Cast your mind back over the previous two weeks.
Have you at any stage felt overwhelmed, anxious or stressed by your usage of your phone or screen? Are you even aware of how your usage impacts your feelings and energy? Does it feel as though the screens control you rather than the other way around?
Technology is such a blessing that few of us would be without, however, our usage must be balanced if we want to be healthy. Maintaining balance requires self-regulation and discipline, something Aristotle advocated for. He suggested a ‘Golden Mean’ as being a desirable middle between extremes of excess and deficiency. This seems particularly relevant to a discussion about technology usage and wellbeing. People who lack balance in their usage operate in favour of instant gratification and are susceptible to the ills of excess technology consumption which can have wide-ranging negative effects.
Recent research is painting a very clear picture of the perils of over-usage of technology. Smartphone usage in particular is linked with sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression and increased risk of injury or death by road accident. One in five people in an American study report that technology is a source of stress for them (American Psychological Association) and excessive social media usage ignites social comparison and negatively impacts our self-esteem.
Most of us know intuitively that we spend too much time on our phones or on technology in general. We also know that too much time on technology makes us feel bad. However, it’s easy to feel ‘hijacked’ by our screens. Not only do they negatively affect our energy levels but they can sap our focus and usurp our time in a way that can feel out of control.
Indeed, it can feel very difficult to resist the lure of a text or that irresistible notification. Moreover, tech companies are well aware of how addictive their products are; a fact that is underpinned by brain science. The dopaminergic system in the brain is responsible for motivating behaviour. Dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter, is typically released when we have sex, take a bite of delicious food and successful social interactions. It rewards us for beneficial behaviours and encourages us to repeat them. Social encounters are one of the most rewarding stimuli for humans (Krach et al., 2010) and smartphones in particular provide us with unlimited opportunities for dopaminergic reward. Every like, comment or notification can activate this pathway in the brain.
To further illustrate the point, former vice president of user growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya, admitted his guilt in taking advantage of user behaviour. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained. What was once hyperbole has now become proven fact. We are all smartphone addicts.
Thus, it is undeniably true that technology addiction can happen very easily which is all the more reason why tech boundaries need to be incorporated into our daily self-care plan.
So how can we take our control back? How can we utilise the benefits of technology without the drawbacks of over-consumption?
While we can’t get rid of technology entirely, we can set boundaries with it so that we can feel more in control of our mental, emotional and spiritual health.
One way to do this is to carry out a digital detox. Like its nutritional counterpart, a digital detox involves abstaining from your chosen technology for a particular period of time. A digital detox lies on a spectrum with some people choosing to abstain for weeks while others may choose a weekend or a block of hours. This will lower your stress levels and the physical downsides associated with too much use of technology.
Being a digital detox regular, I can attest to how good it feels to feel in control of my technology usage. There’s nothing like switching off, reconnecting with myself, the people around me and the present moment: where life is really taking place!
Here are some ways to incorporate tech boundaries into your self-care routine:
- Use technology purposefully. This involves getting in touch with your ‘why’ of why you are doing a particular thing. It’s perfectly okay to scroll aimlessly on your phone if you find it fun, however, without boundaries, this can easily become an unconscious and addictive habit that steals away your focus, time and energy. In order to ensure you’re spending your time consciously and productively on things that matter, it’s worth doing some reflection. List your top 5-10 priorities in your life right now. 90-95% of your time should be spent on these.
- Get clear and honest about your usage. In order to be able to create tech boundaries that work for us, we have to get clear about how much time we are spending on our screens. We need to decide how much is too much and which Apps or platforms are problematic for us. Use an app like Screen Time (iphone) or StayFree for Android to monitor your time spent on your phone and set time limits for your usage.
- Set time boundaries. Consider where imbalances occur with different forms of technology. Block off periods of technology-free time including technology-free activities. Ensure that you stay away from your phone during meals or in social situations. You can involve your partner or family in these decisions in order to set wellbeing guidelines to enhance communication and connection in your home.
- Make it unattractive. Turn off notifications. Enable greyscale on your phone so that it is unappealing or uninviting. Set time limits for app use. If you are an iPhone user this is an automatic feature within settings. For Android users, the StayFocused App allows you to do this.
- Connect your use of technology with your core values. For example, if you value connecting with people, you will come to realise that your phone addiction threatens your connection with other people. Linking your new habit to this will help give you the intrinsic motivation to stay the course.
- Utilise physical boundaries to help you. If you know that your phone is a source of distraction for you, consider where you can put it while you work or spend time with family etc. Placing it somewhere like in a drawer, safe or in another room removes the temptation to use it. Out of sight, out of mind! This also works for social media apps which can be placed into folders and not as easily accessible to the eye.
- Do a spring clean on your social media accounts. How do you want to feel as a result of using social media? How do certain accounts actually make you feel? Identify which accounts create positive emotion, provide value or information that is congruent with your goals and priorities. Let go or take a break from anything that doesn’t- it’s that simple! Do this regularly.
- Enlist social support for your new habits. If you are planning on introducing tech boundaries, its a good idea to share this intention with your loved ones so that they can be mindful and support you.
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Krach, S., Paulus, F. M., Bodden, M., Kircher, T. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience. 4, 21.