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Why you need a digital detox

Everyone can benefit from taking time away from our tech devices and refocusing on other aspects of our day-to-day lives, writes Karen Gillespie.

We see a lot of headlines about the potential negative consequences of device use and technology addiction and this is clearly rubbing off. The Deloitte Mobile Consumer Survey 2018 reported that 39 per cent of Australian smartphone users think they use their phones too much. This is matched by the finding reported by Beyond Blue that 43 per cent of Australians who are in a relationship believe that their partner uses their phone too much!

Of course, it’s highly subjective deciding how much is too much: this will vary from person to person and probably from generation to generation.

Detox or no detox, we think each of us can benefit from periodically reviewing our tech use and evaluating how this is detracting from other aspects of life and our wellbeing that are important to us. If we’re aware of this, we can then choose to step in to stop the “tech creep” and its negative impacts on our life.

How might your tech use be detracting from your wellbeing?

Sleep is the foundation of all things wellbeing. Getting good quality and quantity of sleep is facilitated by switching off from work and tech at least one hour before bedtime. Even if you email right up to turning the light off, nod off immediately and get seven hours sleep in, you may still be delaying and limiting your time in the deep restorative stages of sleep. What is much more likely is that working, browsing or socialising on a device will distract you from trying to sleep as early as ideal and delay your brain feeling sleepy.

If you are checking emails or notifications in the middle of the night, this will be interfering with your sleep and having knock-on impacts for your physical, mental and social wellbeing. There are no ifs, buts or maybes on this.

You may feel that keeping on top of emails at night helps you to manage your anxiety about work. Our suggestion is that this thinking and behaviour is not serving you well. Revisit your habits here and reach out for support to re-evaluate and change behaviour.

And relationships are the key determinant for a long and happy life. How about this? 70 per cent of Australians admit to using their phone during mealtimes with family and friends. If that’s everyone at the table using their phone, so what? Does this matter?

We think so, because research has found that having a phone on the table, in the line of sight of those present, results in people feeling less enjoyment, connection and decreased trust with each other. It’s also a massive missed opportunity to nourish and sustain the relationships. And we don’t need to spell out the impacts if the dinner table phone use is not across the board!

This seems a great example of how phone attachment gets in the way of other activity, in this case, your focused attention on the people you have chosen to spend this time with.

Open and meaningful communication is crucial. Reflect for a moment on your choices of communication with your colleagues, family and friends. How often are you drawn to a text or instant message over a phone call or face to face. Even an email can seem like too much effort at times. And now reflect on what is lost from this form of communication… no visual cues from the person you want to connect with, no tone of voice to work with and shorter written messages allowing for way more misinterpretation – an emoji can only say so much!

Is there scope for you to make more of your communication at least spoken, if not visual (and tech can actually help here with the wide range of video calling options we have now)?

Have you seen the cartoon showing the evolution of humans moving from ape-like crouched beings through to standing and then with the onset of technology, back to sitting and hunched? Who can honestly say that they maintain good posture using their phone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer? And does the draw of the tech (for whatever purpose) prevent us from engaging in more physical activities? It might be a mobile, but it can get in the way of us being as mobile as we could be.

One study done on students in the US looked at what happened when they unplugged from devices for 24 hours. Those involved reported getting more study done, spending more time with friends and family, getting more exercise and cooking and eating healthier foods.

Not surprisingly, research also shows that when people unplug from work-related tasks after hours (e.g. checking emails), they recover better and present for work more refreshed than if they have more limited downtime. One study with a large sample of employees in Europe showed that being contacted about work out of hours leads to an increase in reported health problems.

Devices enable us to never be alone with our thoughts or, dare we say it, bored. Daydreaming may be becoming a thing of the past and with it some of our best opportunities to dream big, set ourselves goals, generate brilliance and exercise our imagination.

When working with leaders who are also parents, we consistently hear that an important element of their sense of meaning and purpose is related to their contribution to the growth and development of their children. It’s also a common experience that parents are challenged by the amount of time their children are using devices – it could be the number one conflict in many family homes today.

So, if you are a parent, ask yourself: What example am I setting with my tech/device use? Whatever your behaviour, you can expect to see the same (or worse) from your kids, if not now, then when adolescence comes along. A hand mirror held up at this point can be a useful device!


