Many people believe that staring at our smartphone screens for hours a day is bad for us – but others say there is no proof that tech use can be harmful. The benefits of taking a digital detox are likely to depend on your point of view, discovers Carly Page
If you’re anything like the average smartphone user, you’ll touch your phone 2,617 times per day, unlock it 70 times and use it to check your email once every six minutes. That means you’re probably squeezing in more than three hours of peering at your do-it-all device on any given teaching day.
During the period of partial school closures, that figure will have almost certainly gone up – mainly because much of the work teachers have had to do will have revolved around digital tools such as phones.
The general perception of such a level of technology use is that it is bad, with a capital “B”. It is thought that it destroys relationships, makes you forget the real world and causes undue stress. So, as we head into summer, many people will be planning a digital detox to cleanse themselves. But are those negative impacts of technology real? And is a digital detox likely to work?
There is certainly research linking digital technology with stress. One study shows that the use of technology can make it difficult to maintain boundaries between your home life and work life. Another concludes that overuse of smartphones is associated with a number of psychological problems, including anxiety, depression and issues related to self-esteem.
Similarly, the report MobileDNA: Relating Physiological Stress Measurements to Smartphone Usage to Assess the Effect of a Digital Detox says that constant connectedness can cause users to experience “technostress”: an imbalance between an individual’s resources and the demands created by the environment related to technology use.
However, Brittany Davidson, research associate at the University of Bristol’s School of Computer Science, Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Engineering Maths, points out that we actually have no conclusive proof that tech is harmful, nor a consensus that it is.
“We don’t really have any understanding as to why there would be a negative impact; the obvious one would be that we’re engaging in physical activity less, but our work has shown that’s not the case,” says Davidson. “We’ve also shown that there’s no relationship between technology and your mental and physical health.”
If there were a problem, would detox be the best way of solving it?
The MobileDNA research, albeit limited in scope, examined whether a digital detox would reduce this tech-induced stress, and found a beneficial effect; it reported that when participants refrained from using their smartphones, their physiological stress was lower than during a normal week.
“If a digital detox effectively decreases stress, this means that it can be an effective coping mechanism for people who experience this negative impact on a daily basis and that more research is needed on how employers have to deal with constant connectedness outside the office hours,” it concludes.
But because the idea of tech harm is widely contested, the evidence for a detox is pretty sparse – you can’t prove that a cure works for an ailment that no one is sure is real.
That said, there are plenty who think it is real, and they have one big tip: don’t go cold turkey. Alex La Via, founder of Live More Offline, a digital detox coaching company, advocates for a more gradual withdrawal.
For example, rather than binning your smartphone and hoping for the best, La Via says the best way to curb your smartphone overuse is to introduce healthy digital habits; move some video calls to an old-fashioned phone call, schedule email replies to be sent in the morning, make the bedroom a “no-phone zone”, and schedule in some much-needed “screen-free” time.
“As our bodies and minds did not evolve to be always ‘on’, it is vital to plan screen-free time to allow us to fully relax,” says La Via. “Take a walk, sit outside, read a book, meditate or just enjoy having a break and doing something that feels good for you. Notice how it feels as you take these breaks and experiment with what makes the biggest difference to your mood and energy levels.”
Hilda Burke, a UK Council for Psychotherapy- and British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy-accredited psychotherapist and life coach, shares a similar view and believes a cold-turkey approach would be unattainable for most and would leave you feeling more defeated than de-stressed.
“Our Western minds are used to stimulation and, if we set overly ambitious goals that we fail to meet, we can feel defeated and are very unlikely to climb back on the wagon,” she says. “So, instead, start by fencing off some time when you feel you can reasonably go without your phone – it might still be difficult for you, but choose a period of time that you feel is achievable.
“Start small and increase the wait time before you check your phone. For me, it started with leaving my phone at home when I took my dog for a walk. It was only 45 minutes but it was a start, and my enjoyment of that uninterrupted period of time gave me a taste for more.”
But would everyone feel so free under those circumstances? Davidson has her doubts.
“If you remove that ability to connect – to call people, to use social media, to send emails – you will isolate people, and the more you isolate them, that will probably have a more negative effect on things like loneliness and stress,” she says.
And a lot of the so-called studies focused on the overuse of technology and digital detox fail to examine the huge number of benefits that our pocket-sized devices bring, says Davidson.
“These devices allow us to access so much information, and they can be so incredibly useful for education,” she says. “If you remove them, how do you expect us to learn or to keep in touch with family abroad? A lot of these views on why digital detox is really good miss the fact that technology brings us so many benefits, and I don’t think it’s a very sensible way to go about it.”
Are we any more sure of the benefits of technology than we are of the negative repercussions, though?
The trouble with areas such as this, where there are few conclusive answers, is that gut feeling can reign supreme and then bias wades in and takes control. That either makes things more complicated or simpler, depending on how you look at it.
If you believe that tech is harmful, then you will probably believe that detoxing works – regardless of evidence to the contrary. If you believe tech to be largely benign and don’t expect much from a detox, you probably won’t reap many benefits – again, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
In short, the success of your summer detox plan will probably mostly be down to your own view of it.
So, should you turn your phone off? To quote Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston: “There can be miracles, when you believe.”
Carly Page is a freelance writer
This article originally appeared in the 17 July 2020 issue under the headline “Does a digital detox work?”
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