Technology is everywhere. Americans spend nearly half their day staring at screens (over 10.5 hours), a trend that has only increased over the past several years. And while this unprecedented level of access to information and entertainment certainly has its advantages, the drawbacks can be substantial.
The advent of constant communication, entertainment, and social media have damaged our social skills, physical and mental health, and may be stunting the development of our youth.
That’s why it’s important that we take time for a digital detox, when we can unplug and get a break from the omnipresence of our tech.
Too Much Tech: Troubling Trends
While “internet addiction” has not been formally recognized as a medical disorder, there is overwhelming evidence that too much screen time leads to poor health, stunted social skills, and the onset of several mental disorders. What’s worse, our tech seems to have a particularly acute effect on our children. As the first generation with such unfettered access to tech, and at an increasingly younger age, the long-term damage may not be apparent for decades.
Here are just a few of the ways in which technology is damaging our health and wellbeing:
We process more than 3 times the amount of information that we did 50 years ago. With all of this data at our fingertips, it becomes harder and harder to filter the important information from the extraneous. Multitasking has become the standard, and studies show that this makes us less effective at retaining information.
Additionally, most of us are able to find the information we need in a matter of seconds, so we don’t put as much energy into storing that information. Before cell phones, most of us had memorized dozens of phone numbers – friends, families, colleagues, the doctor’s office – but with all of that information available with just a few touches of the finger, we’ve all but abandoned that skill.
Memory needs to be cultivated and exercised, and the older we get, the harder it is to recover. A digital detox can help us cultivate that skill.
One reason for poor memory stems from a lowered attention span. Social media, in particular, has drastically impaired our ability to pay attention. We’ve been conditioned to expect quick bursts of engaging information and continually move from one source of information to the next.
People who spend several hours online are more likely to forget names, important tasks, and special dates. This can have a particularly potent effect on youth. A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that increased digital media use correlates with an increase in symptoms similar to attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
While ADHD is a genetic disposition, the symptoms of the disorder can be triggered by too much screen time. Alert sounds and vibrations on our devices create response pathways in the brain that lead to compulsive behavior and high levels of stimulation. And studies show that the younger you are, the more these symptoms present.
Poor Social Skills
Perhaps tied to this lack of attention and memory, another side effect of overexposure to media is a lack of social skills. The more we isolate ourselves, the more we lose our ability to cultivate strong social bonds. Time on phones and computers or watching television has left us alone – even in crowded public spaces.
As we become increasingly accustomed to communicating digitally, we lose some of the social skills that help us interact in healthy and constructive ways. One reason for this is the absence of physical cues like eye movement and body language. Another is the often-false personas that people tend to create in the digital universe.
It’s been shown that people tend to present themselves differently online than they would in real life. The ability to choose how we present ourselves has led to a distortion of what real life is really like. A digital detox can help us be present and cultivate healthy and meaningful social relationships.
Stress and Anxiety
The combination of poor social bonding and the rewiring of our brains by technology have led to a sharp uptick in stress and anxiety. Many people are turning to their devices to cope with stress. Receiving texts and email, playing games, or watching shows releases small amount of dopamine to the pleasure center of the brain.
Unfortunately, this creates its own dependence, which leads to more stress and anxiety. We become dependent on these little bursts of pleasure, constantly seeking more, damaging our dopamine receptors, and perpetuating an endless cycle in which we will never have enough. We become compulsive about checking for new information or missed alerts. A misplaced phone or dead battery can create real anxiety and “FOMO,” or fear of missing out.
Everyone experiences some level of social anxiety, but we learn how to naturally handle those feeling by developing healthy social bonds. By isolating ourselves and relying on our devices to shield us from these encounters, we actually increase the severity of social anxiety because we are no longer equipped to deal with it.
In addition to several other mental disorders, one of the most common side effects of too much tech is depression. Instead of benefiting from real interactions that foster empathy and a support network, we isolate ourselves in the warm blue glow of our screens. The problem is that we only see the extremes of other people’s lives and can only see them the way they choose to be represented.
This leads us to feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. We begin to sense that our feelings and emotions are abnormal, that no one else feels the way that we feel. We filter through and endless stream of data, exposing ourselves to the very extremes of life. The most amazing vacations and photos. The most inspiring stories. The most tragic news.
We begin to feel that we are unexceptional because, well, everyone else seems so exceptional. So, we turn back to our devices, hoping to distract ourselves from a seemingly meaningless existence. But as we do, we only exacerbate the root issue: that we lack meaningful, personal relationships.
Stunted Emotional Development
The effects on our children are significantly more acute when it comes to the harm that digital media can cause. Solitude and independence are very important for adolescents, but with constant access to cell phones, teens today are constantly connected.
Nonstop contact with parents and friends often leads to severe codependency. It has also been connected to a higher instance of narcissism and a marked reduction in empathy. The truth is that we are constantly being desensitized by games, movies, music, social media, and sensationalized news. A digital detox forces us to face real relationship issues with real people and real emotions. Without the filters of the internet, we begin to develop a deeper emotional intelligence that can positively affect both ourselves and those around us.
There are a number of health risks associated with increased digital activity. Some of these are due to inactivity, like obesity and heart disease. Others come from the physical actions of using our devices.
People who spend too much time in front of screen can experience faster macular degeneration and are more likely to have damaged vision than their tech-free counterparts. There has also been a documented rise in head, neck, and spinal injuries in heavy users. Our posture suffers, and we end up spending more time looking down than we do looking up. This leads to spinal misalignment, blurred vision, and even migraines.
Insomnia is another associated side effect, suffered by those who are unable to sleep because of technology addiction. Perhaps the most fundamental issue impacting all of these is stress. These symptoms not only cause stress, they can be worsened by it.
