Waking up to our digital health

The way we live, work, and communicate with each other has changed beyond recognition over the last decade, driven by the growing role smartphones and social media have come to play in our lives. Life before smartphones is remembered hazily, incredulously: sometimes nostalgically. Our phones bring us convenience, connection, entertainment and education: they hold the potential to help us live healthier, happier lives.

But, is this always the case? As our usage of, and reliance on, our phones has grown, do we truly understand the impact our devices are having on our lives? Or are we sleepwalking into the throes of an addiction, with no thought for the long-term impacts on our personal wellbeing and relationships?

Pause for thought:

  • Adults now spend more time online than asleep (8 hours and 41 minutes).
  • Half of adults admit to being ‘completely hooked’ on their smartphone.
  • The average person checks their smartphone about 150 times a day.
  • 2016 research showed that US smartphone users touch their phone 2,617 times a day.
  • 66% of UK smartphone owners reported they were suffering from nomophobia (the fear or losing or being without your phone at any given time).
  • 87% of people wake up and go to sleep with their smartphones.
  • There is a strong link between heavy internet use and depression, with heavy users five times more likely to suffer from depression than non-heavy users.
  • Neuroimaging research has shown that excessive screen time damages the brain.
  • Specialist digital technology addiction clinics have been established in the US and China.

Our digital health – that is maintaining a healthy balance between our on and offline lives – matters, because it has a direct effect on our wellbeing. There are implications not only at an individual level, but also at a societal level, particularly when it comes to children, whose brains are actually developing differently due to their increasing use of screen-time.

Ten years ago psychologist Sue Palmer published a book, ‘Toxic childhood’, warning of the dangers of too much screen time on young people’s physical and mental health. She is doubly concerned now, citing the rise of the ‘techno tot’ and noting that it’s not just the negative impacts of excessive screen time (although these are extensive, including obesity, sleep disorders, poor social skills and depression), but what the screen is displacing i.e. all the activities in the real world that the child would have been doing instead. She is unequivocal, describing real play as a biological necessity, as vital for healthy development as food or sleep: “By changing the way our children are growing up, we are effectively reprogramming the neural pathways that control social and imaginative responses.”

The picture doesn’t improve into adolescence. Jean Twenge, a US psychologist, who refers to today’s young teenagers as ‘iGen’, writes: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.” A US generational study showed that the more time teens spend on smartphones and the less they spend in person-to-person interactions, the more they suffer from loneliness. And the UK survey, Monitoring the Future found that teenagers who spend an above-average amount of time on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on non-screen activities are more likely to be happy.

While we have a responsibility to take particular care to protect the young and vulnerable, adults do not escape unscathed. We’re the always-on generation, with diminishing boundaries between our personal and professional lives – our phones a constant distraction, preventing many of us from living in the present and affecting our stress levels and relationships. Dr Richard Graham, consultant psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital and a technology addiction specialist, explains: “A lot of what makes us happy is about doing good things for other people and our partners. When we’re idly staring at our phones and scrolling through updates and notifications we’re turning away from other people. Bit by bit everyone ends up in a rather lonely digital space.”

The impact on our sleep alone is a serious concern, with sleep deprivation linked to multiple health issues, including compromised thinking and reasoning, susceptibility to illness, weight gain, and high blood pressure, as well as affecting mood and our mental health. Yet electronic devices are known to disrupt sleep – nearly half of all adults are missing sleep due to their internet usage. As Matthew Walker, Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of Berkeley, puts it: “The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.”

Some of the Silicon Valley designers who originally built the technology that helps bind us to our phones now regret the consequences of their creations, and severely limit their own digital usage. Steve Jobs limited his children’s screen time and use of the devices he created. And Justin Rosenstein, a former Facebook engineer who created the ‘like’ button, says: “Everyone is distracted all of the time.”  The most ‘seductive design’, suggests Tristan Harris, a former Google executive, is one that offers variable rewards: “When we tap those apps with red icons, we don’t know whether we’ll discover an interesting email, an avalanche of likes, or nothing at all.” He goes on to add: “There is a way to design based not on addiction…(there is) an enormous responsibility to get this right.”

Dr Gabor Mate describes addiction as “a behaviour that a person finds temporary pleasure or relief in, and therefore craves, but suffers negative consequences as a result of and cannot give up.” He says dopamine – a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with reward and pleasure – is at the heart of all addiction. When we constantly check our phones, we’re basically hunting for a dopamine fix: every like on social media, or notification alert leaves you in heightened anticipation of a possible hit. And the more we get, the more we want.

There are pockets of awakening. Off-grid retreats are booming: Skyes Cottages have now launched a JOMO (joy of missing out) collection of UK properties with no wifi or phone signal); mobile-free events rooms are being advertised; in the US, some people are even choosing to uproot their whole lives to towns with no internet access or mobile reception. But more voices need to join the debate, and become actively involved in seeking solutions, especially the major technology players. This is a complex issue that will require interaction, collaboration, openness and transparency from a broad range of stakeholders, including Government. The children’s commissioner Anne Longfield recently warned parents that they must intervene to stop their children overusing social media and consuming time online “like junk food” and attacked the methods social media giants are using to draw them into spending more time staring at tablets and smartphones.

More widely, all businesses need to start considering the digital health of their employees as a crucial element in their overall wellbeing programmes. Few companies are doing this well yet, although some are starting to offer employees support in this area: Lucozade Ribena Suntory recently laid on advice workshops run by Shine Offline to help employees get a better digital balance in their lives and Price Waterhouse Cooper (PWC) offer Digital Diet training as part of their employee resilience programmes.

If it’s time to rethink our attachments to our devices, we need to first break through the defences: when people start talking about the unintended negative effects of technology, they are dismissed as luddites, or tech haters. Professor Katina Michael from the University of Wollongong admits she often initially encounters defensiveness when she talks about the unintended negative consequences of technology, yet she simply wants to open up the conversation, not to criticise or apportion blame, but simply to acknowledge there are some associated issues and risks, and discuss the responsibilities that come with such technological potential.

There are plenty of practical ways to help us live healthier digital lives and I’ll be sharing these in my next blog, as well as analysing my own mobile phone usage and dependency levels. In the meantime, I’ll leave it to the Queen of Wellbeing, Ariana Huffington, to sum up why now is the time to shine the spotlight on our digital health: “Technology is granting us unprecedented power and opportunities to do amazing things, but it’s also accelerated the pace of our lives beyond our capacity to keep up. We all feel it – we’re being controlled by something we should be controlling.”

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