As many as 15 million people in the UK have admitted to taking a “digital detox” after becoming addicted to the internet, a recent Ofcom report revealed. But if banishing your devices altogether sounds unthinkable, going cold turkey with your social media accounts could be a good place to start.
Can’t switch off?
Keeping in touch with friends, storing photos, debating politics – there are plenty of valid reasons for being on social media. It makes us feel connected, right? But what about the hours spent mindlessly scrolling through the carefully curated highlights of other people’s lives (and videos of dogs on skateboards)?
The trouble is when we’re connected on social media, we’re not connected in ‘real life’. And we’re often blissfully unaware of this – until we bump into someone in the street while messaging, or look up from our screen to see we just missed our pre-schooler build an impressive Lego tower, or get caught out casting a furtive sideways glance at our flashing phone while ‘listening’ to our friend’s real-life problems.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Dr Mary Aiken, a pioneering forensic cyber-psychologist and author of The Cyber Effect, draws our attention to a sobering statistic: “According to one study, an individual checks their phone an average of 200 times a day: that equates to once every five minutes.”
Connected v disconnected
“The thing about social media is we think it’s about being connected but it’s very much about being disconnected,” says media psychologist Emma Kenny. “We know that people feel a sense of grief if they’re not around social media. If they’re not aware of what’s going on, they feel like something’s passing them by and even though that’s not true, the habitual instinct is to keep checking. And when we do that, we’re not living in the present.
“The more we disconnect from our lives and connect with something that isn’t real, the less present we are in our real worlds – and what we know about the present is that’s what actually keeps us healthy, happy and well adjusted.”
Why are we so addicted to our phones?
Aiken tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle: “Technology is like a giant slot machine. Every so often you get a great result and that is far more compelling and addictive than if every result was a good result or every result was a bad result.
“In other words, every so often you get an email from your boss saying you’ve done a great job, or a friend texting you with good news, or a social media alert to tell you that someone liked something that you posted. This is feedback. And this is effectively what draws you in to keep checking.”
Aiken also points out that our devices have been cleverly designed to get our attention, comparing their auditory (bleeping), visual (flashing) and tactile (buzzing) cues to the signalling behaviours of the animal kingdom, such as a bird’s cry or a peacock fanning its tail. The only form of animal signalling that hasn’t yet been introduced is chemical. “But no doubt they’ll have phones at some stage releasing pheromones,” she adds.
But the side effects of all this scrolling can be far-reaching. Take self-esteem. There’s nothing like watching the edited highlights of other people’s lives to drive our insecurities. But this comparison anxiety is driven by what’s essentially just smoke and mirrors.
“It’s an illusion!” says ‘comparison coach’ and founder of Proof Coaching, Lucy Sheridan. “At the very best our online identities are just a version of a truth, not an accurate or objective representation of it… and this can have devastating results when it comes to our self-esteem and confidence.”
Then, of course, there’s the detrimental effect of flitting between social media apps on our concentration. Researchers found extensive ‘multimedia multitasking’ was linked to greater distractibility.
And with all that late-night social activity before we get into bed, it’s not surprising our sleep patterns are suffering.
Going cold turkey
So how do we go about breaking this addiction?
“Cold turkey is a great way to gauge just how far gone you are. And from there you can change things,” says Kenny. “We need to reframe the digital detox. It’s not about taking away your world, it’s about giving it back to you in a more helpful way.”
Here’s how to do a social media detox without losing your mind:
Choose a time frame: Choose an achievable time period, like 48 hours over a weekend. If you get through that okay, you could try a little longer – or make the weekend detox a regular habit.
Hide temptation: Like clearing out the biscuits before a healthy-eating drive, keep your phone out of reach as much as possible, and use software-blocking tools if you don’t trust your own self-control.
Let people know: People who are used to communicating with you on social media are going to be left wondering if you stop picking up their messages so let them in on your plan.
Do something purposeful: Work on that novel, declutter your bedroom, go for a bike ride – do all the nurturing activities you thought you didn’t have time for until now.
Be in the moment: Reacquaint yourself with the present. Whether it’s playing with your kids, appreciating the trees in the park, or really listening to other people.
Learn from the experience: Use your detox as a springboard to a more balanced approach. Limit your social surfing to specific times of day, instigate an evening curfew and reduce your online circles. Aiken suggests thinking back to your Christmas card list, while Sheridan recommends treating your social media feeds like a house party: “Only let in the sources, people, brands and things that make you feel good and add to a positive environment.”