay constantly connected to the workplace is where the positive side to the internet dwindles, Barlatt said.

“If you’re turning on your phone and you’re not disconnecting on vacation, not because you’re so engaged with your work that you want to keep going, but because you’re scared of some sort of negative consequence, then that is really a problem,” she said.

“With the organizations I’ve worked with, there are a lot of people saying, ‘I’m concerned, I’d love to have some time away from my phone or my device on a weekend, but I don’t feel comfortable and I’m not sure what that would mean.’”

Managing time online

The growing number of Canadians not going off the grid doesn’t surprise Hayley Hamilton, a senior scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who has studied the psychological impact of social media.

It’s getting harder to do things offline, Hamilton said, but why we’re online is circumstantial and can be concerning.

“It’s about self-regulating your use,” she told Global News.

“It’s about being aware of how we feel before we use it, while we’re using it, and after we use it.”

A separate study on digital trends, by Simplii Financial, took a closer look at how Canadians felt about their online activity. The report surveyed more than 3,000 Canadians in May and found that 36 per cent agree that technology can “leave them feeling empty” and 37 per cent felt “anxious when separated” from their smartphones.

Those numbers were highest among millennials, at 43 and 47 per cent, respectively.

Hamilton pointed to the growing number of studies linking health issues, like depression and anxiety, with social media and internet use and said internet addiction is still a worry.

While unplugging isn’t mandatory, she said users should stay cognizant.

“It’s about what you’re doing online and how it’s impacting you and your relationships and your work and others around you.”

Two extremes

But there’s also a flipside.

In contrast to those who stay plugged-in, 51 per cent of Canadians said they could survive without the internet altogether.

Hamilton hinted that there could be a negative side to that kind of attitude, too.

“Those who are not online, there might be other circumstances why they’re not, and that might not necessarily be the best of circumstances either,” she said. “There’s zero engagement versus those who always engage, and those are two extremes.”

Hamilton says both extremes require some guidelines — something Barlatt agrees with.

“An analogy I like to use is a hammer. A hammer can make a beautiful home or it can cause a lot of damage, depending on how you use it,” she said.

“If you look at the internet as a tool — are we building beautiful houses or are we banging our fingers? That’s the part I think that is necessary (to reflect on) individually. How am I using these tools and am I happy with how I’m using them?”