At what cost is our attachment to the smartphone? Here's how to go on a 'digital diet'
It delivers work emails 24/7, tell us what weather to expect and tracks spouses stuck in traffic. Over 90 per cent of Brits own one, every generation is dependent on them, and we spend an average of four hours a day glued to their screens. But at what cost our attachment to the smartphone?
Repeated studies, including a paper from Leeds University, have linked prolonged use of the internet to depression and anxiety, and excessive screen time has also been shown to disrupt sleep and diminish creativity. Experts speak in no uncertain terms: this is an addiction.
“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle,” says Dr Anna Lembke, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University and author of Dopamine Nation. “The social media apps we download onto our phones release the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine, making us all vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.”
Personally, I identify with this all too well. For years I over-consumed, caught in a vicious circle of endlessly checking my favourite apps for distraction and entertainment – Facebook, Instagram, Amazon, on repeat - embarrassed by my behaviour but somehow powerless to stop it. My daily screen-time regularly exceeded ten hours a day.
My habit grew so bad I eventually paid to lock myself out of the internet – buying a software blocking programme called Freedom. When activated, Freedom stops the user accessing chosen sites across your devices, for set periods of time.
Drastic, perhaps, but in a digital age when everything from supermarket shops to parking payments require a device, ditching technology altogether just isn’t an option. Many would agree that learning to control our usage is critical – a digital diet, rather than a total detox – and it will no doubt be a new year’s resolution for many this year.
Catherine Hallissey is a chartered psychologist who coaches clients on how to navigate a healthy relationship with screens. “Smartphones can bring incredible benefits – it is only unintentional use that is problematic,” she says. “And this period between Christmas and the New Year is good time for a ‘tech audit’ to reflect on what aspects of your digital life are working, what you want to let go of - and what systems and healthy habits you can put in place to support you and your family.” Here are the four ages of phone use - and ways to cut down on technology calories, whatever stage you (or your family) are at.
Gaming preschoolers and Tiktok-teens
According to Ofcom, figures reveal 17 per cent of three-to-four-year-olds now have their own phone, while 69 per cent of eight to 11 year olds play games online. On the plus side, a 2019 study from Frontiers in Psychology showed gaming can improve areas of the brain involved in attention and boost visuospatial skills, improve friendships and build self-esteem.
“For some children, gaming can help their sense of worth,” says Dr Michele McDowell, a psychologist specialising in online addiction among children.
However, research from Oxford University has also found that children who play video games for more than three hours a day are more likely to be hyperactive, get involved in fights and be uninterested at school. There’s no UK guidance on how much children should be on their phones, but the American Academy of Paediatrics suggests under 30 to 60 minutes per day on school days.
Most consoles have time control facilities, while the charity Childnet has an online agreement available to download, with a template that can help families navigate screentime. When it comes to removing your offspring’s phone from them, the experts suggest a gentle approach: never to snatch devices without warning, for example.
“When a child’s brain is in a state of arousal their response can be extreme – I’ve seen furniture thrown,” says Dr McDowell, who advises having offline activities ready to distract. By age 12 to 15, 89 per cent of UK children have their own social media profile, according to consumer data provider Statista.
The most popular for teens is the video sharing site TikTok, which is algorithmic rather than chronological, meaning users are shown increasingly similar content and can thus be sucked into a ‘rabbit hole’ of clips. Early to mid teens spend an average 91 minutes a day on the site.
Dr McDowell says open communication is key to teenagers learning a successful social media relationship: “Encourage them to interact socially offline, to be mindful of their usage and have a checklist of daily offline activities,” she says. “For example, have they communicated with their friends in person?” Hallissey adds that telling children to get off devices while remaining glued to our own is pointless: “Children are sensitive to hypocrisy.”
Adults addicted to work and shopping
According to software comparison site reviews.org 71 per cent of people check their phone within 10 minutes of waking each morning. Midlife is full of digital clutter: online banking, Amazon shopping, and logging on for work communication.
To avoid being overwhelmed, Hallissey advises reducing the number of smartphone functions we’re reliant on, not least the alarm clock app. “The sheer number of apps leads to what I call ‘roll and scroll’ – you pick up your phone to turn it off in bed then give in to the temptation to check the news. Use a clock instead,” she says, adding: “If you need a calculator for work, keep one on your desk – don’t use your phone.”
Next, audit your online use – “for two days keep a notebook tally of how often you use every app,” says Hallissey – before deleting apps you are using mindlessly rather than with purpose and intention.
Consider only accessing emails on your desktop and if you haven’t already, turn off smartphone notifications, she adds. “Research from the University of California tells us it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain the same level of concentration after an interruption.”
Freedom, the app I use, acts as a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to block online activity and is a form of what Dr Lembke describes as “self-binding” – physically restraining oneself from an addiction. I use Freedom for one to six hour stretches and the panic I experience being cut off quickly gives way to calm and focus It costs around £70 for a lifetime subscription.
There’s also the option of locking your phone away in a drawer or box over dinner, or for a longer withdrawal, there are digital detox retreats, such as Unplugged, where guests’ phones are locked in boxes in their room, the key kept in a sealed envelope. Co founder Hector Hughes says around 25 per cent of guests end up ripping theirs open. “We get a lot of people talking about feeling a phantom phone buzzing in their pockets. But by the second day they report feeling as if a weight has lifted. They look years younger.”
