Hi-tech stress: Do you need a digital detox?
Social media is here to stay. You can’t walk anywhere without bumping into people who don’t look up from their phones. Watching a sunset on my local beach means craning my neck above held up phones while people find the perfect spot for a selfie.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet. I wouldn’t be able to talk to you without it. In fact, my move across the ocean would have been infinitely more devastating if I couldn’t see my parents via Facetime.
But I know, and I think you know it too, that our digital lives are getting a little more exciting than our real lives. And that’s a problem!
Positive effects of social media
One of my favorite movies of all-time is ‘You’ve Got Mail’. It starts with that unmistakable old-fashioned technological sound of the dial-up tone as one modem connects with another.
It’s a romantic comedy based in a world before we really knew what the internet was capable of. The couple meet online.
Ironically, I watched it before I even had my first Nokia cell phone.
I still had romantic hopes of a world being connected. It had not been tainted yet with the thought of online sexual predators, the dark web, fake news and cyber bullying.
In the movie, the screen couple’s online conversation is limited to a chatroom, and they have to wait until they get home to log on. The ability to be connected at all times was not an option and so they led full lives, IRL (in real life).
Now, most couples meet their spouse online. And they do it via their phones. Yes, that phone that you just can’t help sneaking a peak at.
Why social media is bad for mental health
The downside of so much technology at our fingertips is unfortunately a decline in mental health.
Dr. Jean Twenge studied high school students and found that too much time spent on digital devices was linked to lower self-esteem and a decrease in well-being. This was not limited to social media, but included texting, gaming and searching the internet.
The study also found that those students who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to say they were unhappy, compared to those who spent less time.
And it’s not just self-esteem, spending more than an hour a day on social media is linked to body image issues for women, Graff & Czarnomska recently reported. The women in their study who were using Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram for longer than an hour had higher levels of body dissatisfaction.
Another recent study (Vanman, Baker & Tobin, 2018) looked at participants who were either randomly assigned to give up Facebook for 5 days or to continue using Facebook as usual. Those in the no Facebook group had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and were more satisfied with their life.
And if you’re into racking up the ‘likes’ on social media, bear in mind that another study showed getting likes does not make you feel better about yourself or lift your mood. In fact, those who went out of their way to get likes were more likely to have low self-esteem and be less trusting of others.
The psychology of hi-tech stress
A reward in psychology refers to something that is sought and consumed by an individual and that has the potential to have that person come back for more. The reward is not about the actual object (e.g., iphone, social media) but about what it does, which is to attract you back to it.
Sound like anything you know?
The ping of a notification on your devices is a reward, because you are drawn to respond to them. Even if you have notifications turned off like me, it’s still rewarding to empty the inbox so you can get rid of the red number by the side of the app.
And you have to check and recheck to see if anything important has come in. Our lives are generally not that important. But boy aren’t you glad you saw your Aunt Vera’s new puppy before anyone else and gave her a ‘like’?
This constant re-checking is stressing your body and brain. But then dopamine is released into your bloodstream when you check so you feel good and that keeps the cycle going.
Another study showed that stress spiked in participants when their iphone rang and participants had to ignore it.
So, in simple terms …
Ignoring your phone = increased cortisol (stress hormone)
Responding to notifications = dopamine (pleasure hormone)
Technology and stress in the workplace
It’s not just social media that creates problems. Email can have the same effects. Now that your email inbox can overflow in your pocket it’s very tempting, and in some cases required, that you respond immediately. So you are effectively on-call for work emails 24-7.
Quite apart from the physiological effects of stress that are linked to heart disease and other leading causes of death. Stress is also linked to suicidal thoughts.
A report by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that a third of the working adults they surveyed in Britain have experienced suicidal feelings as a result of stress. While 16 per cent of adults said they had self-harmed as a result of stress.
Technology is also causing an increase in sleep disturbances, psychophysiological stress and somatic complaints.
This is starting to sound like a very depressing read. That’s not my intention as technology is here to stay. So we have to come up with some rules to regain balance.
Digital detox effects
Kate Unsworth, the CEO of Vinaya created an interesting experiment by inviting a group of CEOs, entrepreneurs, and influencers on a trip to study their behavior with and without technology.
They gave up their personal devices for four days, while undercover neuroscientists observed them.
After three days without technology, their posture noticeably changed. They began to look into people’s eyes, rather than into their screens. The effect was they looked more approachable, and it helped conversations.
Without Google, people kept talking as they thought about an answer creatively, resulting in great conversation and relationship building.
The participants showed improved memory which the neuroscientists believe is down to being more present in conversation.
