We have all had the same experience. We sit down at our laptop to quickly check a fact, look for an address or find a sale item, and the next thing we know 45 minutes or more has elapsed. What initially seemed like momentary activity becomes a time-consuming trip into the digital realm. Most of us can get easily pulled in to the virtual world and quickly lose track of the passage of time.

The draw of the digital world is profound. Its very nature is inherently reinforcing: it is an always available, it is constantly novel and it is exciting. The digital highway is full of avenues for socializing, can expose us to endless learning opportunities and can help us find answers to the most obscure questions. The virtual world has also proven to be very effective for self-support; allowing individuals with like interests, problems or goals to connect.

We use digital devices to keep us company when we are alone, prevent us from being bored and soothe us when we are anxious. The use of these devices has grown significantly over the past several years. Currently, adults spend an average of almost nine hours daily in front of a screen (TV, cell phone, laptop or computer) and much of this time is spent multitasking with two or more devices. Children also consume a lot of digital media. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that on average, children between 8 and 18 years old spend 7½ hours daily in front of a screen.

The strong pull of the virtual world can be seen in the response of individuals who are asked to part with their digital devices. A Common Sense Media study that found that 53 percent of adults feel “upset” when denied access to a digital device and 43 percent feel “lonely” when they are not able to go online. A study of 1,000 college students in 10 countries found that the great majority of participants could not go 24 hours without consuming digital media. The lead researchers at the University of Maryland reported that many of the subjects reported experiencing depression, loneliness and anger as well as symptoms similar to withdrawal from drugs, such as tremors and heart palpitations.

In its extreme form, digital use can mirror an addiction. Individuals will prefer time in the digital world to time in the real world, will lie about their digital usage and will avoid situations in which their digital use may be limited. Time in the digital world can also lead to feelings of depression and loneliness. In a phenomenon termed “Facebook Depression,” some teens report feeling down and isolated after viewing pictures and posts of their friends seemingly happy and perfect. Digital overuse can have a significant impact on an individual and a family.

While it is clear that the virtual world has many advantages, it also can be hard to break away from. Optimal balance between the real and virtual world may be hard to achieve. However, an overall sense of striving toward a healthy marriage of the two worlds is important. Here are some tips to achieve this balance:

» Focus on being entirely present in the here and now of the real world during allotted periods of the day. Place your digital devices out of reach and turn the ringer off during these periods of time.

» Entertain yourself without a digital device. Don’t use your cell phone when you are waiting for an appointment, arrive somewhere early, or go on a daily walk.

» Establish a digital-free buffer zone prior to bed for 45 minutes to an hour. Develop a nondigital relaxing routine.

» Remove digital devices from the bedroom at night. The light of the devices can interfere with sleep and their content can be stimulating.

» Charge all devices when not in use in a centralized charging station in the house. You may be less likely to mindlessly use a device if it is not within reach.

» Ban digital devices from meals. You will be more mindful of what you eat and this time is a golden family bonding time.

» Consider establishing a digital-free family night. Plan fun ways to connect nondigitally.

» Become aware of how much time you actually spend in the digital world. Set a timer for 20 minutes when you are using a device and keep a tally of how many times you need to re-set the timer.

» If you want to decrease your digital usage, set a gradual reduction goal and post a paper with your goal near the devices. The visible reminder of your goal can be helpful.

» Remember that as a parent you should strive to be a good role model for your children of how you try to balance the two worlds.

» Ask others what they honestly think about your digital usage. If others think you need help managing your digital life, or you can’t achieve a good balance between the real and virtual world, seek help.

— Winifred Lender Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Santa Barbara and can be contacted at drwinifredlender@gmail.com. She provides cognitive-behavioral therapy for sleep regulation issues, anxiety and depression, and completed her undergraduate work at Cornell University and received her master’s and doctorate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She completed a fellowship at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia/The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and is a past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.