how to do a digital detox

More people are scheduling tech-free vacations these days. Is it time for a digital detox in your life? Really, is there anything “wrong” with watching TV? Isn’t staring at your smartphone screen absolutely essential these days? So what if I go from the TV set in the morning to my smartphone during the day, and then simultaneously “watch” TV while surfing on my tablet at night. What’s the big deal? And how can you do a digital detox if you feel the need?

What’s Wrong with Spending Our Time on Gadgets?

Psychology Today magazine reported in 2012 what you probably already knew. Too much screen time (whether that be a smartphone, tablet, desktop PC or TV screen) is bad for human health. Here is what they found, in summary:

“Taken together, (their studies show) internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitive control.”

Unfortunately, those physical changes in your brain are not positive. Human beings are created for physical activity, standing rather than sitting, face-to-face socialization and interaction. The zombie-like, inactive staring at a monitor or screen for long periods of time creates hyperactivity and poor sleep patterns in children, a weakened ability to focus and make decisions as an adult, a stunting of emotional growth, and a tendency towards more screen watching and less socialization in adults and kids.

Even in children with normal screen viewing times (7+ hours a day), the Psychology Today research reports sensory overload, sleep problems, poor attention spans and moodiness. The same symptoms are mirrored in adults spending 7 or more hours watching monitors and screens each day as well.

Other studies reveal atrophy and shrinkage in gray matter areas linked to increased screen time. The more time you spend staring at a screen or monitor, the weaker your ability to process input. Your frontal lobe becomes less capable in a direct relationship with how much time you spend viewing electronic screens. This is the part of your brain that is associated with “planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control”, or just getting normal stuff done and things accomplished.

Psychology today reported that excessive screen time is disturbingly related with more violent behavior as well. The more you stare at an electronic monitor, the more you damage your insula. A healthy insula allows you to be compassionate, caring and empathetic. Damage here is linked to increased violence and lack of feeling for others, as well as the inability to create and maintain deep, meaningful relationships.

If you need more concrete evidence as to the negative power of your consumer electronics monitors, how about this? When your mind processes what you are viewing on a monitor or screen, your white matter is compromised. White matter forms the connective communication channels in your brain that are linked to thinking, emotions, physical movement and a host of other actions and processes.

Women typing on computer, meant as illustration to the article how to do a digital detox

It helps different parts of your brain “talk” to each other, and to your body. This diminishing can cause problems with physical functions, emotional and survival issues, and erratic responses both physically and emotionally.

This rather sobering data might worry you, as it should. However, humans are incredibly resilient and adaptive. While an excessive amount of exposure to screens and monitors is definitely unhealthy, a little is not a problem. The next step then is to identify…

…How Much Tech Time is Too Much?

You should always remember that you are a byproduct of your ancestors. Since the beginning of human history, man has had a need for physical movement and human interaction. Just 1/100th of 1% would indicate the amount of time humans have been technologically engaged at our current level.

The first TV ad, for the Bulova watch company, aired in 1941. It was not until the mid 40’s that TVs became commonplace home fixtures, and the 50’s saw worldwide expansion. Home computers and the internet did not take off until the 1990’s, and the first commercially successful smartphone, the iPhone, has only been around since 2007! That is to say, humans have not yet evolved to the point where technology can be properly processed and benefited from.

Like it or not, you and your children are the human lab rats in the technology/humanity experiment. You probably know the fate of most lab rats.

That is why it is so important to develop a healthy technology/no-tech balance in your life. So how much time staring at monitors and screens is too much? Consider this …

  • Up to their teen years, kids view 7 to 9 hours of TV on average in the US. Similar figures are reported in other first world countries.
  • Teens spend 10 to 12 hours each day staring at a screen of monitor.
  • Adults are increasing the amount of time spent bathed in technology’s electronic wash, more than 10 hours per day, and rising.
  • Human beings are more overweight and obese than ever before. This has caused a dramatic rise in weight-related health concerns, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
  • A study by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) shows that Britons spend “more time on tech than asleep”.

To combat this, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “less than 2 hours per day” screen time for children 2 to 12, and none for kids under 2 years of age. Adults are recommended to interact with 4 or less hours of technology daily.

Given that technology is all around us, at our checkout lines, our jobs, in schools and libraries, even at our gas pumps, how can you possibly limit technology exposure so drastically? The important differentiation you need to make is in “how” you or your children are experiencing technology.

The 4 Main Categories of Screen Time

The “Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens” study identifies 4 main categories of screen time, which can also be used to critique adult tech involvement:

  • Passive consumption, such as watching TV, reading, listening to music
  • Interactive consumption, like playing games and surfing the web
  • Communication, which includes video chatting and using social media
  • Content creation, which positively uses devices to make digital art, music, etc.

You need to determine whether tech involvement is positive or negative. If your child uses a computer to complete a homework assignment, this should not count against his daily or weekly allotment of personal tech-related involvement.

Attractive woman calling by smart phone working on computer.

