There’s no denying that many of us are overwhelmingly obsessed with technology. Nearly half of adults are “completely hooked” to their smartphones, a recent report from Ofcom revealed. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds (61%) of under 24s are addicted to their devices and almost half (49%) check their phone within five minutes of waking up.
“For the first time, smartphones are the UK’s most popular internet device and are now the hub of our daily lives,” said Ofcom’s director of research James Thickett. He’s right – the average person checks their phone every six-and-a-half minutes.
With over 200 million new mobile users expected in the next 12 months globally, this situation isn’t going to go away.
But what’s the solution?
In 2015, the concept of digital detox has evolved to the point where it’s no longer about switching off devices and sending out smoke signals.
Instead, it’s for people who want to become more mindful of how much time they spend glued to their screens. It’s about taking time out from devices every now and then to engage and reconnect with real people and the real world.
And if you don’t think it’s needed, then do a quick headcount of the number of people you see walking on the street with their heads buried in their smartphones. Or people filming a gig rather than immersing themselves in the music.
The idea of the digital detox has been harnessed by some of the brightest minds in the media and technology, who understand there’s a need to become aware of device usage so wellbeing doesn’t suffer.
Arianna Huffington has spoken extensively about the importance of having a device-free bedroom. Similarly, Randi Zuckerberg (her brother is Mark Zuckerberg who founded Facebook, you might’ve heard of him) has a digital-free day each week.
They are proof that digital detox isn’t about banning technology altogether but rather improving and evolving the balance between using it to better our lives and simply allowing it to take over.
James Eades, 34, runs an IT business and, as a result, is immersed in tech 24/7. After the birth of his child, Eades became increasingly aware of the amount of time he spent on his devices. So he decided to reassess how much time he spent plugged in so he could spend more “uninterrupted time” with his child.
After (somewhat ironically) hearing about the concept of digital detox on social media, he decided to unplug from all of his devices, except the television, for 24 hours.
“I was expecting to find it very difficult, but actually enjoyed the first time and felt extremely relaxed,” he tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle. “It was a breath of fresh air to not have constant information attacking me from social media, emails and the news.”
Since his detoxification, Eades regularly has an “unplug day” and is far more conscious of spending less time on his devices. He also strongly believes that being connected all the time could play havoc on mental health.
“It’s normal for us to constantly receive information all day long, whether that’s through email, social media, general internet use or push notifications, and it’s only when we totally detox that we realise how much time we spend consuming digital media instead of enjoying time with each other or our surroundings,” he reflects.
“I’m convinced that too much information is causing a lot of mental health problems, whether that’s anxiety, stress or more serious issues.”
The concept of digital detox isn’t just something that can be applied to the lives of individuals. It can benefit businesses too.
Martin Talks is the chief non-digital officer from a company called Digital Detoxing, which runs unplugging programmes for companies. “We look at ways to ensure people are healthier, happier and more productive at work through a positive relationship with technology,” he explains.
Talks believes that people are left feeling constantly stressed, anxious, distracted and lacking in creativity because of the “bombardment of emails, calls and social media”. It can also affect team spirit, as workers are more likely to “socially snub colleagues” by looking at their phones mid-conversation, and sometimes workers’ attendance levels drop because of stress.
When this happens, the team from Digital Detoxing step in to put together a series of activities and measures to help businesses and staff get the best out of each other. But minus the tech.
The company runs ‘Digital Detoxing Adventures’ which aims to get people out of auto-pilot and gives them a chance to reassess what they are doing. “We take groups away to beautiful locations, remove their technology and get them to reconnect with the world around, each other and themselves,” says Talks.
They also hold workplace audits to see how effective the workplace is both physically and virtually. The company will then make suggestions as to how to make their work space better. Finally, they conduct mindfulness courses where they teach mindfulness techniques including meditation, effective breathing and ways to make people feel in the moment rather than worrying about things outside their control.
The goal is “happier, healthier and more productive workforces”.
The idea of getting away on a digital detox holiday isn’t new, but there are now retreats which teach people how to step away from devices.
Lucy Pearson co-founded Unplugged Weekend, which hosts device-free weekends for groups at a cost of roughly £500 per person. Instead of scrolling through Instagram for hours on end, they practise mindfulness and meditation.
Pearson says their typical clientele is young professionals, but they also entertain families and middle-aged people. People attend for a wide variety of reasons including to switch off from never-ending work emails, meet and connect with new people or because they’ve realised they spend far too much time on their devices and not enough time with their families.
It sounds intense, but does it actually stick?
Natalie Kent, 28, is a health coach who booked herself on to Unplugged Weekend after feeling like her life was being ruled by her devices. “I wanted a complete switch off,” she says. “I was looking forward to a break from the city, I wanted quiet and no glaring lights.”
After her weekend away with Unplugged, her head felt clearer and she was more “refreshed”. But it didn’t take long for her to switch back to old habits once she got home. “At the start I was very good and removed Facebook from my phone as an app and tried to not use my phone when on public transport or walking,” she reveals. “But I’m afraid to say those bad habits have slipped back.”
Despite this, she says the retreat has made her much more aware of how much time she spends on her devices.
“The idea of living without them is unrealistic, it’s crucial for my job. However the one thing I have implemented is not checking my phone in the morning until I’ve finished my morning hot water and lemon. It’s now not the first thing I look at.”
So that’s digital detox for adults. But what about the entire generation who live and breathe tech by the time they hit 11?
One school that has actively tried to encourage pupils to unplug is The Old Hall school in Shropshire. Earlier this year, the school held a digital detoxing week where students were asked to find ways to amuse themselves which didn’t involve digital devices.
Martin Stott, headteacher of the school, has openly aired his concerns that children are interacting with real people less which results in them struggling in social situations later on in life, because they are less able to read body language and facial expressions properly.
“You often see children in restaurants with iPads to entertain them while mum and dad chat over dinner,” Stott previously told The Times. “It erodes family time and they’re missing out on messages from body language and facial expressions from those around them. People watching is a great pastime for many but I think it’s been lost to a degree.”
Stott believes that parents are hugely influential in helping youngsters switch off. “I think parents would find it more difficult than their children, especially as a lot of business is done via mobile phones,” he said. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t phone each other, but don’t go on the screen for games and leisure. Spend more time talking to each other instead.”
James Eades says that as a parent, he is still trying to get to grips with how he’s going to bring up his daughter in the digital age.
“I want her to have access to technology and to be skilled at using it ready for school and the workplace, but I’m equally determined to make sure that she experiences life away from it,” says Eades.
“We hope to have tech-free evenings at home, tech-free holidays and to make sure she is exposed to experiences that we both had as children like time in the outdoors doing activities like cycling, fishing and exploring.”
It’s something adults can benefit from too – we’d be much better off being outdoors or spending time with our loved ones than flipping between two (or three) devices in front of the TV.
Technology has given us plenty of things to be grateful for. But there’s no getting away from the fact that as it evolves – whether it’s the advance of wearable tech or the increase in mobile phone users – our world will become more digitally saturated.
But that’s not to say we have to suffer because of it, and ultimately the responsibility to use or not use it, rests in our hands.