Constant access to the internet has left workers fried and taken away any real sense of “time off”; we’re constantly plugged in and never truly on our own. We used to come home after work or go on a vacation with loved ones to retreat and relax from the pressures and excitement of the outside world.
Now, we can receive emails and texts, check on orders, or continue working on that report long after we’ve left the office. We travel to beautiful and secluded destinations to rest and renew, but not without snapping and uploading some selfies, checking a few emails, or checking out what’s new on social media. Nothing changes but the zip code.
How to Do a Digital Detox… 6 Tips!
This is why we need to find ways to limit our digital media exposure, and one of the best ways to start is with a digital detox. In today’s climate it’s nearly impossible to do this without making an intentional effort. And while it may not be realistic to live like the Amish for days at a time, we do have some tips for helping you and your family spend less time tethered to your tech and more time building healthy relationships and improving your mental and physical health.
Tip #1: Leave Devices Behind
This may seem obvious when doing a digital detox, but the reality is that going cold turkey isn’t an option for most of us. We rely on our gear for work and school, banking, navigation, and much more. But it’s still important to spend time that is totally tech-free.
There are plenty of ways to do this, and it can be more fun and rewarding than you may think. Go for a hike or camping trip with your friends or loved ones and have everyone leave their phones behind. Meetup for device-free dinner. Grab some maps and take an old-school road trip.
Leaving the phones and laptops behind can be scary at first, but you’ll find the rewards to be bountiful. When was the last time you had dinner with friends without a single text or selfie being sent out? What about a car ride with your kids without Google Maps up front and Hulu in the back?
We know you can’t always go back to the 80’s when it comes to tech, but we can assure you that the more time you’re able to set aside without your devices, the more rewarding it will be. A digital detox will provide perspective that will help you reduce your screen time every day.
Tip #2: Establish the Rules
When you aren’t on a device-free vacation or google-free road trip, you’ll need to establish rules for your digital detox that you discuss with the rest of your household. It’s much harder to disconnect if you’re doing it alone, so take the time to discuss your goals and what will work best for everyone. Schedule time for important tasks like homework and checking email and stick to it.
It’s best to establish the when, where, and how of your media use to help develop your rules. Talk about when and how you’ll use your devices and set clear boundaries for when and where they will not be permitted. We strongly suggest that you begin by turning your phone off at night, putting it in another room, and waiting at least one hour after waking up to get online.
Instead of treating your devices like appendages, start treating them like tools. We’ve written before about separating work time from down time. If you’re home or out with friends, the emails can wait. We promise that all of your texts and emails will still be there in the morning.
Tip #3: Plan Activities
Boredom is one of the top reasons people unlock their phones or flip on the television. In order to prevent mindless tech time, it’s important to plan activities. This could include a trip, making a meal, volunteering, playing a game, hiking, or crafting. Whatever it is, make sure you come up with a solid list of fun activities to turn to when you feel like playing just one more round of Candy Crush.
Planning activities also gives you something to look forward to and can lead to fun traditions. Perhaps Wednesday is bowling night or Mondays are game nights. By creating structure, you open the door for fun and meaningful interactions with friends and family.
Tip #4: Stay Active
There are tons of benefits to staying active, and one of them is the release of endorphins. Stimulating your body can help to replace the dopamine that your tech has been releasing for hours each day. Activities like running, cycling, and swimming are not just good for you, but they’re nearly impossible to do while plugged in to your digital devices.
Exercise has also been shown to increase attention and memory, combat stress and depression, and facilitate social bonding. If you want to undo some of the damage caused by your devices, the best way to start is to get moving.
Tip #5: Learn How to Be Alone
We don’t need to be surrounded by others every second of every day during a digital detox. In fact, that can be unhealthy and often lead you straight back to your screen the moment you find yourself alone.
This is especially important for children, who may have little to no experience with tech-free solitude. What you choose to do with the time is up to you: take a walk, read a book, meditate… The important thing is to become comfortable being alone with yourself. With a digital detox, you’ll find that even an hour of solitude each day can help you get in touch with your own emotions and make you more empathetic when interacting with others.
Tip #6: Distinguish Between Healthy and Unhealthy Tech
There’s a big difference between healthy tech and unhealthy tech, and it’s important that you find the difference. It makes sense to have emails, banking, maps, and music on your phone. But what about that game you downloaded? How about social media? Are these things building you up or are they sucking you into a black hole of wasted time and unfulfillment?
Here’s a challenge: get rid of anything you don’t need. At least for a while. Delete the games, video streaming, and social media apps. Most social accounts will allow you to temporarily suspend your account, and if you’re starting to feel angry and stressed right now, that may be the best way to start practicing healthy tech habits.
To be clear, there are a ton of benefits to social media, shows, games, and all the rest. But odds are that you’ve been spending too much time with these platforms. Instead of focusing on what you’re missing, try focusing on what you’re gaining. Instead of sitting at a restaurant trying to come up with hashtags for that sweet pic you took, try engaging the people around you. You’ll likely be rusty at first, but we promise, if you give it a try, you’ll find yourself happier and more fulfilled.
Lead by Example. When it comes to kids, the digital world is all they know. The idea of life without cell phones and laptops is foreign to them. (Seriously, have you ever seen a kid try to use a landline or Walkman?) And children rely on adults, even if they pretend that they don’t. Become the champion of family time by keeping work and home separate.
They need structure and they look to us as examples of how to behave. If we’re constantly on Pinterest, checking our fantasy teams, or posting pictures to Instagram, guess what? So will they. So, plan some activities, set up some guidelines, talk to your kids about the importance of a digital detox, and lead by example. You’ll be glad you did.
Looking for fun activities to do during your digital detox? Here’s 10 fun team activities you can plan with family or friends!