Put down the phone: why you need a digital detox

Here we are, knee deep in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology is not just something we use, it is increasingly intertwined with every aspect of our lives, and it’s only going to dig itself deeper into our day-to-day functioning as time passes.

Yet, while digital technologies are ingraining themselves into our lives to the extent the old real world/online world dichotomies no longer apply, we are experiencing an equal backlash, a distinct Moral Panic about the effects these digital technologies have on our lives.

You don’t have to spend too long consuming your preferred news source before you’re confronted with tales of technologically based depression, millennial ennui, and an endless parade of Digital Diogenes’ with article titles like ‘Snapchat Literally Ate My Child’, ‘How Smoke Signals Saved My Marriage’ and ‘I Gave Up Facebook and Legit Sprouted Butterfly Wings’.

It can be a hard pill to swallow. We’re increasingly led, pushed and encouraged to adopt a more digital and less analogue existence, all the while being told it’s making us miserable and ruining our lives, loves and brains.

Do we need a digital detox, or is it just a bunch of people yelling at clouds?

“There are no shortage of moral entrepreneurs in this field who are making a lot of money selling books and conducting speaking tours all telling people that the sky is falling,” explains Dr Stephen Owen, of UNSW.

Stephen, who was awarded his doctorate through the University of Newcastle and has a research focus on digital cultural phenomenon, continues, “Many of these people are in fact well-credentialed scientists and psychologists, but the problem with all of these works is that they deal mostly in speculation rather than actual analysis. Very, very few academics studying the practices of digital media and social network sites take [this] work seriously.”

Stephen points to a recent example in Have Smartphones Destroyed A Generation? to illustrate his point.

“These moral entrepreneurs do however have a knack of producing work that spreads almost virally, through mainstream media and an avalanche of Facebook shares, and most especially because they tap into parents’ fears that technology is detrimental to their children. You’ll never go broke selling stuff to parents that play on their fears regarding the safety of their children.”

So, your phone isn’t going to suck the soul out of your face like a shiny, glass Dementor, yet, I still find myself zombie scrolling through Facebook while uni work piles up around me, hating myself for my inability to put the damn phone down.

I asked University of Newcastle psychologist and counsellor, Helen Scobie, about the potential negative effects of digital technologies and media.

While she agrees digital technologies don’t make us depressed, they are a medium we gravitate to when we’re engaging in what she calls ‘avoidance behaviours’.

“When we’re feeling down, we all do things to make ourselves feel better, and avoidance is one way we make ourselves feel better. Some people use social media, some use drugs and alcohol, or potentially more dangerous things.”

“The architecture of social media is designed to entice us, to provide instant gratification through ‘likes’ and potentially make it harder to resist.”

But avoidance behaviours don’t get you back to feeling good and being where you need to be; they simply exacerbate the problem.

In that case, is a digital detox the answer? Do we all riot in the street, burn our phones and tablets and become a society of technological hermits?

There is an emphatic “no” from Helen.

“Digital technologies are part of our lives, with huge potential, but the positives of digital technology can also be its negatives. It’s great to be connected, but do you really need to be contactable and connected everywhere you go?”

Helen suggests setting time limits and using technology to enforce these or even make them fun.

“Taking a break without your device. Go to a cafe, or to uni, without your phone. Wean yourself off and eventually you will realise you don’t need it with you all the time.”

If that sounds unbearable, why not fight fire with fire?

Digital Detox? There’s an app for that.

You can use apps like Offtime and Forest  or countless others to track how much time you spend or make some apps unavailable for a time.

If it sounds weird to use digital technologies and media to help you avoid using digital technologies and media, it’s no weirder than digital naysayers and doomsday prophets using it to disseminate their message.

Helen emphasises a bit of critical self-reflection if you feel the digital world is negatively impacting your analogue life.

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this stopping you achieving what you want to achieve?’”

“Reflect on what you’re procrastinating from. Are you anxious about it, are you worried that you don’t know what to do or how to do it? Is there a way you can solve that?”

Finding a solution as to why you’re avoiding something can go a long way to fishing you out of that YouTube rabbit hole, as can setting goals and re-affirming why you’re at university and what you eventually want to achieve.

What’s important to understand is that social media and digital technologies are tools. You can abuse and misuse a tool.

Much like people who reduce their alcohol intake, or quit smoking suddenly find themselves cashed up, you might find reducing your digital media intake gives you a lot more time to use.

“We often tell ourselves we don’t have time to go to the gym, or do yoga, or go for a walk, or catch up with friends, but how much time are you spending scrolling?”

Social media is often accused of making us less social, so instead of checking up with a friend on Facebook, why not actually meet up.

“Use your phone as a phone and give someone a call” suggests Helen.

Sounds weird, but OK.

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