Is your smartphone taking up more and more space in your everyday life? Do you get separation anxiety whenever you are nowhere near your phone? If you have answered in the affirmative to either one of the previous questions, then you are just like me - and it is time we talked about Digital Detox. I discussed this matter with an expert on the topic and will now share my findings and tips to help those who are struggling with smartphone addiction and digital dependency.
I do not want to simply recommend 5 apps that help lock you out of your smartphone just for a selected amount of time. Digital detoxing goes far deeper than that - it is about fighting a problem or prevention. In order to obtain a little help with this, I spoke to Dr. Daniela Otto and peppered her with a list of questions.
Daniela is an expert on the topic of digital detoxing and shares her nuggets of wisdom across numerous platforms such as Instagram, the web, and in her German book "Digital Detox: Wie Sie entspannt mit Handy & Co. leben" (this is an external link to Amazon and not an affiliate link), she describes how smartphone users can train themselves to adopt a healthy approach to smartphone usage. Rather than merely posting our conversation as an interview, I've woven quotes and relevant information into the text below.
Digital Detox: Is it even necessary?
How do we even discover if our use of smartphones or social media has reached a critical level and thus requires a detox? In doing so, we can look at various studies and consider whether we fall into the relevant statistics or take a look at ourselves. Let's start with the more pleasant part.
A pathological addiction to the smartphone is what science calls "nomophobia." This term, originally invented in jest, is an acronym for " No-Mobile-Phone-Phobia" and is now used in academia as well. However, its etymology makes Nomophobia sound a little worse than it actually is.
Dr. Otto revealed to me during our conversation "that studies have shown around 70 percent of young smartphone users suffer from moderate nomophobia, over eight percent from intense homophobia, and only 20 percent from mild nomophobia."
Additionally, the coronavirus has further fueled the number of smartphone addicts just as it has the number of depression sufferers and those who are at risk of suicide. Average screen time has also increased to as high as 8 hours a day during the quarantine period and lockdown measures. Hence, by the end of 2020 (which was when I spoke to Daniela about the issue), there is a massive need for action. But why is smartphone addiction so fascinating in the first place?
One of the reasons for this dependence on smartphones, she says, is people's primal fear of being alone. A strong trend of individualisation, which "in the course of modernity [...] has removed people from classical social networks such as the extended family or the community of faith", the smartphone seems to deliver a different kind of sociality. The smartphone thus provides people the promise of not being alone. In turn, if this compensation is lacking, the loneliness that has resulted from strong individualisation threatens again, and we get the impulse to reach for the smartphone. Every notification and beep from the phone will help soothe our frazzled selves by informing us subtly, "Hey, you're important and someone is thinking about you.".
So the smartphone compensates for something that can be identified as a very fundamental problem for modern society. However, social life within the confines of a smartphone is by no means equivalent to the togetherness that still existed in the aforementioned classic social networks.
"Digital networking has a negative effect on the neural networks in our brains," Daniela explains. "The neural networks responsible for happiness and empathy are regressing." In short, our brains are changing due to constant smartphone use. In order to prevent this, Daniela suggested an important solution to me: "[Digital detox] is the most effective way to create a new balance between online and offline."
If you find yourself experiencing an unusual level of stress when you're away from your phone, or if smartphone use is stressing you out frequently, you may be out of balance. If you have not noticed these symptoms yet, you should still read on. Digital detoxing not only combats a problem, but also effectively prevents the addictive behaviour mentioned.
Definition: What is Digital Detox anyway?
Strictly speaking, "Digital Detoxing" describes the detoxification of everything digital and must therefore be applied just as carefully as any other addiction therapy. However, there is the difference that digital should not disappear completely from everyday life, because after all, we live in a digital world that is veering more and more in that direction.
Hence, the goal should not be that you join an Amish community in a few weeks and turn away from digital completely. Rather, you should regain control of your own use of your smartphone and digital tools. Scenarios where you reach for your phone as if you were on autopilot, or where you're suddenly scrolling through Instagram when you were about to set an alarm, show that your use of the smartphone is no longer entirely self-directed.
When it comes to weaning yourself off from any bad habit, there are a number of strategies to do so, each of which deviates from your usual behaviour to varying degrees. In short, you could destroy your smartphone with a hammer and go cold turkey, or gradually get used to a new way of dealing with it.
In answer to the question whether the "cold turkey" method or a gradual withdrawal works better, Dr. Daniela Otto advised me on taking small steps that can be easily implemented and effortlessly integrated into everyday life. This is because small successes can be achieved quickly, as the small steps are also quicker and easier to implement.
To help you with these small steps in a more targeted manner, I have summarised five simple tips and apps below that you can basically begin using right away. After all, we also want to notice the feelings of success that the expert is talking about as soon as possible.
5 Tips: How to start your digital detoxing
Tip 1: Define your own smartphone times
Are there times in your everyday life when your smartphone doesn't bother you at all? For me, smartphone-free hours have long since disappeared from my daily schedule, and even at night, my smartphone plays podcasts to help me talk away thoughts of a stressful day at work. For me, not having immediate access to WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and the ilk are no longer normal. Thus, there are also no more moments when the intrinsic constraints and built-in mechanisms to lure users to their smartphones with notifications or messages.
As an antidote, you can either switch off the smartphone completely for a certain period of time or turn on flight mode. In the latter case, you have the advantage that you can still listen to music or take photos if you want to. If it's hard for you to remember to switch it off yourself, regular time-outs from your phone can also be achieved via apps.
