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Pulling the plug, briefly, on an overwhelming Web

BALTIMORE - As websites buzzed with the news of Osama bin Laden's death, Gin Ferrara restricted herself to work-related Web browsing only.

BALTIMORE - As websites buzzed with the news of Osama bin Laden's death, Gin Ferrara restricted herself to work-related Web browsing only.

Not that the Baltimore resident wasn't curious about the startling commando raid in Pakistan. But the news broke during one of her periodic weeklong breaks from media, during which she limits her use of the Internet at work and cuts herself off completely in her downtime.

"All the news about bin Laden's death is not going to settle down in a week," reasoned Ferrara, 38, who works at NewsTrust, a California-based nonprofit funded by several foundations that is running an experimental news criticism website in Baltimore. "It's important to be aware, but I think sometimes we can get overwhelmed with information."

Staying true to her monthly media breaks, which Ferrara undertakes with her husband, David Pepper, is not easy since she has a job in the news media. She is part of a disparate online community of people who are trying to impose discipline on their daily diet of Internet and media consumption.

In many ways, researchers and participants in such breaks say they are a direct response to the fast-paced, connected world brought on by the proliferation of smartphones, mobile applications and social networking websites. Ferrara calls them "media fasts." Others who take similar scheduled breaks call them digital sabbaths or Internet sabbaticals.

Consciously avoiding using the Web may seem impossible to many in this era of information overload. Researchers on the issue say addiction to information may be similar in some ways to the effect that certain drugs have on the human brain - and some people may need to take disciplined breaks from their gadgets.

For years, BlackBerry smartphones have been nicknamed "CrackBerry" for their addictive qualities.

A recent survey by consulting firm Deloitte found that roughly three-quarters of American consumers are now multitasking with a computer or cell phone while watching television. Ferrara and her husband gave up their television years ago.

"We just sort of realized that we had this routine at night that we had dinner together, watched media and didn't talk," said Ferrara, who has been taking media fasts with her husband for several years. During the fasts, they find themselves catching up more with each other, and with friends and family.

"The real important stuff is about being together and being in the here and now," Ferrara said.

For years, different researchers have been studying the effects of information, or cognitive, overload. Studies have shown that people who constantly juggle different information streams are paying a high mental price for their multitasking, such as being distracted by irrelevant information or losing concentration altogether.

A Stanford University study two years ago found that the busiest multitaskers did worse filtering irrelevant information and switching between tasks than less-busy multitaskers.

Steven Yantis, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, said scientists do not know whether a huge uptick in the number of digital information sources is causing evolutionary changes in our brains.

But, he says, addiction to information and multitasking may, in some ways, be similar to the mechanisms - such as instant gratification - at work in drug addiction.

But people can take steps to reduce the negative effects they feel from being distracted by digital overload, Yantis said.

"There's a growing appreciation that certain kinds of activities, like meditation and exercise, are increasingly seen as being important ways of promoting attention," he said.

Just as some are trying to tune out, being constantly plugged in is something employers are demanding even more. Companies are increasingly doling out smartphones, laptops and tablet computers to their employees, and encouraging workers to be connected to the Internet - and work - at all hours of the day.

Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex Inc., a New York-based firm that studies information overload for businesses, estimates that the problem cost the U.S. economy $997 billion last year in terms of lost productivity.

Spira, who is coming out with a book on the topic, titled Overload!, said he thinks people need to develop better habits of moderation.

"We've done a lot to make information more portable and making it more convenient," Spira said. "But we've lost sight of the need to allow time for thought and reflection, because thinking is a big part of how we do our jobs."

The idea of taking periodic breaks from the Internet has been around in various forms for most of the last decade. Smartphones and online social media, however, have brought the power of the Internet and hyper-connected networks into people's palms in the last few years.

Bloggers and "knowledge workers" - those who work mostly with computers, information and data - are, unironically, blogging about taking periodic vacations from the Internet on blogs including "Rowdy Kittens" and "Zen Habits." In most cases, people who take such breaks recognize that their online and digital habits are somehow off-kilter and that they need periodic breaks.

William Powers, author of Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, advocates unplugging from the Internet every weekend to maintain a personal balance between work, play and family.

"I think it's an amazingly huge step we've taken into the smartphone age without even thinking about the implications," he said. "It's a whole new way of life, and we need to be more thoughtful about it."

Whether these fasts, sabbaths and sabbaticals are ultimately healthy and beneficial, however, is still an open question for researchers. Yantis said that not much research has been done on people who take regular breaks from heavy use of information technology, though there has been some research done on the positive effects of spending time in natural environments, as opposed to virtual ones.

To be sure, not everybody can - or wants to - go cold turkey from the Internet or their gadgets for an extended amount of time. Jillian York, 28, director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, took a weeklong Internet sabbatical in December, after announcing it on her blog.

York said she felt relaxed during the first three days of her break. But then she started getting antsy about all the things she was missing and her overflowing e-mail inbox. Now, she says, she'll still take breaks from the Internet, but they'll be much shorter.

"I started to feel anxious," York said. "Even when I do want to unplug, sometimes coming back a week later is harder than if you just kept up with email."

In many ways, college students can offer insights into the developing habits with technology, as they move into adulthood and the workforce.

In September, Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania performed an experiment in which all social media on campus were banned for a week. Some students felt enlightened, while others were angry and disgruntled.

Jonathan Kandell, a psychologist at the University of Maryland-College Park's student counseling center, says he advises students to strive for balance in their daily lives, but recognizes that computers are part of their daily lives in college.

"People need to feel like they're not missing out on something, to always be connected," he said. "Everybody feels like they want to be part of something. And I think [heavy use] comes from a deep-seated feeling of loneliness and disconnection."

For Ferrara, she recognized that her love of media was making her spend too much time with it. Hence the monthly breaks with her husband. She recognized her potential for addiction to media and the Internet years ago, and decided to institute the media fasts.

"I need a little extra help," Ferrara said. "Some people might not need this and can turn it off. I'm fascinated by information - I love technology. I want to read the good stories. It can be addictive."