LONDON, UK—Glowing screens have mesmerised us. In the UK, people have become so obsessed with rectangular screens that many are seeking to go on a “digital detox” to escape being online, according to a new report.
An estimated 15 million adult Internet users are purposely going on technology-free holidays, revealed the media watchdog Ofcom in its annual communications market report published on August 4th. The average adult spends more time using media and communication services per day than they do sleeping, the report found. And now, 71 per cent of adults own a smartphone, up from 66 per cent last year. How is this digital diet affecting our lives?
The two things that are most affected are memory and concentration, said Dr Tara Swart, a leadership coach, neuroscientist, and former medical doctor. “They replace our need to remember, and because we get bombarded so much by information, the memory and concentration parts of our brains have been shrunk already,” she said.
This “always on” culture can take its toll. It did last year for Ana Henneberke, 35. Ana works as Head of Software Delivery at Just Giving in London, a job she loves.
“It started to control my life basically; it became an extension of my life and work. Everywhere I’d go, I’d be carrying my phone around with me, even when I was at home,” she said.
“I came to a point where I said, I can’t keep doing this any more, it’s not healthy for me, it’s not nice for the people around me as well – when you’re hanging out with your friends and you can’t help looking at social media, or when you are watching a movie and you can’t focus because you are checking stuff about the movie online.”
An IT professional for 11 years, last year Ana requested a month-long holiday and went on a solo road trip in America. The end of her trip was spent at a digital detox retreat in a redwood forest north of San Francisco.
“For the first time in my life since, forever, I was in a place and time without technology, without distractions,” she said.
“When it finished four days later I felt really renewed and refreshed. I felt like I was living. I could hear things and smell things that I couldn’t before, because you’re always so distracted.”
Ana has now organised her own co-working retreat in Portugal centred around teamwork, collaboration, and ideas, and some elements of a digital detox.
“It’s really important to make time to do nothing and just be comfortable with doing nothing,” she said, but admits she has a problem with this. “Every second I have in my day [I feel] I should be doing something or learning something. … Sometimes it’s hard to slow down and say no, let’s just stop here, let the mind wander and do nothing.”
“It’s important to make this time to disconnect,” she said. “At the end of the day, those are the things that you are going to get out of life.”
In its study of around 2,000 adults and teens, Ofcom found that many people who went on a digital detox felt more productive and liberated, while others felt lost and cut off.
“Most of my clients will say that if they go somewhere remote and they don’t have wifi access they actually freak out,” said Dr Swart. But afterwards some of them say that they actually quite like being out of touch. “What I say to them is, you need to take it further and choose to do that,” she said.
Dr Swart has been doing short digital detoxes herself for several years, often going camping to remote locations. “It was a journey of self-discovery. I don’t know how many times I check my phone, but it made me realise I must be doing it a lot because I just had so much more spare time when I didn’t do it.”
It’s this not being able to switch off that seems to be problematic for a lot of people.
Owen Redahan, a counsellor based in Canary Wharf, said he is starting to see increased stress levels with people feeling that they have to be available all the time, even when on holiday, to check emails and sort out business.
“When I started to work, when I went away on holiday nobody could contact me. My inbox would fill up and either my colleagues would sort it out or it would be there when I came back and nobody expected it not to be there when you got back,” he said. “Is there a problem if someone texts you and you don’t reply for an hour? Probably not?”
Loss of Connection
The digital age has brought positives, like instant connection with others, easily sharing ideas, and raising awareness about issues with a large group of people. But it’s also brought about the problem of people feeling they are always connected through their devices, but not always connected to the present.
“Using social media is ok as long as people are having enough face to face eye contact and typical interactions with people,” said Dr Swart. “The research from Stanford shows that, if you spend a lot of time online or on social media, but you also socialise a lot in real life, that’s ok.” The other way round is more of a problem.
Redahan recognizes that people are starting to cut themselves off more and more. “People are beginning to set themselves up in towers and ignore other people,” looking at their phones on public transport, and retreating to their bedrooms to message friends. “What you’ve got is just your own bubble, and you’re not interacting physically or visually with other people, and so it’s beginning to exclude.”
He is not against technology, but says we have to use it to our advantage and not let it take over our lives.
“There are people who look at their phone every minute, every two or three minutes, even though it hasn’t rung – and that’s the fear of missing out.”
