Sunday 8 December 2019

Hooked on a digital feeling? Hold the phone

Mobiles have their uses but without them we sleep soundly, avoid FOMO and connect better in real life

Digital dilemma: Experts tells us that notifications from Facebook and Twitter light up the pleasure centres in our brains, giving us a dopamine hit
Digital dilemma: Experts tells us that notifications from Facebook and Twitter light up the pleasure centres in our brains, giving us a dopamine hit
Selena Gomez took a break from social media

Tanya Sweeney

Question: are you one of those people who checks their smartphone during the night? Recent figures have revealed that over half of those with a mobile device break sleep for a quick peek at social media, and given that almost nine out of every 10 adults in Ireland has access to a smartphone, that's a lot of sleepless hours.

The research, commissioned by Deloitte, 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. High time, it would seem, for us to step away from our devices.

Last year, the writing in terms of digital toxicity was certainly on the wall. In Charlie Brooker's hit Netflix series 'Black Mirror', we watched a character spiral into a hell of her own making after she became too emotionally attached to an app that allows people to give others a popularity rating. Sound familiar? It should.

More recently, it was revealed that pop singer Selena Gomez (below) - who has over 100 million Instagram followers - took a 90-day break from social media when she checked into a rehab facility for her mental health.

Selena Gomez took a break from social media

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

It comes as no surprise to find that at this time of year, thoughts are turning to knocking a smartphone habit on the head. According to scientists, 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'. No wonder we need help with it.

Alas, this dopamine high is fleeting. "If you spend a lot of time in that (social media) environment, your sense of social comparison will become distorted," says Aidan Healy of UnPlug, a company that seeks to not only help people 'detox' from their technology, but to teach digital users about balance in the long run.

"If you're taking loads of photos on holiday as opposed to just enjoying the break, or you've checked Facebook 50 times on your holiday, it may be time for a different approach."

While everyone feels a little rudderless when they accidentally leave their smartphone at home, those with an addiction to theirs are easy to spot, says psychologist and hypnotherapist Jason O'Callaghan of The D4 Clinic (

"Approximately 90pc of people who stare at digital devices for more than two hours per day experience complex eye problems, including blurred vision and dry eyes," he says. "They suffer from phone panic if they hear their phone but can't find it. They're always working, checking emails and texts. They also sleep with their phone and studies have found that prolonged exposure to mobile phones right before bed makes it harder for users to fall asleep and creates a fitful night's rest. They bring their phone into the loo with them. They know all about the lives of their friends but have not seen them in months."

According to research by the McKinsey Global Institute, 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 figures indicate that of the 200 emails the average employee receives a day, 36 are spam, 144 are irrelevant and 20 are useful.

There's definitely something to staying in control in a world that feels increasingly out of control, but what about work emails?

"If email is simply one of your modes of communication and you are being swamped by it then there are a few things that I find useful," suggests business etiquette coach Pamela Fay ( "Do an hour in the morning to answer whatever has come in overnight. I try to read and respond to most emails immediately, however, if it is an important decision or one that is emotive I would draft the response and come back to it later in the day to ensure that the tone is appropriate.

"After the hour in the morning, I close down email and return to it once at lunchtime and then, ideally, the last hour of the day. This allows me to get on with my job, otherwise I would be a slave to email and to other people's agendas which is not very effective."

Keeping in the loop for work reasons is one thing; quite another is the FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that we experience if we step away from the social media loop.

One of UnPlug's more popular offerings is a residential weekend in which smartphones are relinquished and used in emergencies only. Clients 're-engage' with their real-life sense with a number of activities like yoga, mindfulness and swimming.

"Many people have an unconscious habit of just reaching for their phone throughout the day, and this 'detox' breaks those triggers," explains Healy. "We ask people how they feel at the end of the two days, and a lot of the feedback we get is that while people feel informed, the time they spend on their smartphones isn't necessarily fulfilling them."

UnPlug is not in the business of keeping people offline indefinitely. The trick is to restore balance.

"This is more about pressing a 'reset' button as opposed to doing away with technology altogether," explains Healy.

"It's pretty easy to build them into your daily or weekly routine. Every Sunday, you could switch the phone off, or keep technology out of the bedroom, or go to dinner with a group of friends and only bring one phone.

"The thing is, technology is like a grand experiment right now," he adds. "We're the first generation to really experience the benefits of lots of technology, but it also means that we're still figuring out whether it's good or bad."

Small steps to breaking the habit

1 Start your big social media spring clean. Get rid of the friends you never speak to in real life, the randomers and the colleagues you don't get on with.

2 Next up: notification settings. "Filter through your friends list so you can group people into lists like 'friends' or 'followers', and that way you cut out a lot of information that's not relevant," says Aidan Healy of UnPlug.

3 Get an app designed to help. "On iPhone and iOS there's Freedom, and for Android, there is Flipd," he explains. "Let's say you wanted to do an hour of work, you can ask the app to block certain websites for that time."

4 Banish the phone from the bedroom. "That small blue light can really affect your circadian rhythms and sleep patterns."

5 Create a 'digital sunset'. "After 10pm there is no reason that anyone should be on technology," says Healy. "Keep dinner a tech-free space, or give the kids access to internet once they've done their homework."

For more, see

Irish Independent

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