My phone lights up. It’s the third time in under a minute. I walk across the office to make a cup of tea and receive another notification. Like clockwork, I swipe left. No text message, WhatsApp, email, Instagram, or push notification is left unread. That’s not to say I answer them all. This pattern repeats itself from the moment I wake up, to the second I close my eyes. It’s a love-hate relationship.
The rapid rise of the digital age dictates that the average person reading this will have at least two screens in the room with him. As technology becomes more advanced, it appears increasingly indispensable. This growing dependency is not without downsides, though. “Positive, meaningful social networks are an important factor in our resilience to daily life stressors,” says Dr Nick Wakefield, clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, a center for wellbeing in Dubai. “However, we are engaging less with those around us and more with our digital world.” By sparking dopamine in the brain – the chemicals associated with rewards and motivation – notifications make it hard for us to disconnect from our phones. They can become so addictive that some people even face withdrawal symptoms. An online study by the American Psychological Association found that 43% of people surveyed were “constant checkers” when it came to emails, social media accounts, or text messages, in 2016. The report also confirmed that these people experienced greater overall stress than those who didn’t check as recurrently.
Orianna Fielding, founder of London-based The Digital Detox Company, explains, “Digital over-connectivity can be responsible for causing symptoms of depression and anxiety, due to the lack of real human connection. While our digital life celebrates connectivity, without real meaning and connection, our actual lives have no anchor, no core to sustain us.”
It also plays another role: keeping up with the Joneses. Scrolling through Instagram and Facebook, we don’t see the full picture. Instead, we view what is often a staged and filtered snapshot of reality. This can lead to people experiencing feelings of inferiority. Wakefield explains, “Social media is negatively affecting our ability to commit to long-term goals. It creates depression and social anxiety due to the constant comparisons between the self and others.” This is why a digital detox can be necessary. Selena Gomez and Kendall Jenner have both taken to their social media accounts to announce a temporary hiatus from the platforms, citing health concerns as the reason for the move away from digital. Both ultimately returned, with Gomez reconnecting with her 80 million followers after 90 days.
“A digital detox is a period of time when a full disconnection from all digital devices is undertaken in order to reframe your relationship with technology as the tool and not the driver of our lives,” explains Fielding. “It’s not about the devices themselves, but what we do with them, such as constantly checking our emails, notifications, and social media,” adds Wakefield. On average, a full digital detox takes seven days. After turning off your devices, reconnect with the world around you, whether through scheduled activities or just simply appreciating time away from the digital world. “Putting digital connectivity on pause is like switching onto airplane mode to allow the space to maximize your potential,” says Fielding.
It’s easier said than done, though. One recent study indicated that while 65% of people surveyed described a digital detox as a good way to preserve mental health, only 28% managed to complete one. This is when a retreat becomes useful. From five-star locations to a summer camp for adults, there are countless ways for individuals, friends, and companies to get involved. “Retreats can be an excellent way to detox because they provide you with structure and novelty that can distract you from the need to have your devices. They actively prevent you from accessing your screens,” Wakefield says.
Fielding – who creates not only retreats but also seminars and courses on the subject – explains the first step: “You will almost immediately begin to feel less stressed and more relaxed. You’ll feel less rushed as time slows down and will find yourself able to think clearly, without splitting your attention between your digital and analog lives.” The next step is to work on changing the relationship you have with your devices. You don’t have to cut out technology, but work on reducing your dependency on it. “I constantly felt the need to feel connected and I relied on social media to feel updated,” says blogger and DJ Tala Samman. “I also realized we unconsciously reach for our phones out of habit.” By taking mini digital detoxes during the summer and winter holidays, she realized that technology had not only become a major distraction, but it enabled procrastination, too. Samman disconnects periodically from social media, rather than go offline entirely – a more realistic concept for many. The idea stems from focusing on the tasks at hand, while still functioning in the modern world. “Imagine being able to think in-depth about a topic without being disrupted by notifications – to really immerse yourself in what you are doing,” proposes Wakefield. “When we learn to reconnect with ourselves and prioritize what really matters in our lives, we can start to develop a new form of more mindful relationships with all our digital devices, creating a positive, balanced, and sustainable foundation for living a life of wellness and presence in a digital world,” says Fielding.
If booking a week off work to visit a far-flung location where your phone is confiscated isn’t on the horizon, start by switching off your notifications. When you are sitting down to dinner, keep your phone in your bag. Start your digital detox by making small changes. In the long run, they will bring you an inner peace that no like or comment ever will.
Do you need a digital detox? If you tick more than five of these behaviors, it’s time to take a pause.
1. You sleep with your phone next to you.
2. You check your phone when you’re with people.
3. When you wake up, your phone is the first thing you look at.
4. You don’t even go to the bathroom without your phone.
5. You check your phone every 10 minutes.
6. You multi-screen across various digital devices.
7. You text someone in the same room as you.
8. You suffer from online “creeping” – you set out to look up something online and realize you’ve spent two hours surfing.
9. You spend more time on your phone than with your friends and family.
10. You skim over information because your attention span has reduced to eight seconds.
Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.