Remember when everybody was talking about digital detoxes and off-grid holidays, and those long ‘Screen-free Sundays’ that were just a reminder of how much we hated board games? That all feels like rather a distant memory. Suddenly, phones and laptops became essential, not only for communication and entertainment, but for work, social get-togethers, exercise – even educating our children and putting food on the table. Any attempt at monitoring screen time was soon abandoned, along with baking sourdough and knitting Fair Isle socks, and we are plugged into our devices more than ever.
So, what happens now? Do we have to accept and even embrace our technology-dependent reality, along with the aching thumbs from constant selecting and texting, or can we claw back some of our offline life and find a way to reclaim a sense of balance with our devices?
They might be ubiquitous, owned by 87 per cent of adults in the UK, but it’s worth remembering that smartphones didn’t exist 20 years ago. Technology has changed our lives beyond belief and, in many ways, improved it.
‘Day after day, we use technology to boost our capabilities on a massive scale. The boost it gives us, both intellectually and emotionally, is unrivalled,’ says digital wellbeing expert, researcher Dr Joanne Orlando, whose new book Life Mode On seeks to help people use technology more positively and productively. ‘However, when it’s not used well, technology can cause damage and exacerbate the pressures and insecurities of life.’
Teenagers get the worst press when it comes to phone use, but Orlando says it’s women who experience the most Problematic Mobile Phone Use (PMPU), and who feel most anxious about it. ‘The reason is part biology and the values and ideals that women hold as a more relationship-centred gender, and part society and the changes technology has brought into our world,’ she says. ‘Historically, women have held the mental load of family life, but technology has overwhelmed our sense of duty and the expectation to be available (by phone, message, social media and email) and take action (call, message, book, like, send and write) whenever others (children, partner, friend, family member, plumber or WhatsApp group) think it’s necessary, which could be any minute of the day!’
While the stress our phone causes us is real, it’s our reliance on it, rather than the phone itself, that is the problem. Think about it this way: The issue isn’t necessarily the crying baby, it’s that we pick up the baby every time it cries. This is partly conditioning caused by clever technology built into apps that keeps us engaged and doesn’t let our attention wander too far. Around half the time we pick up our phone, it’s in response to a beep, ping or message flashing up on the screen. Turning these off or even placing your phone face down or on silent will help you resist the constant nudges. But then there’s still the other 50 per cent of the time when you check your phone because of the little alert that’s sounding inside your head.
But what is it that keeps us going back for more – on average 60 times a day? Orlando says we are addicted to the instant gratification and momentary escapism that we experience, usually when scrolling through social media or news apps.
Who's the boss?
If you’re worried that you’re spending too much time online, a digital detox might seem like the right thing to do. And, while it may help in the short term, just like crash diets, you’ll do it for a few days, then slip back into old habits. ‘Unless you’re moving to a desert island with no wifi, eradicating technology is not a solution,’ says Orlando, who explains that we need to focus on how technology lives with us, rather than the other way around. ‘Using technology less isn’t desirable or sustainable,’ she says. ‘A better way is to consider which uses of technology cause us stress and which add value to life.’
Ring of truth
Most phones give you a report on your phone usage over the week. A good first step towards balance is to actually read it, and see how you really spend your time online. If it’s messaging and social media apps at the top of the list, you’re probably seeking emotional connection and gratification from your device.
‘Social media taps precisely into our need to connect with people and ideas, which can be a good thing and is why so many of us are drawn to it,’ says Orlando. ‘However, it also holds up a massive magnifying glass to our vulnerabilities – envy, insecurity, loneliness and anger. These aren’t new vulnerabilities, but social media brings them out.’
If, however, your online social interactions give you a greater sense of belonging with family, friends, work or community, that’s a positive thing. Of course, it’s always wise to be selective about who you connect with and ensure that online interaction doesn’t get in the way of real-life connection. For example, replacing conversations with one-word responses and emojis might make it easier to connect with more people, but they are impersonal and more about ‘keeping up’ than fostering meaningful relationships.
Not-so-smart phone behaviour
Is your tech taking too much from you? Look out for these telltale signs:
- Do you look at your phone constantly when with loved ones? Are you shopping online while your child is telling you about their day? Or chatting to internet buddies while having dinner with friends? ‘Set parameters, such as keeping your phone out of reach and setting times to engage with social media,’ says therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab.
- Is checking your phone the first thing you do when you wake up? If so, you may be starting the day on a negative note with news, work or wondering why your post didn’t get many likes. Spend the first moments of the day doing joyful things, such as stretching or journalling.
- Do you use your phone in queues or when waiting for someone? Our phones have become our go-to distraction – but if you’re always staring at a screen, you’re reducing your human interactions and not being fully present.
- Do you document all you do with posts, pictures or messages? ‘Creating the perfect picture takes time, effort and energy when you could be enjoying the experience,’ says Tawwab.
- Do you feel you have to respond to messages immediately? You probably receive loads of emails, messages and notifications daily and if you act on them all straight away, you’ll never get anything done. If you’re worried that others will feel ignored, let them know what to expect from you. They may be relieved that they don’t have to reply instantly either!
- Do you pore over content that makes you feel bad? Be mindful of who you follow and why. ‘Choose not to follow someone if you envy them or their life makes you feel dissatisfied with yours,’ advises Tawwab.
- Are you led astray online? Tawwab caters her online experience to what she wants. ‘If I hope to save, I don’t follow fashion influencers who inspire me to spend. If I’m interested in vegan meals, I follow those accounts,’ she says. ‘In essence, you become who you follow, what you watch and the websites you visit.’
Watch: Netflix docudrama The Social Dilemma. Technology entrepreneurs and executives explore addiction and the potentially dangerous impact of social networking.
Read: Digital Minimalism and A World Without Email by Cal Newport (Penguin, £9.99 and £14.99 respectively). The computer science professor from Georgetown University presents the evidence for reducing our time online, along with ways to use tech in a more meaningful way.
Do something meaningful on your device every day: Whether it’s a Zoom wine-tasting evening or an hour learning a new creative app with your child, make use of the many varied opportunities that technology offers while keeping out of the rabbit holes that drain you and steal your time.
Words: Rebecca Frank
Photographs: Getty Images