What’s the evidence?
Evidence on the topic is mixed and often contradictory. Some neuroimaging studies have demonstrated harmful effects on brain structure and functioning as a result of Internet overuse. But, as yet, there is no conclusive evidence that normal use has a negative impact.
There have been concerns about digital amnesia, where people are more likely to forget information now that we can so easily look it up online. However, our brains are great at outsourcing and this is a phenomenon that goes back before we had the Internet. We have always been forgetful when we know we can draw upon someone else’s expertise.
Other headlines have centred on studies showing a link between social media and depression. Passive use in particular (scrolling through your feed rather than actively contributing) has been associated with a decrease in wellbeing, life satisfaction and even belonging. What isn’t clear is how this relationship works. It could be that people who are already feeling low spend more time scrolling, rather than social media itself causing a low mood. Some research has even shown that these sites can enhance our existing relationships and help us make new ones. However, evidence suggests that time off from social media has a positive impact on loneliness and depression.
Detox your way to a better work-life balance
One aspect where the evidence is clear, however, is work-life balance. Technological advances have created an ‘always on’ work culture, where people are expected to be on call and email first thing in the morning and last thing at night. This has implications for wellbeing: those who are better able to ‘switch off’ when they get home tend to sleep better, respond better to stress and have higher life satisfaction. Technology is a key mediator of this, with those who use the same phone number or laptop for work and home finding it far more difficult to set these boundaries.
If you think you’d benefit from time away from your devices, then some of the following may be useful techniques to help you do so without too much effort.
Turn off notifications
One study showed that it takes us over 20 minutes to get our concentration back after a distraction. When you see your phone light up with an email, text, Facebook notification, Twitter mention, WhatsApp message or LinkedIn connection request, you’re bound to be interrupted from the task at hand. Make sure your phone is on ‘Do not disturb’, or disable push notifications from certain apps.
Harness existing habits
Research shows that it’s much easier to form new habits when we link them to activities or triggers in the environment that already occur in our daily lives. Use your morning coffee or afternoon walk as times to be completely device-free; take a book with you instead, or use it as an opportunity to practise mindfulness.
Have a phone time-out
Having dinner or watching television with your partner or friends? Try swapping your phones over so you’re not tempted to check them. If you’re home alone (or don’t particularly trust your friends), you could always try leaving your phone in another room. The effort to go and get it is likely to be too much for you to break your detox.
Get an alarm clock
Most of us are guilty of using our phones to wake us up, which means it’s the last thing we see at night and the first thing we see in the morning. Using an alarm clock means you can leave your phone switched off all night, reducing your likelihood of being disturbed.