Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Do you check your smartphone in the loo and at night? Here's what you might need

Amid growing awareness about the health risks of being addicted to screentime, writer Tanya Sweeney took some time out from constant scrolling

Tanya Sweeney learnt to live without a phone during her stay at the Digital Detox at An Tairseach Ecology Centre in Wicklow Town Pic: Tony Gavin
Tanya Sweeney learnt to live without a phone during her stay at the Digital Detox at An Tairseach Ecology Centre in Wicklow Town Pic: Tony Gavin

There are many questions you can ask yourself to find if you have an unhealthy relationship with your phone. Do you check it at night? Do you worry about not being able to contact your friends and family? Do you use it in the loo?

I asked myself these, and some uncomfortable home truths surfaced. I didn't just have an unhealthy relationship with digital devices - it was downright dysfunctional. And when I found myself forking out $20 on a long-haul flight for wifi recently - just in case anyone was looking for me, and to pass the time - I realised that things were bordering on the downright unhealthy.

Depending on who you ask, we smartphone users are sleepwalking into the next large-scale health crisis. It's rather telling, for a start, that tech giants like Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs decided to raise their own children tech-free. Another former Facebook exec, Chamath Palihapitiya, expressed dismay at how social media is impacting the health and wellbeing of a whole new generation.

"It literally is at a point now we've created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works," he said in December. "If you feed the beast, the beast will destroy you."

Sadly, while most of us might be vaguely aware that screens and social media aren't healthy, we might feel we're in too deep.

New research, commissioned by Deloitte, shows that 90pc of 18-75-year-olds - or about three million people - in Ireland now own or have access to a smartphone, a figure which ranks among the highest in Europe. Deloitte's researchers also found that 16pc of those aged 25-34 said they have arguments once or several times a week with their partners over mobile phone usage.

Other research estimates that Irish people check their smartphone 57 times a day on average (compared to the European average of 41 times a day), with many spending five hours of the day staring at phones.

Data from the McKinsey Global Institute finds that the average office worker spends almost two-and-a-half hours tending to their inbox a day; almost 28pc of the time they are at work. Other research states that of the 200 emails the average employee receives a day, 36 are spam, 144 are irrelevant and 20 are useful.

According to other researchers, getting Facebook and Twitter notifications light up the pleasure centres in our brain, giving us a dopamine hit. The brain starts to get used to 'dopamine loops', meaning that we unconsciously keep checking our phones looking for the next 'hit'.

But a growing number of Irish smartphone users are becoming attuned to the benefits of 'digital detoxing'. Much as the name suggests, it's a process of not so much consciously uncoupling from devices, but fostering a more mindful, less dependent relationship with technology.

Last year, it was revealed that Selena Gomez - she of the 134 million Instagram followers - took a 90-day break from social media when she checked into a rehab facility for her mental health.

"During that time I did not have my cellphone," she is quoted as saying. "It was the most refreshing, calming, rejuvenating feeling. Now I rarely pick up my phone, and only limited people have access to me."

Along with her business partner Emily Duffy, Angie Kinsella runs Digital Detox Ireland. They hold regular residential workshops, encouraging attendees to take a break from the 'black mirror' and become more present in their own, offline lives.

On the way to one such weekend, held in the Dominican Convent in Wicklow town, I spend much of the 80-minute bus journey jumping from one app to the next. Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram, then email, then the newspaper sites, followed by a 'relaxing' few rounds of word games, ad infinitum. To my utter shame, I doubt I even raised my head to look out at Wicklow's bounty of gorgeous scenery. (Of course, none of these distractions are truly relaxing. Smartphone addiction, I realise, has left me constantly restless, wired and muddled).

Arriving into the convent's meditation room, Angie's workshop is already underway. The dozen or so attendees are welcoming, engaging and, as I will find out over the weekend, have hugely interesting lives. Many of them are here for a new experience, others are aware that they are constantly 'on call' because of technology, while others again simply want to cast an examining, curious eye on their own smartphone use.

At the outset, Angie encourages us to hand over our devices, and soon iPads, Kindles and phones fill up a basket, to be locked away for the weekend. "Initially, we didn't take devices off people, but then we realised that some people would be sneaking off into their car and using their phones," says Angie. "They had a lot of anxiety around their families, and what might happen if they couldn't get in touch."

In the 'digital detox' workshop, we talk about our smartphone use, and what we might like to achieve from the weekend.

Because there is no screen to escape into, everyone is hugely present, and we bond right away.

That's not to say that being detached from our devices isn't hard. Several times throughout the weekend, it occurs to me to take a photo of something, or text someone, or to find out a fact during a conversation. During downtime, I reach several times for my pocket… and then I remember.

For the first few hours, there's a niggling, antsy feeling. I'm worrying more about being present in a group full of strangers, kind though they are, than thinking of whether anyone outside the convent can contact me.

"Humorously, we often notice people going instinctively for their handbags," says Angie. "But many others have quite an uprising of emotions (on these weekends). Some people come on their own and they're out of their comfort zone. It can be emotionally overwhelming."

But soon, the niggling feeling gives way to a lightness. Even within a few hours, my breathing slows down. My anxiety abates. My mind is quieter. I am on the proverbial grid in a way that's impossible in 'normal' life.

Perhaps to take our mind off things, or to remind us of life beyond our devices, Angie holds a winter wellness workshop, informing us about superfoods, fermented foods and foraging. A yoga class also helps everyone to reset. And an informative astronomy talk by Lee Hurley of Astronomy Ireland is a subtle reminder that, in the overall scheme of things, we individuals are tiny, barely significant. A truism that, if you think about it, gets mangled everyday in the me-me-me world of social media. By 10.30pm, I fall into bed and rest like I haven't in months.

(Interestingly, experts note that the blue light from technology devices has contaminated our sleep of late, as it interferes with melatonin production, which promotes restful sleep).

By the end of the weekend, and after examining our relationship with technology - as well as a taste of life without it - I am brimful of resolve to change my ways. Initially, it isn't easy: once I turn the phone back on, several text messages ping at once. There are 145 emails flood my inbox, many of them spam. The many red notifications of Facebook make for a busy interface. And on Twitter, a piece I have written has been posted a couple of times, sparking off some new notifications. It all leads to mild panic. There's a breathless, instinctive rush to 'catch up'. One client has been persistent with his 'please ring me now' messages, but seeing as he's already waited for hours for a response, I reason he can wait a little longer.

This could be the most important point to take away from the weekend - we do not need to be constantly, immediately available. One attendee, who had previously attended and enjoyed a ten-day silent retreat, says the most sensible thing I've heard all weekend. "You'll find that when you put your phone back on, it's all nonsense that you could have easily lived without," she says. And she's right.

The truth is, I have missed nothing important, except one friend's impromptu drinks party. The FOMO that I had expected to experience doesn't actually materialise in the end. And what I have gained in awareness was well worth the time spent being off-radar.

"I find a lot of people will talk about using their smartphones as a distraction, or to kill time," says Angie. "But really, when you think about it, what is more precious in this life than time?"

■ For more information on residential workshops at An Tairseach's Dominican Farm and Ecology Centre, check out ecocentrewicklow.ie. Digital Detox Ireland is at digitaldetox.info

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