Digital Detox: How our love affair with our screens can harm us—and how to break free

01 Jun 2018

Are you guilty of phubbing?

By Kerry Parry Ping. It’s an innocuous sound that notifies you to pick up your smartphone. You have a message from a friend or a boss. Someone or something requires your attention, tearing you away from the task at hand or time spent with a friend or family member. Of course, you can always ignore it. But why not look and see? If you often find yourself torn between the people in front of you and the beckoning call of your phone, not only are you guilty of “phubbing” (snubbing others in favor of your phone), but you might be in need of a digital detox. A digital detox is a means of breaking a pattern of overuse—whether that means time away from all electronics or adopting some mindful practices to curb habits. Overuse is a far cry from addiction, but both terms describe the condition that everyone who is “plugged in” can relate to. People can become addicted to gambling, shopping, web surfing, sex, porn or games in the digital landscape. What may start as a healthy interest in something novel can turn into an actual chemical dependency that interferes with work, school and relationships. A case in point: A group of young Chinese men became so addicted to their gaming, afraid to miss even a second of the action, that they took to wearing adult diapers to skip bathroom breaks. Less dramatic, but perhaps more insidious, is our craving for connection via social media. While work demands have us glued to technology, we remain tethered to our devices during our off-hours because we feel compelled to keep connected with friends, family members and even strangers. Social media is designed to hook us. Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president, recently made headlines when he claimed the company’s success rested on answering one question: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Facebook built a system to exploit a vulnerability in human psychology. Every time you get a “like” on a post, you’re receiving a dopamine hit. Parker is not the only tech executive to take advantage of digital’s allure. Companies are sprouting up that use neuroscience as a means of getting users hooked on a digital product. Some even sell solutions to help addicted users kick the habit they helped create.
Bestselling author Brian Luke Seaward helps companies combat digital addiction. (photo courtesy brian luke seaward)
“There’s a huge experiment going on with technology—with no control group,” says Brian Luke Seaward, Ph.D., health psychologist and executive director of Inspiration Unlimited and The Paramount Wellness Institute in Boulder. “Don’t get me wrong. I love technology, but we have to set healthy boundaries.” Seaward's thoughts on stress management and mind-body-spirit healing can be found in his bestselling books, Tedx talks, PBS specials, seminars and speeches worldwide. His services have become popular with CEOs who want to wean themselves and their employees off digital addictions, not only because they dovetail nicely with employee wellness programs, but also increase productivity. Consequences of digital overuse can range from physical symptoms, like carpal tunnel syndrome and “tech neck,” to the long-term effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Several studies link the blue light from digital screens to the disruption of the pineal gland’s ability to produce melatonin. Sleep-deprived employees are not as productive and can be prone to illness and injury. In addition to sleep loss, digital habits are distracting. Seaward points to a study on task performance that found just the presence of a smartphone on the desk reduced productivity by 20 percent. He says our “always-on” culture—which condones sitting at a computer for eight hours then going online during leisure time—isn’t healthy. “Our nervous system isn’t built for that. We are wiring our brain for stress.”
Tracy Markle provides education and support around digital addiction to tweens, teens and their families. (photo courtesy Tracy Markle)
Another aspect of our technology overuse is what Seaward describes as “memory offshoring.” We miss out on the mental exercise of solving a hypothetical question when Google does it for us. We skip the task of remembering names, dates, phone numbers or how to get from point A to point B. Our phones do that. But the lack of mental gymnastics is rarely replaced by another form of a critical thinking exercise. Additionally, we don’t give our brains time to process what we learn because we are continually taking in new information. These two factors can lead to “digital dementia,” impaired memory and cognitive skills. A constant diet of social media may also lead people to prefer digital connections over in-person relationships, which may even wreak havoc with our biology, suggests Tracy Markle, MA, LPC, founder and co-director of the Digital Media Treatment & Education Center in Boulder. When asked about the potential for the brain to evolve to incorporate new forms of electronic communication, she says: “Evolution is a slow-moving train. Technology moves at the speed of light.” She adds, “There’s something called limbic resonance, which can only happen through face-to-face communication.” The sight, sound, smell and energy of another human being releases neurochemicals in the limbic area of the brain, which is necessary for emotional and physical well-being.

Breaking free

How to break free? Amy Ippoliti, a Boulder resident, international yoga teacher and frequent contributor on mind-body practices, suggests unplugging completely. “Go somewhere for a week with no WiFi and no cellular.” If the thought of such a retreat makes you break out in a cold sweat, it might be an indication that you need it. “The loneliness (of being away from our devices) can be terrifying at first,” she says. After a while though, the mind fills the emptiness with other things. “You can journal, draw, have long conversations or create art.”
Amy Ippoliti, international yoga teacher, offers advice on doing a digital detox. (photo courtesy Amy Ippoliti)
You don’t have to retreat to a cave or climb a mountain to experience freedom from technology. Simply get away doing an activity that fills your entire day without devices, checking only briefly at the end of the day. Even that can be detoxifying. Ippoliti reports coming away from such events feeling as if she’s reverted to the best time in her life when the pace was much slower. “I come away feeling better; my eyesight improves, I even feel smarter.” If that sounds appealing, consider periodic breaks from your normal routine. Whether you create your own retreat or attend a specific getaway designed to break the cycle of digital dependence, consider the following steps to rein in your digital habits: ? Evaluate your digital use. Try using a free app, such as Moment, which will tell you how much time you spend on your smartphone and what apps consume most of your attention. ? Turn off notifications on your phone and consider deleting platforms that consume more than two hours of usage. ? Don’t take your phone to bed with you. Buy an alarm clock and limit your screen usage before bedtime. If it’s possible, turn off your router during sleep hours. ? Set aside a minimum of one unplugged hour out of each day, one day out of the week, and take at least one complete break every year. ? Be present for the things you enjoy in life. Give the gift of your full attention when speaking to loved ones. Enjoy activities wholeheartedly, without the presence of your device.
Kerry Parry is a longtime Colorado resident, freelance writer, blogger and author of Conversations with the Faithful: Seeking Enlightenment Over Lunch.
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