Be Honest with Yourself

You can also identify how much of a technology influence you are receiving by performing a simple self-appraisal. Are you mentally and physically sharper than you were when you did not spend as much time with tech? Are you worse off? Have your relationships suffered or improved? Have you become a hermit thanks to TV and the internet, or do you socialize (face to face, not online) more than ever? Answering these questions honestly can reveal whether you need to cut back on your tech time or not.

Generally speaking, health professionals studying the effects of tech exposure on people recommend more human interaction and non-tech activities than tech involvement every day. They also suggest consciously avoiding tech-related activities whenever possible, since involuntary tech exposure is probably very prevalent in your life currently.

Setting Boundaries in Everyday Life

Technology is not “bad” or “evil”. It can be a bad influence in your life, when it dominates your schedule. The opposite may also be true. Perhaps your job is going digital, and you need to learn how to use a new technology. If you refuse, your career could suffer. A balance is what is needed here, and that can be accomplished by setting smart boundaries.

  • Designate specific days, or periods of time, for no-tech activities. Talk with your significant other, friends and family to agree what times are best for everyone.
  • Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. This is a secret productivity hack of the world’s busiest and most successful CEOs. (This means not checking in on Facebook too.)
  • Banish tech from your bedroom, whether you sleep alone or with someone. This will eventually program your brain that when you go to bed, it is time for rest. This improves your sleep habits.
  • Schedule outdoor activity days and weekends with the kids or your friends.
  • Keep a log, and record EVERY encounter, purposeful and accidental, you have with technology. You may be surprised at how much time you really are “connected”.
  • For every hour of tech-attachment, spend 1 or more hours unplugged.
  • Hand-write letters to the important people in your life from time to time.
  • Get rid of unnecessary TVs, phones (land-line and cellular), clocks, radios, and other battery or electricity-powered products.

Before you spend tech-time, ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” If the answer is no, see if there is something more constructive you can be doing that is tech-free. Remember to exercise often, and stand when you can. Practice smart nutrition and get plenty of tech-free rest (many people sleep with their phones!). Do all of these things and you will be better capable of adhering to the tech-related boundaries you set for yourself.

Learning to Entertain Yourself Without a Screen

As mentioned earlier, screens of any kind have only been around since 1941 (the commercialization of television). Internet connected devises reared their tech-heads in the early 1990’s, and smartphones really became popular after 2007.

The point here is that technology has only really impacted modern daily life for roughly 75 years. Video game consoles began to monopolizing kids’ time in the late 70’s. Widespread tech involvement is relatively new, only becoming an issue in the last 25 years. So until recently, in the scope of human history, man entertained himself with no technological input.

It really is rather easy to de-tech yourself. You may not believe that it could happen, but you may actually enjoy unplugging your brain from the constant harassment of electronic data and input, delivered visually and audibly. To take a small taste of what a tech-free vacation is like, why not leave the technology and consumer electronics at home and …

Spend a tech-free day with your friends at the beach. The sand, surf, ocean smells and breezes can strip away your tech-induced stress in no time.

  • Enjoy a day-long hike, either solo or with others. Leave the tech at home, except for a smartphone that is kept for emergency purposes only (no, checking in on Facebook is not an emergency. If it feels like one, you desperately need a digital detox).
  • Organize a friendly game of kickball, softball, volleyball or some other casual sporting activity.
  • Volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or for some other charitable organization.
  • Head out on a stand up paddleboard (SUP). If you don’t own one, they can be rented at many major sporting good stores.
  • Take your dog to the local dog park.
  • Go car-free for a weekend, and walk everywhere.
  • Paint, color, draw or write to unleash your creativity.
  • Attend a play put on by your local amateur theatre group.
  • Read a real, physical book.
  • Join your friends for a no-phones dinner and board game night.

These are just a few ways you can unplug that can help reset your tech/no-tech balance. Now let’s take a look at something that unfortunately is becoming more and more common as tech’s influence begs our attention from so many directions.

How to Avoid FOMO

The fear of not being present when something amazing happens is so widespread, and common, that it now has its own acronym. FOMO stands for the Fear of Missing Out on something important. It could be an event, a personal 1-on-1 interaction, a great meal or any number of things.

Ironically, people who suffer from FOMO end up missing out on many of life’s rewards, while they are trying to chase the next popular activity or behavior.

You shouldn’t view your in-box as a set of directions or commands. They don’t need to be answered immediately, in almost every case. How many “you absolutely have to attend” parties and celebrations require your presence? Just because a new movie debuts, a restaurant opens up, a new technology is rolled out or your phone’s service provider updates its smartphone offerings is not necessarily a cause for your involvement.

Your email will be there tomorrow. The smartphone you have works fine, you don’t need the newest release just because it is the newest release. Get a grip on your overwhelming to desire to be a part of everything, or you will appreciate and value nothing.

Think about this for a moment … how many “shiny new” events, parties, tech products, technologies, experiences and activities pop up each week? It is physically impossible to keep track, much less take part. Attempting to do so is only going to keep you stressed out and frustrated.

If FOMO is a real thing in your life, maybe it’s time to take a tech-free vacation, enjoy a healthy digital detox, and reset the tech/no-tech balance in your life.

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