Midlife news junkies
Those of middle years are more likely to download news apps than younger generations, who tend to access news on social media – so are susceptible to current affairs overconsumption.
No-one is suggesting a news blackout, but checking your phone every five minutes for breaking stories is simply unnecessary. “The world is not going to stop if you’re not updated more than once a day,” says Hallissey, who believes obsessive “snacking” on news is a misguided midlife form of self-soothing, an inadvertent way of trying to protect ourselves from “bad things happening.”
Your smartphone will have a setting – on the iPhone there’s a section called “Screentime” – which allows you to limit time you spend on certain apps, and set up a reminder to pop up when you’re approaching your limit. “I also use Do Not Disturb and Airplane mode a lot when I need to focus so that my phone doesn’t light up and distract me,” says Hughes. Having become concerned she was spending too much time online last Autumn, Hallissey started turning her own phone off altogether at 7pm: “I couldn’t believe the relief.”
The silver surfers
Over 60s are increasingly enthusiastic digital consumers. Facebook is particularly popular among this age group, with 50 per cent of adults aged 65 using the platform.
While exchanging news and photos on the site can help people feel connected, heavy social media use has been linked to memory deficits. Hallissey says it can be particularly problematic at an age when protecting cognitive function is critical. “Learning a new skill or dance, for example, can improve cognitive function, and too much social media displaces time that could be spent on these activities,” she says. Similarly sleep quality declines as we age, and the blue light that screens emit can hinder production of the hormone melatonin that helps regulate sleep, crucial for cognitive function: “So while doing a sudoku online is great, I recommend using a paper version of the game where possible.”
Then there are the family WhatsApp groups - great for keeping everyone in touch, but the forum can be all consuming, as anyone who’s been bombarded by 46 messages in half an hour can attest. Avoid feeling obliged to reply instantly by turning off “Read Receipts” under the privacy banner, which will stop the dreaded double blue tick showing others you’ve seen messages, while clicking on the name of a WhatsApp group and pressing “Mute” will spare you endless intrusive conversations.
Three ways we take digital downtime, from the high profile and socially-connected
David Baddiel is the author of Jews Don't Count and Virtually Christmas
1. Take social media holidays
“It gives you more time. This is true of Twitter in particular. You think you can read or write a tweet in a minute - and then you get drawn in and next thing you know four hours have disappeared while you're arguing with someone about JK Rowling.”
2. Ask a friend to change your social media passwords (and not tell you what they are)
“The first time I left Twitter, it really did feel like cold turkey - I felt my thumb twitching trying to find the blue bird. These days I have a guy in my management who just creates new passwords for twitter and instagram, and doesn’t tell me about them.
“The last time I did this, it was for a month. I had genuine freedom of mind.”
3. Read books
“My advice would be: read books. The last time I took a break, I bought loads of books on Kindle. Every time I wanted to read something on Twitter I would read Anna Karenina. Twitter is just a massive book anyway - it’s a diary of millions of people. You can get the same sense of activating your mind and connecting with the world by reading.”
Tanya Goodin is the host of the It's Complicated podcast and author of My Brain Has Too Many Tabs Open
1. Be ruthless with your Whatsapp groups
“We all joined multiple Whatsapp groups over lockdown, but they do take on a life of their own. I say, be ruthless You can now leave them without notifying people. It can feel brutal, but it’s all down to communication. Say to people, 'I'm just going to mute the group for a bit because I’m really busy. If anyone wants to get hold of me, please message me directly.'”
2. Turn off unnecessary notifications
“Identify the apps from which you receive notifications from, then prune them. That said, if you suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out), research shows that turning notifications off may make you check your phone more often. So think about what type of person you are.”
3. Think before you send another email
“The average work email is opened within six seconds of it being sent. If we want to receive less email we have to send less email. Really think carefully before you send a message. Take it as read that you are thankful without having to say it and send it. Cut down on BCCing and CCing a whole group of other people. Then maybe others will take the hint.”
Rory Cellan-Jones, former BBC technology correspondent and author of “Always on: Hope and fear in the smartphone era”
1. Leave your phone in another room overnight
“Mainly, I’d say don’t do what I do. I wake up in the morning and first thing I look at my twitter, instagram and the news. I have got slightly better at not looking at my phone during the night. One of my problems is I’m an insomniac, related to my Parkinson's, and I normally wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning. So, I have to try to resist the temptation to look at my phone. The answer is to not have the phone in the room with you. And if you can't manage that, put it in sleep mode which stops notifications popping up.”
2. Unsubscribe from annoying emails
“My email use has improved since I left the BBC, because my inbox was just flooded with wave upon wave of rubbish. Think about all those things you subscribed to years ago and automatically get sent then find the unsubscribe button. This should also mean you don't miss the important emails that are buried in your inbox. Another tip: on most email programmes there's the option to set various people as VIP so that you never miss them.”
3. Ask your partner before responding on social media
“Beware of becoming drawn into obsessive ranting. My wife sometimes lectures me on this and she’s right. Why would you want to get involved? Is it a healthy use of your time to have an argument on the internet? Read it back to your partner and ask what they think.”
By Cameron Henderson