Thursday 23 January 2020

Adrian Weckler: The smartest ways to do a meaningful 'digital detox'

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Stock image
You can make accessing social media apps such as Facebook more difficult (stock photo)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

This is the time of year when 'detoxes' are fashionable. One would-be cleanser that is growing in popularity is a 'digital detox'. I have tried this from time to time, for periods varying from a weekend to a full week. They can be effective, but they also come with disadvantages. Here are the measures I have personally found useful, as well as the drawbacks. I'm going to focus mainly on phones, although they may also apply to PCs, laptops and tablets.

1. Tactical in-app settings. In Facebook's settings, there's a feature called 'Manage Your Time'. This will send you a notice that you've spent a certain amount of time in the app, to match whatever period you think appropriate. But it won't really go any further than that; it's up to you to take heed. The 'Time on Instagram' feature in Instagram's settings does essentially the same thing.

2. Phone usage limiter apps. Both Apple and Google have apps and features to let you set limits on your overall phone usage. Apple's Screen Time will let you know you've reached whatever limit you've pre-arranged and will stop individual services for that day. Google's Digital Wellbeing app does a similar job.

3. Turn off notifications. If you don't trust yourself to obey in-app limitation reminders or phone usage limiters, one reliable way to ease the pressure on your attention is to turn off notifications. In my case, this means never getting a noise alert or vibration for any social app, including (or especially) WhatsApp.

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An accompanying move is to stop your apps from displaying visual indications of new messages or content, either through a small number denoting how many new notifications there are or a simple dot on top of the app.

4. Make accessing social media a little harder - delete specific apps. Even if you do all of the above, you may still succumb to the compulsion to take your phone out of your pocket. If you think this is likely, one thing you can do is to delete social media (or news) apps from your phone. This is not the same as deleting your account.

What it means is that to access it, you have to go into your phone's browser (Safari or Chrome) and type in '' or ''. Those extra few seconds are enough to make me pause before seeing it through, either because I've remembered I'm trying to cut down on accessing it, or just out of irritation at the extra time it takes.

5. Find something for your hands (and mind) to do - a podcast, audiobook or paperback. One commonality that phone usage has with cigarettes is that it's something to do with your hands.

Think about sitting at a bus shelter, waiting for someone outside a shop or standing in a queue. If you have a phone to scroll through, you have 'something to do' and aren't awkwardly idling about like a spare tool.

My first solution to this won't suit everyone, but I found that bringing a small paperback book around with me sometimes helped, especially in situations where I knew I'd be hanging around for a few minutes or more.

A more media-savvy solution is to pick a podcast (there are tens of thousands of good free ones), or an audiobook from a service like Audible. The only limitation to this latter course is that it still leaves your eyes and hands without a specific task, thereby opening temptation to reach for your phone.

6. Consider a hybrid 'semi-smart' phone. I've written about these before, but models such as Nokia's 2720 Flip (€100) have stripped-down versions of the main social apps. So you can still get (and send) messages on WhatsApp but you won't have auto-play videos on Facebook.

And because it's a non-touchscreen button phone, it all takes a bit longer to do each time. If you have the guts to do it, this will definitely see you cut down your social media usage, if nothing else.

7. Be wary of digital detox courses. You'll see several advertised at the moment. Most are rebadged 'wellbeing' or 'mindfulness' courses. That's fine, but look out for those that start with the premise that using a social media app is necessarily a bad thing, to be treated like cigarettes or alcohol. While this may be a reality for some, it might not reflect how many ordinary people really think.

In my experience, most are looking for a happy medium that involves less time-wasting and less stress, not complete cold turkey. Those are the measures I find effective. But what are the results? Here's what I found on my last seven-day digital detox:

Benefits: The big benefit was that I had more time to focus on specific things, like projects or books. I was also slightly less stressed from not brooding as much on local, national or international events, or on some position someone had taken on an issue I cared about. Or wondering about my own life choices when seeing the immaculately staged photo of someone I follow on Instagram.

You quickly find that scrolling through social media - whether it's news or friends' updates - consumes a lot of time and mental energy.

Drawbacks: I missed some events and communications, both social and newsworthy. Social media apps are increasingly analogous to news apps.

Much (though not all) of what we say about giving up Facebook or Twitter could also apply to giving up TV, radio or newspapers. When I skipped a week of online activity, I missed a relevant message on WhatsApp, was clueless as to a friend's bad news and was less informed on one or two stories that happened.

For some, that will still be a price worth paying. But it reminded me that many of our closest friends and family - increasingly older relatives - now depend on such digital platforms for their own visibility and communication.

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