2: Use digital detoxing apps
Here's some good news: Google and Apple have also recognised the need for digital timeouts and integrated digital detoxing features into their iOS and Android operating systems some time back. Apple's "screen time" allows you to set automated timeouts and set time limits for certain apps. On Android, this works through a focus mode or sleep time. Both mechanisms also lock down select features and apps.
One problem with both apps, however, is that they tend to punish you for excessive smartphone use rather than reward you. That's because excessive use is followed by a block that makes you feel like you've made a mistake. Positive conditioning is offered by apps like Cleverest (iOS/Android), where, for example, an avatar becomes happier with longer periods of downtime. The app "Phoneless" (iOS/Android) collects your reclaimed time and also informs your friends if you haven't kept up with the digital time-out. It's a double-edged sword, as it creates social pressure when we're actually trying to free ourselves from pressure.
You should find out for yourself which form of reward or punishment suits you. If you're more motivated by getting a bashing from your friends for breaking the rules, social pressure can be beneficial. You can find an overview of apps for Digital Detoxing in the Google Play Store here:
Since Apple doesn't offer a browser version of its app store, I can't easily link you to the search. However, the keyword "Digital Detox" will help you just as well on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.
Dr. Daniela Otto also advises the use of meditation apps as very good support for weaning off the smartphone. These do not offer a corrective mechanism for spending too much time on the smartphone, but they do help you to slowly turn your focus away from the smartphone and everything digital and to concentrate exclusively on your own mind again.
In the long run, of course, it's best not to have your smartphone around at all during meditation. In the beginning, however, meditation apps help to build up a regularity. At the same time, they help beginners to control their breathing and focus their thoughts. As a tip, Dr. Otto also advised me to download meditation instructions and exercises on Spotify and then play them in flight mode. This way you take advantage of the smartphone, but turn off the associated constraints a bit.
Tip 3: Outsource services again
Modern smartphones are digital Swiss Army knives, combining functions in one device that would have required a wristwatch, alarm clock, MP3 player, radio, and more back in the day. That's handy, of course, but basic functions always include connectivity to social networks and the Internet.
As a first step, Dr. Otto recommends moving services and functions back from the smartphone to separate devices. This allows you to reduce the number of times you reach for your smartphone. By doing so, you'll also reduce the risk of responding to a notification after glancing at the time or suddenly scrolling through your Instagram feed for ten minutes.
4: Limit social media use
Outsourcing your numerous smartphone functions is also a way to make yourself less dependent on social media. After all, social media apps are similar to a one-armed bandit in the way they work, only instead of money, they're about recognition, success, and little dopamine kicks that get us hooked. Pulling down to refresh your feed on Facebook and Instagram triggers a mechanism that, at best, you expect to bring you happiness. It's a comparison that can also be found in the documentary "The Social Media Dilemma," currently available on Netflix.
Of course, this gamble for recognition and social validation is not always rewarded with success. Often, one's Instagram feed remains unchanged or only features pictures of people who appear to be more successful or happier than oneself. Consequently, the danger is in wanting to trigger this mechanism over and over again, as something positive might always come up with each new update. This is a dangerous mechanic that is highly addictive and, for the most part, only triggers negative feelings.
5: Keep a mood diary
While detoxing apps already help you get positive reinforcement when not using your smartphone, you can further support this effect by writing a mood diary. The YouTube channel Kurzgesagt summarizes the benefits of such a log very clearly in a YouTube video and advises not only in relation to digital detoxing to regularly observe your own emotional world and write down these observations.
But it is precisely the change of one's own habits that triggers negative emotions that need to be processed. And of course, in doing so, you run the risk of soothing those negative feelings with the very action you're actually trying to detox. Therefore it is very helpful to write down these negative feelings and to be able to reconstruct in the instructions later as to which actions were positive. Through this, you simultaneously break out of your own bias and see how much positivity digital detoxing actually brings.
The developers of the app "MindDoc" speak in this regard of having a removable pair of gray glasses that you can take off by systematically keeping a mood diary. You can then break through the view that is shaped by your own emotional world and focus on the "real" emotions that you have logged during the day. In doing so, you also find out which "offline actions" felt good during the day and can repeat them a little more systematically.
Digital detoxing is not about completely banning your smartphone and the internet from your daily life. Rather, it's about recognising the addictive nature and potentially destructive force behind it, and being aware of the dangers and purposefully avoiding them. Therefore, it is basically never too early or too late to integrate digital detoxing into one's everyday life.
It helps to set conscious time-outs and divide the various functions of smartphones again into separate objects such as wristwatches or digital cameras. The smartphone's integrated screen time and digital wellbeing functions, digital detoxing apps and meditation apps also help to draw the focus away from the smartphone and back onto oneself and one's own life.
The fear of missing out is natural, but not exactly rational. For example, if you really take the time once a day to use social media apps in a deliberate and focused way, you'll be able to respond to your friends' comments or requests in greater detail than if you just glance at your smartphone at the bus stop. Plus, whenever you push your phone into your field of vision, you're missing out on things happening in your immediate vicinity.
Over our phone conversation, Dr. Otto mentioned a "humility before the gift of life" and it was in regards to tuning out your surroundings that I began to realise that this was in no way meant as an exaggeration or "euphemism." After all, the world we perceive through our smartphone and via social networks represents a highly distorted reflection of reality, where companies and other users can control how we should perceive the world. So why should we settle for a fake life on our smartphone screen when reality is waiting right next to it, above it, behind it - and most importantly, right in front of us?