Tech a Break; Here’s Why You Need That Digital Detox

Experts ● May 2019

I have a confession to make. As part of writing this, I was going to do the 48-hour challenge. It doesn’t sound like much, just 48 hours away from technology – but I didn’t manage it.

I failed at the 11th hour (or, if you want to be literal about it, the 44th). Can you blame me? Most of us are in the grip of massive-scale technology dependence. The vast majority of UK adults spend 24 hours a week online. In the US, the average person checks their phone almost 50 times a day. A third of Brits admit to checking their phone in the middle of the night, or a whopping 50% – half! – if you’re just looking at 18- to 24-year-olds.

I failed at the 11th hour (or, if you want to be literal about it, the 44th).

We’re all used to hearing people say things like “I dread to think what all this scrolling is doing to my brain”, or “I swear I’m getting more stupid because of the internet”. Well, maybe we shouldn’t laugh it off. As shown in author Harriet Griffey’s book I Want to Concentrate, research at London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that being distracted by emails and phone calls could lead to a 10% fall in IQ.

So why do we keep coming back? We return to social media apps and games because they use addictive reward systems to keep us searching for another hit, again, and again, and again. As the tech writer Manoush Zomorodi put it, only drug dealers and tech companies refer to their customers as “users”.

And while it might seem like the best way to avoid these behavioural patterns is to go cold turkey, that’s tricky when the same computer that you play candy crush on is the one you use to arrange meetings with colleagues. It wasn’t because I really fancied beating my Angry Birds high score that I failed the 48 hour challenge. I had to turn my phone back on because I needed to contact a builder who was due to arrive while I was out and about, which is exactly the kind of admin that keeps me tethered to the digital beast. Our personal logistics, work and leisure time have all become tangled up together in the same machinery, so even a small digital detox requires a bit of planning (lesson: learned).

As the tech writer Manoush Zomorodi put it, only drug dealers and tech companies refer to their customers as “users”.

Even though it’s difficult, there are benefits to trying a digital detox. During the pesky 44 hours I managed, I felt less twitchy, read more (something 66% of us feel we’d do if we scrolled less), and slept better because I wasn’t tensing my neck and face muscles or tricking my brain with blue light. I even felt bored sometimes. It was great! Rather than drip-feeding my mind digital junk, I actually experienced proper emotional highs and lows.

I was actually engaging with the real world in front of me rather than my friend’s holiday in Australia and a recipe for that night’s dinner and a football match on telly and an Excel spreadsheet and a Twitter thread about Donald Trump. This kind of media-multitasking which has become so normalised is what the writer Linda Stone would call “continuous partial attention”, and it’s increasingly common in a world where 75% of the UK population uses a smartphone while watching TV (a number which increases to 93% for under 25s).

Avoiding this state can boost concentration and help us achieve what the psychologist Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has termed “flow”. Flow is a kind of pure concentration where your ego falls away, time seems to dissolve and you are wholly engaged in the activity in front of you. Think Bradley Cooper in Limitless but it’s you sat with a cup of Earl Grey doing your tax return.

What we can do about it?

We don’t have to take our laptop, phone, TV and home assistants down the dump to get a bit more flow in our lives. By simply taking a few manageable steps towards a more healthy relationship with technology, we can boost our concentration and feel more present in the world around us.

  • If you’re deleting social media accounts for a detox, don’t be shocked if there’s some backlash from your mates. As Michael Harris told VICE, “You have to be comfortable with a certain quality of rudeness if you’re going to remove yourself from group culture.”
  • Delete apps that sap your energy, and replace them with some that will add to your life, like meditation app Headspace or anti-procrastination app Stay On Task.
  • Don’t take your phone into the bedroom at night. Dr. Rangan Chatterjee recommends you don’t use your phone 90 minutes before bed. Storing it in another room overnight is a good way to ensure you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of a late-night Insta binge.
  • Buy a “dumb phone”. Some of them are quite stylish now, and not as “dumb” as they sound. Use them for things like, erm, contacting the builder when your smartphone is locked in a draw.
  • Reclaim the idea of a break. Don’t read an article or scroll the internet on your lunch break; take a walk and be alone with your thoughts instead.
  • Build in time where you are without your phone, like going swimming or for a jog. Let your mind wander with no particular goals or higher purpose. You might be surprised by what it comes up with.
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