When was the last time you picked up your smartphone? If you are anything like the average adult it will have been in the last couple of minutes, it may even have been in the last few seconds. Some estimates say we are clicking, scrolling and touching our smartphones over 2,600 times a day. This hyper-connectedness is a reflection of our 'always on' culture where the boundaries between the workplace and home, and work and leisure, are being progressively eroded – if indeed, they now exist at all.
Technology has brought us huge advantages in being able to connect seamlessly across continents and cultures, and to work remotely and flexibly, but increasingly it's also bringing with it the inability to switch off and refresh and restore our brains. We know more and more about the downsides of being permanently connected. Some of the things that concern me about how our quality of life suffers when we spend too much time on screens include:
We know that deep and restorative sleep is one of the casualties of too much time spent on the blue-light emitting screens of smartphones, tablets and laptops. However, whereas once we thought that this was the result of using a smartphone or tablet just before bedtime, we now know from a recent study of teenagers that using screens for more than four hours at any time during the day, means we are up to three times more likely to get a poor night's sleep.
Simply having a smartphone nearby has been shown to have a detrimental affect on attention. Merely noticing an on-screen alert, even if you don’t respond to it, takes your attention away from the task in hand and it takes several seconds to refocus. 'Multi-tasking' which used to be heralded as one of the benefits of screen juggling, has been proven not to exist and is in fact merely 'split attention' – where we split our focus between several activities, and end up doing none of them well.
Research has found a direct link between heavy smartphone use and increasing anxiety levels. There are a few hypotheses on why this is so, but one of them is that the more frequently you check your phone the more the dopamine (the brain chemical that anticipates and respond to rewards) levels in your brain rise. So you just keep checking your phone more and more to get the same 'hit'.
Several pieces of research have also shown that both adults and children who spend a lot of time on their smartphones – and particularly on social media – are more likely to suffer from depression. One study even showed that giving up Facebook specifically for just a week resulted in a significant increase in happiness in those who did so.
Dry eyes and eyestrain, from staring at a smartphone screen, and 'tech neck' that develops when you're hunched over your phone or tablet for long periods of time are just two of the physical issues that doctors are seeing more and more as our dependency on smartphones is growing.
The good news is that research shows that even small periods of time spent away from screens can improve all of the symptoms above. On the digital detox retreats that we run we see significant self-reported improvements in sleep, stress, focus and concentration and happiness after a period of time spent off screens. All of these improvements can be seen in relatively short periods of time too; sleep can be improved in as little as 12 hours off screens, improvements in mental health and stress after about 48 hours.
If spending an extended period of time away from screens is impractical for your lifestyle here are five suggestions on how you can build a bit of digital detox into your everyday life:
Designate places in your home or work where phones are banned to establish some boundaries around your screen use. Bathrooms and bedrooms are good examples of workable no-phone zones; the meal-table could be another.
Go out and leave your phone at home. Start with small excursions to a local shop or a restaurant, and then try a longer walk without putting your phone in your pocket. Build up to longer periods of time out and about phone-free.
Temporarily swap a screen-based activity for its analogue counterpart to eliminate reasons to use a smartphone. Try getting out a camera for the day instead of using your phone’s camera facility, or listening to a radio or even vinyl instead of streaming music. Find an old map instead of using GPS. Get creative and think about as many analogue activities as you can that you can substitute for smartphone functionality.
At Time To Log Off we promote a digital version of intermittent fasting as a practical way of cutting down on screen time. The 5:2 digital diet is simply five days being connected and two days being off grid. The easiest way to do this is to designate weekends as downtime – exactly what we used to do in fact before the invention of smartphones.
A digital detox isn't a communication detox. If you swap your smartphone for a dumphone like the MP01 you can still be connected via voice and text but without the temptations of Internet and email. We use them on our retreats and find we still get all the benefits of being off screens while remaining connected.
We all live with technology and we all enjoy the many benefits it brings. But if you've noticed any of the symptoms of screen overuse it may be time to rethink how your relationship with technology is working for you and consider how to inject a bit of digital detox to restore it to optimum health.
Tanya Goodin is an award-winning digital entrepreneur, a digital detox specialist and founder of Time To Log Off which offers advice and retreats for those looking to break the digital cycle.
Off. Your Digital Detox is published by Ilex, price £5.99. www.octopusbooks.co.uk