What was the first thing you grabbed when you woke up this morning? (No, not that) Your phone? It would be a pretty safe bet; most of us check our phones first thing in the morning and last thing before we fall asleep at night, which worryingly, is one of the main signs of phone addiction.
Other symptoms include withdrawal feelings or cravings, even 'involuntary' ones (like the twitches in your hand when your phone flashes, or the phantom vibrate in your pocket) and using your phone as a kind of coping method, for anger, sadness or boredom (check, check, check).
So what’s the deal, are we all genuinely addicted to our phones? Or is it just that modern life basically necessitates a level of connectivity that is easily misconstrued as being unhealthy, or at least, that can easily become unhealthy, but isn’t by definition? And how, if at all, do we try to combat this?
There are definitely harmful aspects of our relationship with the online world. Numerous studies have found strong links between social media and narcissism, lower self-worth and even depression. Smartphone screens suppress the production of melatonin in our brains - a chemical which relaxes us before going to sleep - and so are leading to insomnia for many users. There’s something happening to our attention spans too, and the expectation that we should be entertained or engaged every moment of every day isn’t a healthy one.
All that being said, there’s definitely a tendency, in conversations about “logging off”, to overstate the negatives, or neglect to mention the many positives that come from technology - they almost go without saying - but the reality is that so much of what makes modern life great, relies on our connectivity.
Information that would’ve been way beyond the reach of all but the last generation’s most privileged and best-educated, is right there at our fingertips 24/7. The capacity for relationships with people far away is greater than anyone could have imaged not long ago, and this adds to our understanding of humanity as a whole, and of other cultures. There’s also a lot of good, (clean) fun you can have with your phone or computer.
You’ve no doubt heard about the need to extricate completely from connectivity. The so-called digital detox is widely purported to be the only cure for our ever-growing reliance on phones and computers and other things with shiny screens, but honestly, who really has the option of just totally switching everything off regularly, even for a day, never mind a few?
'Something important' might happen! 'Something important' could happen at literally any time of any day! You want me to lock all my devices in a safe three days at a time to feel better? What if I miss the email telling me I’ve won £1million and it must be claimed within the hour? What if it’s a publisher accepting the manuscript I haven’t even finished or sent to her yet, on the condition I reply immediately? Perhaps most unlikely of all, what if it’s a friend who wants to do something?
Yes, digital detoxing is probably a good idea in some sense. It would be beneficial. Just like eating nothing but lentils and going to the gym every night of the week is in some sense a good idea and would, I assume, be beneficial. But you’re not going to actually do it are you? I’m not. At most, we’ll try, and when we inevitably fail, we’re going to feel much worse about it than we really should, because it was totally unrealistic.
For so many of us - particularly those of us embroiled in the gig economy - our lives are inextricably linked to technology, and having these complete cut-offs from it is just impractical. It’s also very much a “baby out with the bathwater” approach; not only unrealistic, but unnecessary, too.
Despite what a million holier-than-thou think pieces might tell you (not like this one, obviously) you almost certainly don’t need to turn yourself into a hermit 2 days out of the week to improve your relationship with tech; just spot the unhealthy behaviour and try to phase it out.
I do a lot of Googling. When people are talking about something I find interesting, I make a note of it and when I’ve got a few minutes to kill, I’ll Google it and read for a while. Through this, I’ve learnt a lot of cool stuff and expanded my knowledge in a lot of areas I’d never have otherwise thought to read about. I am also widely regarded as an indispensable member of any pub-quiz team. Coincidence? I think not.
Another online habit I have is watching dog videos. I know, it’s a tired cliché, but my god, some of those little woofers. Recently, Facebook made it so that while you’re watching a video, the next is already buffering and will start playing seamlessly after the current one. Facebook also has some pretty clever ways of working out what kind of content we like. The result of this? I’ve wasted actual hours at a time, when I had much, much more important things to be doing, with my stupid face glued to the stupid screen watching an endless stream of adorable canines.
So, no duh, my aim is to get rid of all that nerdy Googling and spend more time watching dog vids. Should I cut myself off completely from all internet access points for regular and extended periods, or maybe, just make a conscious decision to cut out the bad bits?
There’s definitely something to be said for having time away from backlit screens; aside from the psychological effects of constantly processing something - literally anything, from an article about the best world cup songs of all time to a lengthy Facebook diatribe by your slightly racist uncle - there are also the genuine health concerns that come with over-exposure to technology.
But here’s the thing; technology isn’t going anywhere. And, despite the downsides, it undoubtedly has a number of positive effects on our lives and wellbeing. As with so many things in life, the key is in balance. Finding regular windows of time – however small – to willingly and consciously just be in the moment, without technology, is a good thing - obviously. But perhaps more important, is looking at the way we do interact with it, and making sure that’s as healthy and productive as possible.
Oh, and you should absolutely stop checking your phone first and last thing too; that’s definitely bad.