Digital Detox

One of the greatest threats to your sense of self-control, self-regulation and general sanity is hiding in plain sight. You might even be reading this on it.

It's increasingly clear that our smartphones and other devices are creating as many problems as they are solving. According to a recent article from the Harvard education department, “studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death.

Learning how to be “smart” about using your smartphone is truly a major quality of life issue now, along with exercise, eating well, having enjoyable relationships, and other recognized health factors.

Surveys show most folks are spending 2-4 hours per day using a smart device. That's a big chunk of one's day. Yet many people recognize they aren't really choosing to use their device that much. They acknowledge they are addicted, and their usage is more like a compulsion. If you feel this way, welcome to the human race, at least in the industrialized world.

Lots of brilliant researchers are examining how and why digital devices are harder to put down than a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Some are looking at how they activate the reward chemistry, including Dopamine, in the brain. Others are studying how our human social wiring is vulnerable to and disrupted by the virtual social networks of Facebook and other social media platforms.

Still other fascinating theories are examining the role of behavior sciences in what makes us keep picking up the darn phone when something in us knows we shouldn't. If you aren't feeling a little cringe already: It involves slot machines.

The Harvard article states: “Similar to slot machines, many apps implement a reward pattern optimized to keep you engaged as much as possible. Variable reward schedules were introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s. In his experiments, he found that mice respond most frequently to reward-associated stimuli when the reward was administered after a varying number of responses, precluding the animal’s ability to predict when they would be rewarded. Humans are no different; if we perceive a reward to be delivered at random, and if checking for the reward comes at little cost, we end up checking habitually (e.g. gambling addiction). If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that.”

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news! But this is probably just academic confirmation of things you already know all too well.

Fortunately, there's a parallel virtuous trend afoot too, and it's been going almost as viral as a YouTube cat video: Mindfulness.

In brief, mindfulness is countering pretty much all the negative impacts of your digital device.

Where the shiny ones make us addicted, distracted, anxious and short on sleep, mindfulness studies show that even a modest amount of practice tends to reward us with:

  • a sense of inner self-control and well-being

  • improved concentration and functional problem-solving

  • reduced rates of anxiety, depression and addiction

  • greater life and relationship satisfaction

  • improved sleep

  • improved pain and stress tolerance

  • reduced bio markers of stress, such as heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones

But I understand learning to meditate isn't for everyone. If you're not up for it currently, there's another way to reverse some of the negative effects of digital overload. It's called play. Throwing a frisbee, playing golf or tennis, wobbling on a slackline, taking a yoga class, or baking cupcakes- anything done for no reason other than the enjoyment of it- are all digital detoxes. Even simply going for a walk (without your phone), and just enjoying time looking at trees and sky, listening to birds, and feeling your body moving, will bring similar benefits as a few minutes of mindfulness.

But keep in mind, mindfulness does add one important thing a game of ping-pong probably won't: It trains you to better understand and self-diagnose your distracted, reactive mind, and then drop into a moment of focus and ease.

However we get there, we all have to recognize the risks of digital overload and take action to reduce it, to be truly well.