Family digital detox challenge

Freelance Journalist
20 February 2017

Digital detoxing – the family challenge

From social media to catch-up TV and Netflix bingeing, digital consumption is increasingly becoming a major part of our everyday lives. For one father of two, Stuart Houghton, it was becoming overwhelming.

Stuart alongside his two sons, aged 6 and 10, gave up their digital routine for a week with the help of Bupa’s Registered Nurse and Mindfulness Expert, Jane Bozier. The week ended with mixed results.

Read on to see how Stuart found his ‘digital detox’ and how you can also add a little mindfulness to your everyday life.

Two children looking at a tablet

I suppose the first clue that my digital detox week might be tricky should have been the peals of laughter from my wife when I told her. “You?” she said, incredulous. “A whole week?”

No, I replied. Us. And the boys. Come on, it will be fun. Just a few days where we can ditch our devices, unplug from the matrix and start living a simpler life. It will do us good, I said. As a family.

Yes, but seriously,” she said. “You?”

It could be argued and, indeed, occasionally is, that I have a bit of a problem with social media. I am an addict. Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are regular destinations, with Facebook having recently edged into the lead as my social media of choice. Even the more obscure ones like Ello or Minds.com get a look in every now and then.

My smartphone is rarely more than a few centimetres away from my grasp. I will sometimes find that it has appeared in my fingers while I am doing something else, like a conjuror. Except, when a magician plucks a deck of cards from thin air, he shows you a trick. When I produce my phone, I am more likely to zone out of a conversation or, if you’re lucky, show you an amusing tweet about a cat.

And I’m not alone. A study by web research firm Dscout claims that we touch, swipe, tap or otherwise fiddle with our smartphones an amazing 2,617 times a day.

Keep this in mind

One suggested technique for weaning ourselves off the digital world is mindfulness. Actually, it’s more like a collection of techniques and, despite its somewhat voguish reputation, it may be the simplest way to take back a little control of your life.

I spoke to Jane Bozier, a registered nurse and mindfulness expert, who has helped a number of people try a digital detox. She was keen to stress the benefits of detoxing, on both physical and mental health, starting with the effect it can have on sleep.

If you take your phones and technology out of the area when you sleep, “ says Jane, “then one, you don't get the blue light which affects brain waves and sleep patterns and, two, you take the distractions out so you start sleeping better. You get more of a night time routine.

The light from devices such as phones can, as Jane says, have a serious impact on sleep quality. Research shows that the shorter wavelength blue light emitted by devices can slow down the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps control sleep patterns. Disrupting this rhythm can have devastating effects on the body, including obesity, heart disease and high blood pressure. It can also disrupt vital REM (dream) sleep, which can make you more tired as well as lead to erratic emotional behaviour and clumsiness.

Beyond the physical effects, being constantly distracted leave us no room for reflection and contemplation. It places a barrier between us and the outside world and can ruin relationships. Surely even a little change could help?

So, what exactly is mindfulness?

On a day-to-day basis, it is just about bringing attention to what you are doing, explains Jane.

Mindfulness techniques include simple forms of meditation, such as becoming aware of your breathing, and forcing yourself to focus on the detail of what you are doing and what is around you. It's not sitting on a cushion going for 45 minutes, says Jane. We call it smell the coffee.

This can take place during the most mundane of events, such as brushing your teeth. So, I'm noticing the toothpaste I'm noticing the taste of it and the feel of it on my tongue. When my mind wanders I come back to the toothpaste, or the toothbrush or the sound of brushing, like an anchor.

What could go wrong?

Most people, according to Jane, go in for a ‘lite’ digital detox. Dedicating some time every day to not using devices and perhaps taking time out to be mindful or to do something deliberately low-tech. Some people like to enforce a detox period before bed, so as to avoid those harmful rays of blue light. Others do it the other way around and just allow themselves a few periods per day when they are allowed to indulge their digital desires.

What I was going to do was the Full Monty, no messing about detox. Digital abstinence and purity of thought for a full week. It was going to be tough but we needed to give it a go.