They reported feeling more rested and rejuvenated which the neuroscientists attribute to the lack of blue light from screens that disrupts sleep.
How to do a mindful digital detox
Does the word digital detox conjure up image of millennials being forced against their will to have their smart phones prised from their hands and forced into an isolation room, only to be allowed out for group therapy?
It doesn’t have to be that way. Technology is helpful so you don’t need to completely erase your digital life. It’s all about keeping it in balance.
Digital detox can range from a few minutes, to a day or a week offline. Really, whatever suits you.
First, figure out if you really have a problem with tech use. Everyone’s level of tolerance is very different. Here are some questions to help you do this.
- Does interacting with your device keep you up late or interfere with your sleep?
- Does it reduce the quality or quantity of time you have with family or friends?
- Does your tech usage interfere with your ability to finish work or homework?
- Does it cause you to be unintentionally rude to others by phubbing (snubbing someone you’re talking to while you look at your cell phone)?
- Is it stopping you from having any free thoughts or creative daydreams because you cram your free time with information from the device?
- Do you instinctively pick up your phone when bored or feeling anxious?
- Has ‘Google it’ become your default?
- Does constant bad news bring you down?
I talk about this in my YouTube video called ‘8 Questions to ask before you try a DIGITAL DETOX’.
Start listening to and observing your own technology usage.
Track your screen time. I know there are apps to help you do this…but we’re trying to keep away from reliance on apps. Try keeping track with a simple written chart.
It’s time to be thoughtful about your tech usage, not mindlessly picking up a device and scrolling. So it’s time to reacquaint yourself with your goals. The big picture goals such as getting a promotion, being a loving parent as well as shorter term goals such as planning a vacation.
Setting clear-cut goals will keep you on track by focusing your attention on your tasks and help you resist the distractions. Plus, your brain’s reward system enjoys making progress towards a goal.
So, set yourself up for success by asking yourself ‘what are my goals for the day?’
Then follow this up by setting an intention for your technology usage each day. Notice throughout the day if your tech usage is still in line with your intention.
For example, I homeschool. My big picture goal is to be a good teacher that makes learning fun. So, let’s say I’m intending to look for a science experiment we can do at home. I search on Pinterest. But after finding the information I need, I find myself scrolling through Pinterest looking at other things that catch my eye.
I follow a pin to a website which gives me an idea for a gift to buy someone. By the time I’m finished I’m 2 hours down the rabbit hole, and still haven’t printed off the science experiment instructions.
This is not mindful use of technology.
Reflect on your day. What went well, what didn’t? If you find you are not aligning your tech usage with your intentions, why do you think that is?
Journaling can help you with thinking this through. I have a series of video’s about journaling, which you might find helpful.
Make notes on what you need to do more of or less of to get to your ideal outcome.
Further tips on tech use for less stress
Take it gently and start small. Digital detox does not need to mean removing all technology from your life.
Leave your technology switched off for 10 minutes at a time. Spend that time on something you enjoy. Then follow up with larger breaks if you need it.
I noticed that Fiona Humberstone of The Brand Stylist left a message on her Instagram last week, saying she was taking a week off from checking social media so she could spend time with family. This is a great example of a mindful digital detox.
Here are some other tips that may help.
- Use a wristwatch or standard alarm clock to wake you instead of your device. Then leave it outside the bedroom.
- Turn off notifications.
- Try to think about something without googling it or before finding other people’s opinions online first?
- Make sure your devices are in another room during meal times.
- Unsubscribe from email newsletters that you don’t really need.
- Remove all unused apps.
- Limit your time on social media to a total of 1 hour (if it’s not related to your job).
Let’s not forget we have a great amount of positive benefits that come with technology, such as flexible working hours and location.
Scientists are not yet agreed on how much technology or social media is too much, so you have to make your own tech rules. Not let the tech companies make them for you.
If you find that you are struggling with the impact technology has on your life, the only way forward seems to be a digital detox, but it can be a mere minutes instead of giving up technology for good. Then followed by sensible, mindful usage.
There is not one ideal solution for everyone, so it’s up to you to be mindful about making your own rules which are led by your goals.
Eventually I hope there will be more support systemically, with governments stepping up to create guidelines and companies regulating tech breaks before we have more mental health problems in our society.
Somewhere I still see the utopian benefits of a world connected by the web. Where people meet online to facilitate a meeting in real life, where geographically remote communities can access services, money can be raised for good causes, and free education is available for all.
For now, use technology to its advantage … just do it mindfully.
Like this blog post? I’d love it if you stay a while and read another. I predict this one about releasing stress by relaxing your face will be perfect for you.