pic of a phone and a coffee

Do you need a digital detox this summer?

Pen John Gallaher Glasses 4 min read

Do you need a digital detox this summer?

When most of us wake in the morning our first instinct is to reach for the phone-it’s usually next to the bed. We then unlock it for the first of more than 70 times during the day. The average adult in the UK spends one day a week online and with a daily tidal wave of email, texts and notifications, our screens are rarely dark.

Most of us suffer from fear of missing out (FOMO) and we check our email and social media to see what has happened since we last checked in. This “checking in” behaviour is repeated throughout the day and of course every time we check in to our gadget we check out of the activity we are otherwise engaged in. On average we check our phones about 200 times a day or once every 6 ½ minutes. The downside is that one quick glance can lead to up to 20 minutes of attention loss and there is now good evidence to suggest that if our attention is broken regularly during the day this may lead to permanent problems with our concentration.

Digital social media is designed to capture our attention and once captured to hold onto it. This is the addictive component of technology use. It is recognised in the “ludic loop”- a phenomenon where we do something over and over again because every once in a while we are rewarded-we get just enough reward to go back for more. This is a large part of the reason why we check our email and social networks on a frequent basis. It takes determination and persistence to break this habit.

In his book “Irresistible; the rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked”, Adam Alter warns that many of us are addicted to digital products. 50% of adults say they check their emails during the night. Social media feeds never end. At a physiological level every notification “ping” that you hear results in the release of dopamine which is a chemical in the brain that makes us seek rewards.

When was the last time you switched off for a few hours, let alone 24 hours?. A digital detox is good for us-it gives us time to get back in tune with the rhythms of our body and lets us dictate how we spend our own time rather than be dictated to by technology. Detox involves switching off all communication technology and a “deep” detox should last between 24 and 72 hours. Follow these 3 simple steps:

  • First plan and prepare for your detox. Make a list of the technology you use and the types of activities in which you engage most often. Plan other activities for the detox period that you can engage in instead of turning to technology. For example having identified  the sites that you spend most time on you could seek out real world alternatives of those activities. Take all technology out of the bedroom and buy an alarm clock and other technology alternatives-some magazines or a book, a nice pen and paper so that you can enjoy making notes again (and remember that you recall more of what you write down). Lastly tell everyone what you’re doing and let them know that you will be off-line and Log off.
  • Find the off buttons on your devices and turn them off. (If you cannot convince yourself to turn them off completely at first then at least turn off push notifications!). Consider practicing mindfulness – you will learn how to entertain yourself without technology. With no technology you can now engage with people as you used to-in a deeper way without the distraction of technology. When at work, do not eat at your desk, get up and go for a walk. When you are exercising leave your gadgets at home and don’t listen to music when running or at least switch to aeroplane mode.
  • Log back on and repeat. When you log back in you should try to rethink what is urgent, what is important and what is neither. Consider unsubscribing from many email lists. When the alarm goes off in the morning give yourself time before checking your device-  start the day on your terms. During the day set a specific time to check, and a time limit for how long you will spend on email and social media. Turn on the manual feature for notifications. Put all technology away at mealtimes and in the bedroom.

There is evidence that this approach works. In social experiments where groups of people were taken to remote areas for a digital detox, the observers noticed changes in posture and behaviour, more engagement with others in the group and at a deeper level and improvement in sleep quality-all in a short period of time.

Why not begin taking short breaks from the digital world and progress to taking Sundays off?.

John Gallaher

Dr John Gallagher is a Medical doctor specialising in Occupational Medicine. He graduated in 1985 at University College Cork (UCC), attained his Membership of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine in 1992 and Fellowship in 1997. He completed a Masters degree at the Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham in 1991 and was the winner of the inaugural John Darwall Prize. He is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland since 2005. He is the Occupational Physician and Head of the Occupational Health Department for HSE South, based at Cork University Hospital. He is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Occupational Medicine at UCC and the academic director of the Diploma in Safety, Health & Welfare at Work at UCC. He is also an examiner, trainer and past Dean of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. John is Managing Director of Cognate Health Ltd.