I asked the family if they had any concerns. Mrs H was quietly confident but was worried that the boys might get a bit grumpy. For their part, Sam (aged 10) said that he didn’t want to be bored but that he thought he would be ok. Michael (aged 6) was less keen on the whole enterprise and wanted to know if he could still play on the Xbox. Hmm. Some more explaining to do there, I think.

For my part, I knew I would get a nasty dose of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), constantly teased by the knowledge that my friends were talking and finding out things that I didn’t and couldn’t take part in.

So, the first thing to do was to establish some rules for the week that would apply to both me and the rest of the clan.

The Rules

I love Netflix, both for late-night binge-watching and for whiling away the time on my hour-long commute. I read books, but mainly on Kindle or my tablet.

My wife, Nadia, is a light social media user. She isn’t on Facebook but she reads Twitter to catch up with some friends and sends the occasional tweet. She does make heavy use of iPlayer and other streaming services and will sometimes second-screen with her iPad.

My two boys are aged 6 and 10. They both love their tablets for gaming and YouTube, and they would happily play Minecraft or Skylanders on our Xbox One until prised off the sofa with a spatula. Like many kids, they rarely watch broadcast TV. They prefer watching movies and TV shows on Netflix, with the odd exception for ‘event’ shows like Planet Earth or for those TV shows that we enjoy as a family like The Voice or Strictly.

I work in IT and my wife often works from home via a remote connection so we had to allow work-related use of our laptops. No matter how mindful this week would make us, our employers still require us to do our actual jobs.

Social media and games, though, were out. We banned Netflix and use of our console and we decided that, while we might allow a bit of family TV time during the week, it had to be old school terrestrial telly, with no catch-up services.

So, on Sunday evening I deleted all non-essential apps from my smartphone. Then I gathered up the tablets and shut them away in a kitchen cupboard along with the Xbox controllers and the experiment began in earnest.

Day One

Monday morning started almost as usual for me. I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my phone, swiped it off and then blearily checked Facb...oh. No app. Not a problem - this is fine I told myself.  I got up, showered and dressed then woke up the boys on my way down. Mrs H had already left as she had an early meeting.

We discourage tablet and TV in the morning as it makes two bleary-eyed children even more difficult to wrangle, but that rarely stops them from trying to sneak in a quick YouTube clip or two. This time, however, I was able to cut them short with a reminder about our detox week.

I can honestly say that things went fairly smoothly after that. We ate breakfast around the table, checked homework and school bags, and I suddenly found myself leaving the house without a last-minute panic. I became acutely aware of how much time is lost in the morning to simply staring at a news site or social media account, waiting for it to refresh. I think we kid ourselves that this takes place in ‘dead’ time, between actual tasks, but the reality is it spills over until enough time is rendered ‘dead’ to finish indulging our addiction.

I read almost half of a novel going to and from work, something I haven’t sat down and done in what must be years. In the evening, we talked over dinner and I even had an early night.

So far, so good.

Mid-week

Now, I’m not going to pretend it was all plain sailing. We grown-ups were able to grit our teeth and get on with things but our two boys started to find it tough by day two. Our lounge echoed to cries of “But I just want to ...” and “Can I just show you one...” and “But WHYYYYYY?”

Explaining the concept of mindfulness to a 6-year-old seems an impossible task but Jane had some advice. “There are things you can do, such as using a snowglobe – get your child to shake it and watch what happens to the snow. If you keep shaking, it never settles. But if you sit still for a minute…”

Another idea,was to use a cuddly toy to help with a breathing exercise. This was particularly useful when trying to calm down my now quite cross child at bedtime. I told him it was ‘ninja meditation’ which seemed to help. “Put the teddy on their tummy and watch it rise and fall as they breath,” Jane advised. “Bring it back to ‘how do you feel’. Children can define mindfulness in a way they understand.”

For my part, I was finding my (one hour each way) commute the toughest part of the day. I was reading more, but wasn’t that just another form of distraction? I tried a couple of breathing exercises on the train such as simple breath counting. I also attempted to ‘expand’ my awareness out in phases, so I focused on different parts of my surroundings. These exercises did help, but only in that they helped me to relax. The journey took just as long, and I was still bored.

