Should We All Just Switch Off?

2nd September 2016

The idea of leading device-free lives, whether that’s having a holiday from Facebook or instituting phone-free family nights, is increasingly popular, especially amongst parents anxious about their offspring’s techno dependency. Is it worth doing? And can you convince kids they should see it as a positive?

Jennifer Lipman investigates and asks…

Emptying my handbag on the airport conveyor belt, a thought struck me. There I was, ‘travelling light’ – with an iPad, iPod, Kindle and Samsung phone. Surely one person doesn’t need all those gadgets?

“At Gatwick the other day I struggled to see someone not looking at a screen,” agrees Chris Flack, co-founder of UnPlug, a company running technology-free retreats, when we speak about the role these devices play in our lives. “Everyone’s doing it so we think it’s fine. The problem is no-one ever told us to create rules around our use of technology.”

Flack is one of a burgeoning group – psychologists, parenting experts, everyday citizens – advocating taking time to switch off and give the real world a chance. David Cameron’s erstwhile political guru Steve Hilton famously refuses to carry a mobile, while Vogue’s Anna Wintour made headlines for her choice of a basic Nokia. “There’s definitely a movement coming but it’s slow,” Flack says. 

Is it time for more of us to join? Certainly, we are increasingly dependent on technology – sleeping with our phones right by our beds, rarely leaving the house without them, and watching TV while swiping. A survey for Samsung last summer found that, while three quarters of young Britons would take their phone to the beach, just a quarter would bring a book.

To an extent, it’s just modern life. “We’re exposed to communications technology such as email all day, then come home and use similar technology for entertainment,” notes Dr Richard MacKinnon from the Future Work Centre. “This is part of the challenge.”

So how much is too much? Dr McKinnon says there is no ‘one size fits all’ – simple rules won’t work for every job, age-group or person. The crucial question is whether your habits feel healthy and helpful. For example, he asks, does checking email first thing or late at night put your mind at rest or does it lead to more worries?

Some see our reliance on technology as an addiction, like any other. Goldsmiths University psychologist Dr Max Blumberg is one of several experts who refers to the dopamine hit; logging on gives us that much-sought ‘fix’. He suggests asking ourselves questions to assess our relationship with technology: “How anxious do I get when I’m disconnected? How much more do I spend because I’m usually online?”

We (and our offspring) might not admit we are addicted – although addicts are masters of denial – yet if the thought of being without our phone or tablet is worrying, we probably have more of a problem than we think. We can ask these questions of and about ourselves – and of and about our sons and daughters, from toddlers to teenagers. As with any dependence, says Dr Blumberg, it’s about control. “If you rely on technology, you’re not in charge.”

Dr Raian Ali, a digital addiction expert at Bournemouth University, goes further, saying it’s only partially about time spent on digital devices. “It’s also about preoccupation,” he explains. “A gamer may play a game for an hour but keep thinking about it for the rest of the day.”

While some technology makes us more productive – answering email on-the-go can save us from working late – it may also make our lives more stressful. “Most online information we consume daily is noise, not signal,” suggests Anastasia Dedyukhina, founder of Consciously Digital. “It doesn’t serve anything apart from overloading us.”

Indeed, for all that we have more information at our fingertips than we could ever digest, being constantly connected isn’t necessarily making us happier. Mental health complaints are skyrocketing, while a recent Cambridge University study suggested couples were swapping sex for Netflix binges.

Flack, speaking from experience of depression, thinks people are becoming burnt out. “We need to have a break once in a while,” he says. “There’s so much pressure to never stop but most successful people speak of the need for slow work, for breaks in order to be more productive.”

Restoring focus and getting rid of the noise blocking the ‘space for creativity’ is the philosophy behind UnPlug and myriad other ‘switching off’ campaigns. Flack cautions against calling them detoxes because of the connotations of drug dependency, and says that rather than going cold turkey, it’s about helping people have healthy relationships with technology. “It’s developing new, more positive habits, so that on Monday they don’t just go back into the whirlwind.”

UnPlug run weekend sessions, focused on meditation. But for most of us, switching off is something to fit into our busy lives. How? Flack advises linking it to something positive; buying a fancy alarm clock, for example, so not having your phone nearby to wake you up isn’t a problem. “To instigate a new habit you need to deliver reward.”

Dedyukhina emphasises the importance of uninstalling apps that aren’t critical, or at least removing them from the home screen. She says it’s about deciding “what you are ready to outsource to tech and what not” – for example, using a physical map or diary; buying a newspaper rather than downloading the iPad edition.

She is adamant that notifications must go; that constant ping isn’t helping anyone. “Your phone doesn’t know what’s relevant,” she points out. “It’s your job to decide that. Imagine a fridge making a notification every five minutes to let you know you haven’t eaten cherries. Sounds crazy? Our phones are doing exactly that.”

Ultimately, it’s choosing how your technology fits into your life. “We’d encourage people to use their technology mindfully,’ says Dr McKinnon. “It’s too easy to keep staring at a smartphone when we could be having a conversation.”

Unlike other addictions, there is a role for technology in unplugging. “While tobacco and alcohol cannot tell their ‘users’ to stop, software can,” says Dr Ali, who is researching this subject. He wants technology to come with measures such as warning messages. Developers, he suggests, have an ethical responsibility “so people take an informed decision whether and how to use technology”.

For parents, it can be a constant battle to encourage kids away from the screen and into the garden; the issue topped an Action for Children survey of difficult behaviours, above homework, bedtime and healthy eating. And, as yet, we don’t definitively know the impact of all these gadgets on children. On the one hand there are risks including cyber-bullying and access to pornography, on the other there are educational apps and coding classes for toddlers.

“Older generations are bound to criticise because it’s different to their experience,” Dr Blumberg suggests. But he points to benefits such as the ability to make collaborative decisions like never before. “We need to respond to what the environment throws at us.”

That said, like most people, he agrees parents should limit screen time from an early age. The main concern is that boredom – familiar to most previous generations – is vital for developing creative skills. “If they are constantly plugged in they are taken away from normal life and from building relationships,” says Flack. “Down the road this could cause huge problems.” Dr Ali echoes this, warning that being immersed in technology risks children losing social skills and the ability to make genuine connections.

So how can parents convince their children to turn off? “Lead by example,” says Dedyukhina. “If you are connected all the time, you can’t expect your child not to be.” She doesn’t advocate an outright ban, suggesting instead approaches like ‘earning’ screen time from chores.  “It’s useless to prohibit your child from using the internet if all their friends are on it.”

Few of us will ever be able to switch off entirely – modern life doesn’t work that way. But that doesn’t mean we always need to be switched on. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves: would we be as happy without the constant alerts and backlit screens? Would not having access to them make us more successful at our jobs, or better partners or parents?

As Dedyukhina points out, “tech companies are trying to convince you that all the information is very important. The truth is, there’s very little important information out there. It’s up to you how busy you want to keep yourself…”

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