Help, I need tech rehab!
In AA, the first step towards recovery is said to be admitting you are addicted to alcohol. I realised my addiction to my smartphone was out of control when on holiday in Crete with my mother this summer. Having spent the bulk of the holiday Instagram-ing or Facebook-ing every conversational, weather or scenery highlight when I was supposed to be relaxing, Mum pulled me up and said: “I thought you were on holiday with me, not your phone?” She lives in Australia and I rarely see her, yet I was only half there. I was checking my phone before bed, in the middle of the night, when I woke in the morning and about 50 times during the day. I made efforts to leave it in my room, but realised that without it I felt anxious, out of touch, empty.
Technology addiction is real, and it’s wreaking havoc on our mental health. One in three UK adults is so enslaved to their phone that they regularly check it in the middle of the night, according to a recent survey by management consultancy Deloitte. Canadian researchers recently reported on a survey showing those who use the internet excessively show high levels of anxiety, problems with time management and planning, and “greater levels of attentional impulsivity”. Er, guilty.
At the Nightingale Psychiatric Hospital in London, the first UK centre to offer a dedicated internet addiction outpatient programme, medical director Dr Richard Graham has seen a rise in over-40s turning up with symptoms similar to mine, sleep disturbances most common among them. “Overuse of technology is almost always related to anxiety or depression,” he says. “But so many ordinary activities are organised through your smartphone – shopping, music, entertainment, banking and newsfeeds – so our challenge is to help people use them in a way that keeps them happy and sleeping well, too.”
MRI scans show that online activity stimulates dopamine, the brain’s pleasure and reward-seeking neurotransmitter, in the same way as gambling or drugs, says Dr Graham. “Getting likes on a Facebook post or retweets on Twitter surges dopamine in the brain, which is why people check their social media so incessantly.”
Little wonder that the idea of a “digital detox” is growing in popularity. Research in August this year found that 59 per cent of users considered themselves addicted to their smartphones and over a third had taken a period of up to a month away from the web.
So when I read about a new digital detox weekend retreat, though I shuddered, I knew it would do me good. I was particularly drawn to the idea of regaining my ability to focus – I’m ashamed to say that I no longer felt able to concentrate on a book, television show or conversation for more than a few minutes without reverting to a screen.
The Time to Log Off retreat takes place at 42 Acres, an old country home in rural Dorset, recently refurbished in a modern bohemian style with textured sofas, oak floors and modern touches (in the well-stocked library, a neon signs exclaims, “Be here now” in bright fuchsia cursive). On arrival I discover there is no phone service anyway – and so not even the option to cheat. I feel instantly cut off and panic. What if something happens to my husband? What if there is an earthquake and I won’t know for days? What if Brangelina get back together?
There are eight attendees, mostly divorced women over 50 wanting head space and a break, as Josa, a writer, puts it, “from the pointless, ceaseless online noise”. At 6pm we sit on the velvet sofas and hand in our devices. People look scared. We smile, but our twitchy faces betray our lack of calm and sleep hunger.
Tanya Goodin started the retreat 18 months ago after someone at a dinner party asked her what was the last book she read. “I hadn’t finished a book in three years despite having read English literature at Oxford,” she says. Ironically, she had started Tamar Digital 21 years ago – it is now one of the UK’s biggest SEO agencies – and, like so many digital entrepreneurs, realised her own use of technology was affecting her wellbeing.
“I was anxious, snappy, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus,” she says. Goodin took a digital sabbatical for three months, travelling around the US, doing yoga and investigating the growing digital detox movement. The result? “My creativity came back, my sleep and mood improved,” she says. “I didn’t have therapy or change anything else.”
Having feared there would be psychological prodding or lectures, I am heartened to see not a flip chart in sight. Instead, there is yoga and walks through the countryside where we pick blackberries. I find myself wanting to chronicle everything on social media at first, but my body has other ideas and soaks up the spare time, snoozing on the sofas during the day, dreaming deeply at night.
It isn’t always easy, though. Despite the analogue activities – conversations with real-life humans, for example, a jigsaw puzzle – on the second night without my phone, I feel disconnected and lonely. At yoga that night, I burst into tears, but don’t know why, and not being able to call a friend or switch on a spot of Gregory Porter for company doesn’t help. Tanya has left us a gratitude jar, so I try listing what I am grateful for, and once I start I can’t stop. My job, my family, my husband, beautiful home, healthy body – so much. Then it hits me – I feel happier.
On the final day I notice the beauty of the countryside during our walk and am able to sit still on the sofa, reading a book for 25 straight minutes. I eat slower. At 2pm we get our devices back and I hungrily check my phone for likes, comments, news. But nothing has really happened. I manage the two-hour train journey back without checking it again, noticing the countryside instead. That night, I look at my husband while he tells me about his weekend and think: “Gosh, his eyes are so blue.”
Three weeks later, I can’t quite believe I have managed to keep my tech use under control. I have one full day offline each week on Saturdays and feel incredibly rested on Sundays as a result. I don’t do email after 8pm, which helps my sleep no end. They’re tiny steps, but already I feel more connected and present during chats or out with friends. And now, rather than craving a scroll through Twitter or a quick check of WhatsApp, I find I’m craving more of this: novel, real-life conversation.
The Telegraph, London
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