Power Off – how a digital detox restores factory settings

“Let’s not turn our phones on tomorrow” I suggested to my wife at the weekend. She agreed and we spent Sunday without them.

As we travel further into this scary journey they call life, it feels like there’s a developing need for us to understand, control and tame our own brain. We might think we’re in control of it, that we power its processes and rhythms, and we decide how to communicate. But increasingly we’re not and we don’t. This is largely thanks to smartphones and all-pervasive technology.

Mental health is broadly gaining more recognition and understanding. From paranoid schizophrenia to regularly feeling sad about everything, it’s a vast spectrum and deeply complex area. We all have a mental landscape of some sort, which influences how we communicate with the world personally and professionally. We all have personal moods and struggles. There are all sorts of ways we might address these: different types of therapy, hypnosis, reading lots of self-help books. My view is that a key one concerns our relationship with technology, primarily our smartphone.

Do smartphones help us with these moods or struggles, or do they make them worse? It depends on your relationship with your phone. They are omnipresent personal assistants, always there, always capable of providing amusement and distraction and a universe of neuroses. But some of us may be more dependent on them than others. Apparently some people just use it as a phone, text message and email device. But I suspect these people are a dying or steadily evolving breed.

For others, those sucked into the world of various social media apps and constant news, we can feel enslaved. We are being controlled like robots through our smartphones. Like no generation before us, we dangle back and forth like dumb string puppets, our day-to-day behaviours, attitudes and opinions manipulated through devices.

Personal Impact of Smartphone Obsession

This impacts personal relationships. How many have felt their partner, children or parents have a closer relationship with their device (or their virtual friends through those devices) than they have with them in person? My uncomprehensive scientific research suggests lots.  From the moment of waking to a few seconds before clicking of a light and attempting to sleep, we can be transfixed by the unlimited bounty.

On top of the established connections, messaging apps and social platforms, our attention is constantly being wrestled for via pop-up notifications. News outlets are shoutier than ever, even when their headlines don’t justify it.

Sure, you can switch notifications off but even so, just knowing all the world’s information is contained within our devices mean we don’t concentrate so well.   We might be reading something we don’t fully understand and want to cross-reference, so we ‘quickly’ Google to inform our reading. Concentration destroyed, we are distracted away down a warren of tangents. Maybe we don’t ever resume that book or magazine, which we were actually quite enjoying.

Involuntary Itches And Existential Empowerment

If for a moment we don’t feel fully invested, engaged, entertained, amused by something off smartphone screen, our brain will instantly respond Pick Up Your Phone, open an app. Speaking for myself, this becoming almost entirely involuntary and I hate it, that I have become this robot.

While trying to concentrate, you can have the back of the brain irritation about not posting anything on any platform for a few hours, maybe for a day. You have this strange itch. Something occurs to you, an observation, a thing you are really enjoying, an experience, a picture you haven’t yet shared. And you just want to remind the world you still exist, you are alive, still here, still awesome, creative, smart, funny, generally amazing. People should like you. Loads more people should like you, follow you, see how great you are.
“Wait. Stop. No I don’t, brain! I don’t care about all that.”
“You do, you want people to know you’re here, don’ you?”
“No, not really.”
“But they might forget about you. They might unfollow you.”
“I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, you doooo. You do care.”
“Screw you, brain!”

digital-cardiff-communications

How absorbed can we become?

Power Off

Living without a smartphone to hand was strange. By turns it felt faintly apocalyptic, not having that connection to the outside world – anything could have happened and we wouldn’t immediately know; and also like we were on holiday, freed from the digital tentacles of attention-grabbing headlines, bleeps and pings.

When not fully occupied your brain still dashes off and instructs you to pick up your phone, open an app. The behaviour is now that ingrained it will take a while to reprogram, and probably can’t be done in 24 hours. Nonetheless a digital detox does give you the reinforced understanding that there is choice. It is possible to have greater control. Life doesn’t have to be so commanded by our devices and the reactions of other people and robots to our words and pictures.

More freedom allowed more uninterrupted conversations. It allowed me to finish a book I probably wouldn’t have otherwise finished, (the exceptional booker nominated Autumn by Ali Smith). There was a greater sense of maintained calm, knowing it couldn’t be suddenly interrupted or distracted from by a bleep or something ringing. I watched the first few minutes of the 10pm news, which wasn’t massively different from the news 24 hours earlier. Granted, it was Sunday, but still.

The Fallout – Perils of Instagram

The next day I approached my phone with weary reluctance. We can’t really live without them, the genius blighters. It would be nice if we could.

Opening Instagram for the first time in around 36 hours, I still experienced the stupid glow (scientists say it’s the small chemical ‘feel good’ hit of dopamine) upon seeing the red hearts and notifications. Then immediately I felt dumb again. Hooray for the Likes from newly programmed follow-to-unfollow robot accounts. Fool for bothering to look at their accounts to validate the suspicion.

There’s not a great deal of meaning in any of it, particularly in Instagram. This platform is arguably the worst for me, as a photographer it’s the most addictive yet also the most meaningless, because there are so many programmed robotic accounts whose likes and follows you actually acknowledge in some way, there is so much unbelievable chaff, there is so much dumb stuff, super dumb stuff.

Even those hugely popular authentic accounts full of great images must be so clogged, you wonder how meaningful their experience is. Doesn’t it just become a tedious job?  At the same time, I always want loads more likes and more followers.

Future Digital Detox

My conclusion is that occasionally not turning your phone on is a good thing. A digital detox is probably positive for your mental health, whoever you are. I’d like to think we’ll do it again, maybe make a regular thing of it. It lets you relax, think and communicate in a different, better considered, more devolved way.

Go away and engage in person with other people and physical hard stuff. Sack off the screens from time to time. It’s simple, albeit harder to do than you might expect. But it’s as good as any other way of being properly mindful.

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