How to give yourself a proper digital detox… according to Google
Ever find yourself aimlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter only to look up and see that hours have passed by? Do you panic when your phone’s battery is running low? Do you worry what friends will think if you don’t respond to their texts immediately?
If so, then the words ‘digital detox’ probably aren’t far from your lips.
There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting too much screen time can be seriously bad for our mental health. Last year the UK saw its first child diagnosed with internet addiction, warnings that three children in every classroom are suffering from mental health issues thanks to social media, and even adults starting to note that their smartphone use is becoming problematic. Hence why the Government’s chief medical officer is advising parents to ban phones from dinner- and bed-time.
But is that enough? If smartphones are so bad for us, shouldn’t we take more drastic steps?
Rose La Prairie, product manager of Android Digital Wellbeing at Google, thinks otherwise. “We do a lot of really useful things on our phones but about 70 of people want a better balance.”
Which sounds sensible enough – but coming from Google, is this a case of a big tech company once again trying to have its cake and eat it? Isn’t Google’s very MO to keep us online and looking at adverts on search result pages?
“It’s definitely a favourite dinner party question when anybody hears what I do,” laughs La Prairie. “I think the best way to describe it is that we care a lot about technology that meets user’s needs. We think that great technology is technology that improves your life and doesn’t distract from it.”
La Prairie’s point is that smartphones can forces for good, if only we can learn to stop ourselves from getting sucked into our screens. It’s an emerging theme at many tech giants: Google launched the Digital Wellbeing project last year; and just one month later, Apple announced Screen Time for iOS devices. Both essentially do the same thing: they show users how much time they spend on their phones, and provide a means to cut down.
“I don’t think it’s about the pure quantity of screen time,” says La Prairie, as we talk at Google’s London headquarters. “When we talk to people, one person might say ‘I spend six hours on my phone per day, and I feel great about it’, and another might say ‘If I spend three hours on my phone I don’t like that’.
“It’s not about that overall time. It’s about the quality of time and what you do on your phone.”
One of the interesting discoveries from Google’s research into digital wellbeing is an apparent contradiction: while we tend to feel anxiety if we’re forcibly disconnected from our devices (by an empty battery, for example), we feel contentment if we actively choose to disconnect from our phones. Evidently, our sense of agency is crucial – a finding that led La Prairie and her team to formulate their goal: “What we want to do is to help people become more aware of how they use their phones and give them the control to disconnect how they want to.”
So, how do you cut down on wasteful screen time and ensure that your technology is helping your overall wellbeing? La Prairie led me through her six-step guide…
1. Learn about your cycles
The first part of any good digital detox is recognising the problem areas, says La Prairie. “We found what we describe as two ‘cycles’ that drive this feeling of always needing to be ‘on’. One is the habit cycle and the other is the social obligation cycle.”
The former is usually triggered by boredom: when you get bored on your lunch break you go to your smartphone in the hope of finding something to entertain you. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it gradually forms a habit to the point where you’re using your phone almost mindlessly.
The social obligation cycle is a little more complex. “Say I turn my phone off and my friend texts me and then she checks Instagram to see if I’ve posted anything to find out if I’m ignoring her or if she’s actually offline, “ describes La Prairie. “It’s that whole feeling of wanting to be available to our friends and family, but sometimes that starts to feel like you have to be able to respond very quickly.”
If you can recognise these cycles you can start to identify problem apps and times of the day when you’re getting sucked in.
2. Limit your apps
Digital Wellbeing, Screen Time, and various other apps can help you track how long you’ve spent on certain apps. Then you can set timers to give yourself a certain ‘allowance’ of time per app. Once you hit the limit, you’ll be locked out of the app until tomorrow.
“It’s important for users to set realistic expectations though,” La Prairie notes. “If you’re using an app for three hours per day, setting a ten minute limit is probably just going to fail.”
3. Clean out and prioritise
How many fewer times would you visit Facebook if you weren’t constantly being prompted to say happy birthday to acquaintances you haven’t seen in years? The answer is to simply block notifications from the apps that you’re trying to cut down on.
It’s especially important to turn off those notifications at night when you’re trying to get a decent night’s sleep. A third of us feel compelled to check our phones in the middle of the night, so turn off your notifications so they don’t disturb your sleep.
Another suggestion is to highlight and focus on the good stuff on your phone. “Delete the apps you don’t want and set up your home screen with the apps that you want to spend your time and energy on. If you are trying to read more in 2019 or practice a language, put those apps on your home screen so they are easy to reach for when you have downtime.”
4. Brush up on your ‘techiquette’
Technology etiquette is an area where all of us could do with a reminder: be present and stop hiding behind your tech.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge that multi-tasking is a myth. If I try to listen to you and text another friend, I’m not fully listening to you. If we try to have a meeting and half of us are on our computers, probably that’s not going to be as good a meeting,” says La Prairie.
Try to find certain times of the day where you can feasibly ban screens and talk to friends and family, such as over dinner or for half an hour before bed.
5. Get input on your digital problem areas from friends and family
Obviously one great way of not being on your phone is to spend quality time with friends and family. They can also be pretty perceptive about your digital habits in ways you might not have noticed, says La Prairie.
“Over Christmas I asked my husband why it matters if I read books or I’m scrolling through something on my phone? Does it make a difference? And he just turned to me and said, “because you’re so much happier when you read books.” Some of it is simply thinking about the things that bring us joy and make us feel good.”
6. Give yourself a reason to get off your phone
Many of us will be able to relate to La Prarie’s admission that she struggles to get out of bed in the morning, and ends up using her phone as a crutch. “When I’ve just woken up, I don’t want to get out of bed yet, so I reach for my phone and do some stuff on there.”
Is there a solution? Well, La Prarie says she is trying to find a good reason to get out of bed without resorting to her phone. “Now I think about getting up quickly and playing with my dog, which is something I love, instead of being on my phone.”