This fear of missing out is prevalent in executives, says Dr Swart. “I had one client who is an asset manager. He said, ‘I literally cannot not look at my phone until I go to sleep and I have to have it next to me so I can track all the different markets’.
“The real trigger is when someone says, my child was talking to me but I wasn’t listening because I was wondering what was going to be on my phone.
“They should spend 5 minutes with their child, actually listen to their child and talk to them about their day. It’s actually sad that I had to give this advice to very successful people, but it’s true. It’s a bit of an addiction, they are just very distractible,” she said.
Phil Reed, professor of psychology at Swansea University, agrees that technology is very useful, but also very addictive. He likens the Internet to a sedative. His research found that a third of 16 to 30 year olds have a mild addiction to their smartphones. Signs of mild phone addiction include feeling twitchy without your phone, lying about your phone use or spending time on your phone instead of doing what you want.
“It’s almost another form of being able to disassociate from reality,” he said.
For those who feel very hooked, he said a digital detox is a good first step, but it’s important to find out the deeper reasons behind their screen-addiction.
“I think we’ve got to think of this as akin to any other form of dependency,” he said. “You’ve got to find out the underlying cause of the addiction.” He pointed out that some people are hooked on their phones just because they like it, while others may be getting hooked because they see it as a way of escaping a problem in their life.
Then there’s the NoPhone, a company which started as a joke in 2014. The NoPhone is a plastic rectangle that has no battery, no screen, and no phone capabilities.
In addition to the original NoPhone, there is a completely featureless Zero edition or a Selfie edition that includes a “selfie mirror” for “real-time selfies”. The fake phone is a satirical take on people’s overuse of smartphones, and so far they’ve sold over 5,000 of them.
Co-founder of the NoPhone Ingmar Larsen said they didn’t expect it to take off, but people often buy them as gifts. “People buy it for their friends, anyone, young or old, people that want to make a statement to their friends like: ‘Come on, be a bit with us, not too much on your phone’,” said Larsen.
It is usually well received. Some people use the NoPhone as a substitute for their real phone, like a placebo, he said.
“I’m not negative about smartphone use, but overuse is a bit of a problem,” he said. “There’s always a way to get people really excited about phones nowadays, more than social connections.” He hopes one day there won’t be a need for the NoPhone.
To encourage people to talk face to face, Steve Tyler, owner of the recently opened Gin Tub in Sussex, built a Faraday cage around his pub so his customers had no phone signal. And he doesn’t give out the wifi code.
With 15 years’ experience working in pubs, he felt fed up with people ignoring the people they’re with, instead talking to people who are not there. He wanted to create the pub atmosphere he remembers before mobile phones.
“I didn’t set out to change the world, I didn’t set out to get the media storm that it got, I set out to do my little bar, make people talk to people. The best way to do that was not to tell them not to use their phone, it was to deny them access to the Internet. The easiest way to do that was to build a simple Faraday cage, and that’s what I did.”
A Faraday cage is an enclosure that blocks electric fields. He says the one he’s built is not “military grade” but does the job. In the pub it’s made with copper mesh in the ceilings and the building’s walls are lined with heavy-duty silver foil under wallpaper.
“People are starting to remember what it’s like to be in a pub 20 years ago when everyone spoke to each other,” he said.
On that note, maybe it’s time to close my laptop and turn the phone to silent.
Unplugging from tech: practical tips
Phubbing v. Snubbing someone in a social setting in favour of your mobile phone, a combination of the words ‘phone’ and ‘snubbing’.
Nomophobia n. A shortened version of ‘no mobile phone phobia’, a term coined to describe the fear of not having a mobile phone.
Phantom vibration syndrome When you imagine your phone is vibrating, like you are getting a text or a call, when it is not vibrating at all. It has also been referred to as ‘phantom phone signals’, ‘fauxcellarm’ or ‘ringxiety’.
FOMO abbrev. Fear of Missing Out. Fear that you are missing out on something exciting or interesting, like a social event, especially on social media.
FOGO abbrev. Fear of Going Out. When social media has the opposite effect of FOMO according to Alexis Swerdloff writing for NYmag last year. She resonated with many readers when she wrote that FOGO is not “literally a fear of going out” but “an active non-desire to attend the mass-Instagrammed events that clog up all my social-media feeds”.