“Don’t take pictures mama – push my swing?“, my two-year old quietly asked when we were visiting the playground recently.
Now I had given her my undivided attention all morning until that point. Still, my daughter’s message hit home: stop looking at your screen and enjoy what’s happening right in front of you. Experience this moment instead of recording it.
Like most of us, I grab my phone to snap pictures when my toddler does something cute. I quickly scroll through my social media feed while waiting by the sandbox. I turn to my digital devices for entertainment, from reading interesting blogs to listening to podcasts and binge-watching series.
In some ways, my smartphone and laptop are my virtual lifelines. They lift limitations: ordering groceries online, buying clothes and gifts when going to the shops isn’t an option and staying in touch with family and friends through WhatsApp and Facebook makes living with chronic health problems so much easier than twenty years ago.
But as much as I enjoy all the perks of modern technology, I’m well aware of the downsides of the digital world.
The Downsides of the Digital Age
Being glued to your screens has more drawbacks than just missing out on real-life experiences and interactions. It can cause physical symptoms like dry eyes, blurry vision, headaches and slouched posture. The blue light coming from electronic devices disrupts the release of melatonin, the neurochemical that promotes a good night’s sleep. But most prominently, always being connected and online can lead to emotional disturbances and cognitive overload.
Pings letting you know you have another notification, the constant stream of status and news updates – they all create an inner turmoil. Never before in human history have we had so much information coming at us every day. According to Daniel Levitin, author of The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Digital Overload, the average American was bombarded with 5 times more information each day in 2011 than they were in 1986.
And yet the processing and storage capacities of our brains obviously have not evolved over the past 20 years to keep up with this explosion of information.
What’s more, the constant interruptions of incoming email and quickly checking SnapChat force us to continuously switch our attention and juggle multiple tasks. Multitasking is notoriously bad for our focus – even though we all mistakenly believe that we are the exception to that rule.
As Daniel Levity stated The Organized Mind:
“Switching attention comes with a high cost. (…) And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented even after a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.”
Having non-stop entertainment with our reach also gets in the way of daydreaming. Like I’ve written before, we’ve cured boredom and it’s not a good thing. Our mind’s default mode is to wander freely. It craves what the Dutch Psychologie Magazine calls “soft time” – empty pockets of time when you’re not engaged in purposeful activities, but just dreamingly connect ideas and thoughts in a relaxed way.
Aside from the cognitive consequences, our always-connected world can take a toll on our emotional health as well. Too much social media use has been linked to anxiety, depressive symptoms and a negative body image, especially in people vulnerable for these issues.
More than enough reasons to closely examine how on-demand entertainment, social media and being plugged in affect your life!
8 Ideas for a Digital Detox
There are plenty of ways you can unplug for a short or longer amount of time. Obviously you don’t have to try them all, just see what works best for you.
- Program your phone to go on airplane mode starting 1 hour before bedtime until 1 hour after you wake up.
- Turn off notifications. Enable alerts from email and social media when doing work that requires your full focus, spending quality time with family and friend and/or on other set moments.
- Delete apps you don’t often use. They don’t just take up your phone’s memory, but also clutter your brain.
- Consider taking a social media sabbatical. Depending on your normal usage, you could refrain from posting and/or checking status updates for at least 24 hours. (If you’re breaking into a sweat just thinking about this, that could be a sign how much you could benefit from unplugging.)
- Limit your overall screen time. Don’t replace on digital habit (constantly checking your phone) for another one (binge-watching TV or gaming all night long). Do something you really love instead: dinner with friends, a relaxing yoga session, cooking new (elaborate) recipes, playing board games or heading into nature.
- Have “tech-free zones”. For example, you could decide that during mealtimes, no electronic devices are allowed on the table. You could create a phone stack if you must. Health wise (and relationship wise), your bedroom also makes a perfect screen-free area.
- Go analogue. Read paper books, turn on the radio and use an old-fashioned alarm. Yes, it’s much easier having all these functionalities (and many more) in one pocket-sized gadget. But paying real attention to what you’re doing – reading log-form text instead of scrolling through lines, listening to your favourite song instead of simultaneously tracking your fitness and liking photos on Instagram – comes with its own benefits.
- Radically unplug for a day, weekend or longer. Leave your phone at home (or in your purse/pocket for emergencies only) and put your tablet or laptop in a drawer for the duration of your digital detox. Afterwards, set new intentions for how you want to engage with electronic devices and social media from now on.
Breaking habits takes time and effort, especially ones that have such strong built-in rewards like our digital device usage does. Constantly checking your phone for new messages and updates is what Daniel Levitin calls “empty-calorie brain candy” – you know it’s not good for you in the long run, but it’s so hard to resist the temptation.
A digital detox is not about going back to the stone-age for good; it’s about disconnecting for a while, preferably on a regular basis, to quiet your mind and purposely choose how you’ll use electronic devices while staying happy and healthy in our always-on, always-connected world.
“Offline is the new luxury.”
Do you ever consciously unplug? What do you do and how do you suppress the urge to check your phone? I’d love to hear your thoughts and digital detox experiences in the comments!
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