This is how a friend described her recent holiday to me.
Now be honest.
When you find yourself in a place where you can’t connect, do you complain a little and then secretly smile at the relief of being free from your digital devices for a short time?
For a lot of us, putting the smartphone down, closing the laptop or tablet, and going off line can take herculean effort.
Indeed, paying attention to one digital device at a time is an anomaly these days. In most of the offices I visit, people are usually dividing their attention between several at once. Picture desktop keyboard sandwiched between smartphone and tablet.
With our digital troika, we tap, type and swipe through our days.
People often admit to me that they do the same thing at home. Think television on, iPad on lap, iPhone in hand.
“Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation,” writes neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.
Our digital devices pose such an irresistible temptation, many of us secretly wish the choice of whether or not to be on screen would be taken from us – at least occasionally. Consider the holiday destinations where you have to hand over your digital devices in order to check in.
Our smartphones have become our boss and our security blanket. We imagine that if we are always e-engaged, we’re never alone, never unoccupied, never just sitting…seeing…hearing…
When did these activities become such frivolous pursuits?
“When your mind is always skating the surface, never going too deep, you’re simply not as alive as you could be,” says William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.
And it’s not just our brains that are suffering. Our digital devices are damaging our bodies too.
Consider what your smartphone is doing to your thumb, pinky finger and neck.
The action of constantly moving your thumb around the whole surface of your touchscreen can cause a repetitive strain injury known as De Quervain’s syndrome. “This is a lot of work on a joint that, quite frankly, isn’t designed to move that much,” says Chris Adams, human factors engineer and industrial designer.
Now consider the strain on your pinky finger as it bears the weight of your phone. That’s right – your little finger acts as a perch for your smartphone, like a heavy bird sitting on a tiny branch. Grab your phone now and see for yourself. Notice how your little finger slides underneath to stabilise your phone as you use it with one hand?
Or consider ‘text neck’, the stress we place on our necks by constantly looking down. Research carried out by Kenneth Hansraj, chief of spine surgery, New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine, shows that our heads weigh between 10 and 12lb, but when we look down at our phones, the effective weight on our necks increases significantly.
So, what’s the answer? Digital downtime.
For me, it’s a necessity. Despite being a proud late adopter, I developed a severe repetitive strain injury about 10 years ago. Since then, my pain flares up whenever I overdo it with the digital devices. My body has forced digital downtime upon me.
Because of this, I keep my on-screen hours to a daily minimum but I also try to shut off completely one day a week. It’s usually Sunday and throughout the day, I don’t allow myself to go near any digital devices – not even for a quick peek.
“You have to turn unplugging into a regular ritual, one that has its own positive rewards. You’re not just taking something away, as a restrictive diet does. You’re adding something wonderful,” says Powers.
I’ve learned to value the enforced digital downtime. Not being constantly distracted gives me more space and time to just ‘be’ and it actually has a healing effect on my body.
Novelist Tim Parks tells of the healing power of just sitting, meditating, on his chronic pain in Teach Us To Sit Still, A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing:
“Just when the medical profession had given up on me and I on it, just when I seemed to be walled up in a life sentence of chronic pain, someone proposed a bizarre way out: sit still, they said, and breathe. I sat still. I breathed. It seemed a tedious exercise at first, rather painful, not immediately effective. Eventually it proved so exciting, so transforming, physically and mentally, that I began to think my illness had been a stroke of luck.”
So, the next time you reach for your smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc., ask yourself, who’s the boss here? If your answer is ‘I am’ – shut it off instead.