As the New York Times reported last month, another key reason for us to cut down on our device usage is our chronically rising levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. It’s fairly well known that email and phone alerts and notifications are linked to triggering increased dopamine – the same brain chemical responsible for drug and alcohol addictions.

But phone-induced cortisol spikes are an emerging research focus, with the hypothesis that devices that are within arm’s length and in line of sight, loaded with social media, emails and incoming stimulus material are creating a gnawing sense of obligation and unintended personal stress. Whilst responding might offer immediate soothing, in the long run, the cycle of constantly checking in anticipation of finding something else stressful is wreaking havoc with chronically elevated cortisol levels. And cortisol is tied to increased risk of serious health problems such as depression, high blood pressure, heart attack, dementia and stroke.

No doubt about it: there’s an increasing body of evidence showing that device usage is interfering with sleep, self-esteem, relationships, memory, attention spans, creativity, productivity, problem-solving and decision-making skills.

This is not an exhaustive list of the ways in which tech use could detract from your wellbeing, but it’s a pretty good start. But you might be thinking about what we all gain from using technology. What are the things that we will lose if we go on a detox?

How might tech use be contributing to your wellbeing?

Communication and relationships

To counter the arguments above, many people experience greater connection to others by using their devices and the apps that come with them. Digital communication enables quick, more frequent messages to pass between us. It certainly provides a much more engaging means to connect visually with people who live far away. (Speaking personally, I can have a long-distance conversation on FaceTime with a very close friend in Scotland who is deaf because she can lip read. We couldn’t do this before).

Physical fitness trackers and reminders

Digital nagging is one way of putting it – getting us moving, for example, to keep up our step count and achieve the satisfaction of meeting our goals. This has to pay out on the positive side of wellbeing.

Mental health

Meditation apps, online counselling help, chat groups… There is an endless list of ways that tech can enable us to stay balanced and get support when things get tough.

Flexibility of work

We are not tied to our desks and offices anymore. While the constant connectivity can, of course, detract from wellbeing (if we let it), it also enables much more freedom of choice about our work patterns and locations than ever before.

We can be at home, or on the beach, or overseas and still able to connect and deliver our work output at any time. It’s possible to work around our other life commitments and interests assuming you are the boss or your boss is onside. (For younger generations, this is probably a given and no big deal, but those of us who remember the invention of the fax machine can still feel gratitude for what tech has done for our work flexibility!)

Apps to track and limit your device use

Ironic, huh? But useful all the same. You can engage with apps on your phone to track how much you are using it. Screen time reports come broken down by particular apps and sites and set limits on your use of them.

To detox or not to detox?

Only you can answer that question (with some well-intentioned advice from those closest to you, perhaps). There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that people feel more relaxed, rested, connected with loved ones, less anxious and can enjoy their leisure more when they have a period of time detached from their devices.

To figure out if a digital detox is right for you, perhaps a first step could be to examine your device/tech use:

How much of the day are you using a device? What for? Can you track this accurately to give you some data? What else could you be doing with this time? Which, if any of the negative impacts above could apply to you? What do your friends and family think about it? If this leads you to conclude that a detox might help, you might first consult with the online articles that offer advice on this!

Alternatively, try the following as first steps:

Block time out each evening to spend with no devices

Do something that is tech free – e.g. go for a walk, play with your children, speak to the person you live with, pursue a hobby.

Set a time in the evening after which you don’t use your devices and stick to it

Have a place where your devices live during their downtime.

Agree with your boss and team what your availability looks like in the hours you are not physically in the office

This might require a team discussion on protocols for urgent contact, what suits each individual, so there are agreed expectations.

Observe yourself for a weekday and a weekend day

Note down when you use devices and what for. Ask yourself how much is this activity distracting me from something else I could be doing that I value highly?

Reduce the number of apps on your phone. Keep those you actually need and use often, not those for distraction purposes. 

Turn off as many notifications as you can

Only keep those that might help with your health and/or productivity during the work day.

Run a trial

Agree not to look at your device before a certain time in the morning, or after breakfast. Expand this into a full weekend (non-working) morning. Stretch this to a full day.

Make sure you notice what you gain from the detox experience (and what is hard about it)

Examine how challenging you find it – does this add weight to the need to persevere?

Karen Gillespie is the co-founder of GLWS and EEK & SENSE. This opinion feature originally appeared on her blog.

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