Emma Johnson looks at how to create digital space in your life, while not entirely rejecting the technology we all need…
We all know that technology has leeched too far into every aspect of our lives. We have devices and apps for everything from listening to the radio, doing our shopping and managing our home security, to boiling the kettle, editing photos and tracking our pets’ movements.
Its impact on our lives spreads far and wide – not least damaging our eyes from the constant exposure to screens, over-stimulating our brains with constant blue light and compromising our posture with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
Worse still, our reliance on social media has reached worrying proportions. And the science is scary. MRI scans have shown that using social media, especially in moments when a picture or post is liked, lights up the same receptors in our brain that drugs, alcohol and gambling do. When social media users receive positive feedback, such as likes, their brains fire off dopamine receptors in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies.
Social media – specifically getting approval on social media – is quite literally addictive. “With social media so tightly connected to individuals’ rewards systems, users should realize the power – and possibility for abuse – of the platforms they use. Things like gambling and narcotic drugs have the power to rule over the brain’s rewards system in a similar capacity,” says a recent article by King University on the psychology of social media.
Clearly, we need to disconnect. But how? Our world IS technical, and it’s a fact that cannot be avoided. All of us use technology for work in some capacity or another. And in many cases, technology can be an incredible force for good. Technology means we are more aware of the lives of others all over the world, we can become better informed about the issues close to our heart, and more aware of those that need our attention. We can connect and find like-minded others, creating a network that geography sometimes doesn’t make possible. We can learn to meditate, get exercise tips, read magazine, find recipes, access support remotely, discover blogs, music, films we love. And more. It has been an enormous source of support for many during lockdown, and it has enabled millions of people to continue to do their jobs from home during unprecedented change.
“The technology isn’t the problem, it’s how we choose to use it. And it is a choice,” says Brooke McLary, writing Slow: Live Life Simply. McLary points out that we choose to carry our phones in our pockets, to keep them with us when we eat, to update statuses before we say good morning to the people we love. But, she argues, it’s a choice we don’t have to make. There is another way.
So, how do we make a choice to create the space needed from technology in a world that is decisively digital?
The most basic thing to start with is of course about setting limits and clear boundaries that you are not prepared to negotiate with. Make a commitment to separate your work and leisure use. During the working day, use your devices between specified hours. Then allow yourself one hour of social use outside of your working day. Use a simple app to track your use, you can even set time limits to kick you out of your social media accounts. Make family rules too – no phones at the table or in front of the television, and have an evening cut-off for when you stop using your phone. And keep your phone out of your bedroom too. Also limit the way you access things to one device – audiobooks and digital books on an iPhone, social media and websites on your laptop – this one trick will save you hours of pointless scrolling.
Toning Down the Noise
Get rid of as many apps as you can, you really don’t need so many. File them into sections so they’re not only neater, but harder to find. Take games off – play a board game instead or read a book; make a commitment to remove apps you haven’t opened for 30 days, and put all your social media apps on final screen of your smart phone. Finally, turn off all notifications – nothing is that urgent. If you’re working, put your phone in another room, and always have it on silent with the vibrate function off.
Asking the Big Questions
One of the ways you can be more mindful with your phone use is by asking yourself clear questions when you’re using it. It takes practise, but the more you do it, the more you’ll start to recognise that addictive behaviour, and be able to change it. Next time you reach for your phone, ask yourself, is this making me feel better? Am I avoiding something? Should I be asleep/working/parenting? Is there someone here who needs my attention (instead of my phone)? Can this wait? What I am learning by being on my phone right now? Being honest with yourself about these answers will mean you can start to take back control of your digital use.
Getting Physical Distance
Time away or on holiday when you don’t have access to your phone can be really empowering and help you assess and change your relationship with your phone. At Samphire Festival in the UK there is strict no-phone policy, while another global festival is focused entirely on digital detoxing. Restival describes itself as a weekend of reconnection, ‘to yourself, one another and the world around you’. With foundations in tribal wisdom, the aim is to give visitors a break from modern living in remote locations such as the Sahara Desert and Arizona, where there is no wifi, so a phone can only be used to take pictures. In Wales, Unplugged Weekend runs regular group experiences to help people manage their digital habits and lead more balanced, healthy lifestyles. “People who don’t have their mobile phones find it easier to connect with one another,” founder Lucy Pearson told the Evening Standard.
We love Brooke McLary’s idea about setting a standard for the way you use your phone, ensuring that it adds to your life – and that of those around you – rather than taking away from it. “We need to make our use of technology intentional,” she writes. “Use it well. Use it to make life better. Then put it down and go do something else.”
The one word we need to remember each time when we’re engaging with our phone, is mindfulness. Ask yourself, each time you reach for you phone, what is the intention behind doing this? What can I achieve for myself or someone else that will bring something positive to my life? That could be a simple and varied as paying a bill, sending a supportive message to a friend, opening a meditation track or sharing something inspiring from your day on social media. All these things are great, they’re good for you and for others. But, when you’re done, put the phone down, walk away and find a face-to-face connection with someone that you love. And remember, that this is what matters most.