Liz Frost ditches her device for the weekend and discovers the surprising benefits of a digital detox
It’s Friday night and I’m sitting cross-legged on the living room floor with my five-year-old, his face a picture of intense concentration as he carefully cuts shapes from a piece of white paper. My phone is nowhere in sight and this is the most peaceful I have felt in months. For the next 48 hours, it will be under strict isolation. No scrolling, swiping, posting or pinning. No liking, LOLing, texting or tagging for the whole weekend. ‘This will be a piece of cake,’ I think, as I watch paper trimmings float majestically down to the carpet.
My brain has a tendency to flit from thought to thought like a butterfly. The instantaneous nature of a smartphone exacerbates this, like a child at an all-you-can-eat Skittle buffet, so part of me is looking forward to finding out how I cope. Will I become a sea of calm and tranquillity, or will my brain implode and throw a tantrum? (The other part of me is checking its watch and tapping its tech-addicted foot).
Before I start, I look up my phone usage stats (you’ll find this under your settings section) and I’m astounded. Despite having a full-time job and a young child, I still manage to average an hour and a half a day on my phone. That’s a whole movie, a walk round the park, or two fairly decent massages… and I’m not the worst culprit. According to comparison site, finder.co.uk, people in the UK spend an average of two hours 34 minutes on their mobile phones every day.
“The world in our phones is interesting and exciting,” explains Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist and medical director of Priory’s Hayes Grove Hospital, “and we can adapt it to provide us with the information and stimulation which presses our buttons, unlike the real world which is much less predictable and more difficult to filter.”
The tech industry knows this, and according to Rachel Besenyei, head of social at BrandContent (brandcontent.co.uk), websites (and apps) such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are all carefully developed by ‘attention engineers’ whose role is to keep creating and tweaking features that encourage us to keep spending time on their apps.
All this time spent traversing the waves of the internet isn’t good for our wellbeing, either. “One of the effects digital overload has on our mental health is it increases our stress levels,” says. David Brudö, who is the CEO and co-founder of mental wellbeing and personal development app Remente (remente.com). “As we multitask, switching from emails, to podcasts, to messaging, our bodies produce more cortisol as well as adrenaline, which can overstimulate our brains and even disrupt our thinking.”
Even so, taking myself ‘offline’ for a couple of days isn’t as easy as I’d anticipated. I find myself routinely reaching for my device on the side table whenever my partner leaves the room, or randomly clawing around in my bag for it, before realising it’s stowed away in isolation. Its remote ping (before I realise I haven’t actually switched it off yet) elicits a Pavlovian response.
It reminds me of when I first got engaged. My thumb developed a habit of checking in with that ring to make sure it was still in place and hadn’t got lost. I still do it now after 10 years of marriage and I have a small callus to show for it. I wonder how my brain has been shaped by decades on my phone?
A team of researchers from Germany’s Heidelberg University actually MRI-scanned brains of people with smartphone addiction (SPA) compared to controls and found those with SPA showed decreased ability in a region of the brain known as the insula, which some suggest deals with our self awareness. I try not to think of my poor withering cerebral cortex.
The good news is, when there is a problem in society, a solution usually pops up to solve it. Many companies are throwing us a metaphorical life-buoy to help drag us back into the real world. Retreat holidays such as reclaimyourself.co.uk or digitaldetoxretreats.co.uk will confiscate your phone for the duration of your stay, with your permission of course.
And it might sound counter-productive, but there are even apps that will help you spend less time on your phone, like Forest (forestapp.cc) which helps you grow a tree during your time spent offline. As soon as you pick up your phone, your little sapling withers and dies, but successful tree growth can earn you bitcoins, enough of which can help plant real life trees through Forest’s partnership with not-for-profit organisation Trees for the Future.
Without my phone I am forced into moments that aren’t filled with stimuli. As well as growing a virtual tree, I have conversations, read books, walk outside, play; I allow whole patches of silence and boredom to come and go unchecked and I spend a previously intolerable amount of time choosing just the right bedtime stories with my son. It feels nice, it feels calm.
It takes until Sunday morning for me to stop being twitchy (perhaps because I’m old enough to remember grown up life without a mobile) and, much like a horse with its blinkers removed, I take in the wider landscape with wonder. I even hanker, momentarily, for that simpler time when the only way of knowing if someone was running late was when they didn’t turn up.
I can’t deny that phones keep us connected to the world in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. They enable us to keep in touch with friends and family we can’t see every day, especially at the moment. While it will never replace the magic of eye contact or the reassurance of a good hug, a quick text to say ‘hi’ can mean a lot to someone who is isolated, lonely or just really busy. So, I might not be giving up my phone any time soon, but I’ll be making a regular digital detox a part of my life from now on.
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