My working day changed too. The temptation to sneak a quick look at Facebook in between tasks was urgent at first, although it became more manageable as the week went on. For the first time in ages, I actually savoured my lunch rather than mindlessly stuff my face.

I also forced myself to get out and take some exercise. I would walk for about 30 minutes every lunchtime, exploring the local area and checking out backstreets and shops I hadn’t paid attention to before. There is a ‘mindful walking’ technique - this is essentially about focusing on each step and controlling your breathing. It helped a little but by the end of the week I found I was actually looking forward to my daily jaunt. If nothing else, it was a way to avoid boredom but, unlike my social media addiction, I could justify it much more easily.

Keeping boredom at bay proved to be a challenge but one that we could tackle as a family.

Board games were dusted off and installed on the dining table. Luckily, Christmas brought a couple of new ones. We all enjoyed playing Carcassone, Connect 4 and a really fun new one called Bugs In The Kitchen, which uses wriggly Hexbug toys as pieces.

The End

The end of the week could not, if we are honest, have come soon enough. Going a full week with no digital devices or social media gave us all a break, but there are good and positive aspects to technology - even entertainment technology - that we really missed. That said, we all noticed some positive changes.

The biggest change I noticed was in the way young Michael played with Lego. I always knew Lego would be a big help to us and so it was. We all took part in some epic Lego builds but Michael had previously been more concerned with playing with the end result – e.g. a car or a spaceship – than actually building it. This week, however, we watched him cannibalise parts from several existing sets – including a fire station, complete with road – and use them to construct a wholly new street scene with a police station and shops. He spent days working on it and then playing with it, creating stories for the little Lego minifigs in his new world. We were genuinely surprised and amazed at the concentration he was able to apply.

Sam too spent a lot more time reading and playing with puzzles, board games and models. He even started properly practising his guitar again, much to our amazement.

We grown-ups had more early nights and – wonder of wonders – some actual conversations in the evening rather than mutual tiredness and TV-based vegging out. I genuinely felt better by the end of the week and, although it hadn’t vanished completely, the urge to check my phone had decreased hugely.

So, the end of the week came and we treated ourselves to a family movie on Netflix. The sense of relief was palpable but – apart from a brief Google to check who Jackie Chan’s co-star was (it was Johnny Knoxville) – our phones remained in our pockets and we were able to enjoy the family time. Have we turned a corner?

Going forwards

“Never again!” was Sam’s verdict on our detox week. When questioned further though he did concede there had been some positives. “I really liked getting back into my Alex Rider books. And playing games together was really fun,” he said. “I did miss Minecraft though.”

“I enjoyed playing guitar too,” he added. “Normally I don’t do it because there are so many other things to do, but when I sat down I actually found it fun.”

Michael was also keen to never (ever) let his tablet out of his sight again. Six-year-olds aren't given to inspirational quotes but for me what sums up the week is his long and detailed description of what was going on in his Lego street scene and the adventures that he knew would be taking place in it.

For my part, I feel as though the week off from the digital world has really helped me. I am too much of a nerd to give it up completely. If nothing else, being unable to keep up with my friend’s busy lives would feel quite isolating. What I did find, however, is that I could stop and that the world did not end when I did so.

I don’t think a full detox is for everyone. It can be very disruptive and there are many positives to interacting on the internet and using games or movies to de-stress after a tough day. I couldn’t live without it entirely, nor do I think anyone should have to. Being able to take control of your digital life is hugely important, however. Even a few minutes per day of calm can be helpful. And some discipline towards not using devices in the evening is an easy win that can give you a surprising boost as the quality and perhaps quantity of your sleep improves.

I am finding it easier to not look at my phone, and I now make a conscious effort to avoid digital distractions in company. I am still prone to a bit too much blue light in the evenings, but I am trying. I am even still enjoying my lunchtime walks.

Actually, maybe this would make a good Facebook post...

Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when you need it.

Stuart Houghton
Freelance Journalist

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