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Unplugged; kicking the Internet habit

Toby Harris considers the rise of the smart phone and how to manage our 24/7 connectivity addiction.

addiction

Our increasingly digital world makes it harder to escape the clutches of smartphones and, by extension, social media. But managing how we interact with these tools is essential to our wellbeing.

Despite the many benefits of being connected, there are risks from excessive use. But it’s not an all-or-nothing game; as ever, moderation is key.

In day-to-day chat, people often joke that they’re addicted to their phones, but medical opinion is divided as to whether Internet addiction is actually a mental disorder, or whether it’s an expression of pre-existing mental or behavioural conditions. However, for the sake of argument, Internet addiction can be understood as a compulsive need to surf the web to the extent that it interferes with other aspects of daily life.

Just as munching too many cakes can pile on the pounds, compulsively scrolling through endless feeds of filtered images can, unsurprisingly, have negative effects. We’ve all been slumped on the sofa, eating ice-cream, scrolling through Instagram, only to be confronted with a picture of your mate riding elephants in Thailand… and a niggling thought pops in: “Their life looks better than mine.” Comparing our ordinary lives to those who are doing something worthy of a post is bound to make us feel inadequate, irritable or jealous, as social media amplifies the good times and subtracts the unglamorous parts. This isn’t to suggest that we should delete our social media accounts, but about recognising that it keeps us connected by sharing curated snippets, rather than holistic depictions of real life.

The immediacy of digital communication brings countless benefits but, as we become increasingly plugged in, depending on it can be dangerous

The immediacy of digital communication brings countless benefits but, as we become increasingly plugged in, depending on it can be dangerous. Now, networks are faster, inboxes relentlessly refill and there are bottomless feeds of text, images and auto-playing video. Ninety-two per cent of teenagers own a smartphone and the growth of live Instagram and Snapchat stories offer perpetual temptation to watch, and vicariously live, other people’s lives rather than to live our own. The result is that it’s harder to detach from our devices, with 66 per cent of teenagers checking their phones during the night and 44 per cent using their phones moments before going to sleep. And it’s not just young ones whose lives are being affected. More than half (53 per cent) of 18-75 year olds talk while they walk. Tech companies, like other businesses, obviously have a vested interest in developing products that sell. However, similar to the self-restraint required to resist the biscuit aisle in the supermarket, discipline is required to temper the lure of technology.

The urge to check our phones may be tied to the fact that sharing personal information has similar effects on the brain as sex and food. It’s what the experts call, ‘self-disclosure communication’ and it fires up the pleasure centres. This might shed some light on the roots of social media addiction. An estimated 5 to 10 per cent of Internet users are thought to experience media cravings stronger than those for cigarettes or alcohol. Researchers at Harvard University scanned people’s brains while they talked about themselves and found that they enjoyed it so much that they were even willing to forego money to continue.

The urge to check our phones may be tied to the fact that sharing personal information has similar effects on the brain as sex and food

Looking to the future, digital communication doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, so we need to be able to manage technology rather than be consumed by it. It’s not about going cold turkey, but differentiating between productive and counter-productive usage. Dr Kimberly Young has a tasty idea: digital nutrition, which categorises a digital diet. For instance, working on the computer is a different ball game to playing video games all night. It’s a way of learning new behaviours, like limiting when and how often we consult our devices, in order to achieve sustained improvements to our quality of life.

Just as pouring that additional glass of wine might be a cause for concern, so too is that itch to stream, scroll or swipe. It’s about striking a balance – so while we need to watch how and what we interact with online, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional tipple…

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