Step away from your screen. You need digital rehab

From London’s Tech City to San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, tech entrepreneurs are realising the importance of spending time away from their machines.

May 14, 2016

When was the last time you checked your smartphone? Five minutes ago? Ten minutes ago? Go on, admit it. You didn’t even make it this far without checking to see if you had received an “urgent” e-mail, a Facebook update or – thrill of digital thrills – a retweet, did you? No, of course you didn’t. You are hooked, a hopeless addict in thrall to the shiny rectangle of plastic, metal and glass that spends more time in your palm than it does in your pocket. 

Don’t worry. You are not alone. A 2015 Gallup Panel survey of almost 16,000 adult smartphone users in the US revealed that 81 per cent kept their phone near them almost all the time during waking hours, with 63 per cent admitting to keeping their darling device close to hand even while they slept. The survey also showed that 52 per cent checked their phone a few times an hour or more, with 11 per cent ogling it every few minutes. An Ericcson Mobility Report released in November 2015 showed that there were 3.4 billion smartphone subscribers worldwide, and the forecast was for that number to almost double to 6.4 billion by 2021. According to eMarketer, 68.6% of UAE residents own a smartphone. We humans love our smartphones, it seems.

Another question: how many times an hour do you look your wife or child in the eyes? It’s a question worth asking. For Lars Bratsberg, a Norwegian who works for Google in Hong Kong, it is not too dissimilar to the one that inspired him to co-author Disconnect: Find Balance in Your Digital Life with Thomas Moen. “My journey started when my seven year old daughter asked me if I loved my phone more than I loved her,” says Bratsberg. “I found myself putting the phone and technology first and between me and the people I love. [That’s when] I started taking actions to control my behaviours and to create balance in my digital life.”

If you want to change your behaviour you have to make a commitment to a long-term sustainable solution, a full-blown digital detox, according to Bratsberg. “It is not done in a week,” he warns. “Your bad habits have built up over time. You check your cell phone more than 150 times a day on average. Digital detox is more like rehab. You have to realise it’s a problem to be able to do something about it.” 

So what are the ill effects of digital addiction? Bratsberg says they vary from person to person but that the most obvious one is not being “present” when in the company of other people. He also encourages people to think about what they are missing when they are immersed in their digital world. “You might be on top of your social feed but you’ve missed the early signs of spring on the way to work,” he says, adding that studies have shown that many neck and shoulder problems are caused by constantly looking down at your smartphone.   

As the title of his book suggests, for Bratsberg, digital detox is a matter of finding balance. He argues that finding a better balance between time spent connected and time spent disconnected can have a positive effect on your health and relationships, as well as boosting creativity and productivity. “Time is what people today seem to have so little of,” he says. “Make time. Make sure you’re bored once a day. You will see a spike in your creativity. It will create time to work out. It will create time to nurture relationships.”

You can turn technology against itself by using one of the many apps, such as Moment, an iPhone app that allows you to check and set limits on your iPhone and iPad usage, or Checky, which tells you how many times a day you unlock your phone or tablet. “You are in for a surprise,” says Bratsberg. He advises taking a few other simple measures: turning off all notifications on your phone; keeping technology out of the bedroom; or following his example and turning your smartphone off the moment you finish work for the day. “Turning off the device that to me is my biggest source of connectivity is my biggest achievement,” he says. “I disconnect [from technology] to connect with my family. I am more present with my family. I see them. I create time to be there. This is a continuous struggle as it is hard to remember, or you fool yourself that you can leave your smartphone on, just in case. When this happens I find myself locked into my digital world, on the couch with the kids playing on the floor. I need to be on that floor [with them]. I see them in the morning and a few hours before I go to bed. It’s my duty as a parent to be there, not on my phone.” 

Those working in the tech industry, like Bratsberg, have been earlier adopters of the digital detox concept. Bratsberg’s colleagues at Google have been extremely supportive of his book. As the people most exposed to technology, they are also those most likely to feel the effects that being overexposed can have on their lives.

In the UK, Rohan Silva, founder of Second Home, a workspace for entrepreneurs and start-ups in the heart of the area of East London known Tech City, the creation of which he helped to promote during his time working as an advisor to British Prime Minister David Cameron, is an advocate of digital detox. Second Home has an indoor garden where technology is banned and Silva recently espoused the benefits of digital detox in a column for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. He also attended a knitting party in Tech City for BBC Radio 4, which he described as, “one of the many craft events that the technology community I work with is increasingly moving towards to escape from digital devices and screens”. While in the US, the latest fad among stressed Silicon Valley types is Camp Grounded, an adult summer camp run by Digital Detox, an organisation whose tagline is “Disconnect to Reconnect”.

Here in the Middle East, Arabian Nights Village, a resort located among the desert dunes between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain, offers an environment free of Wi-Fi and mobile phone connectivity. Rooms have no televisions or phones.

Arabian Nights Village opened in October 2012 and has proved popular with guests that Manager Rashad Koudsi describes as “Abu Dhabi and Dubai urbanites in need of a break from the digital world”, as well as celebrities including pop star Ricky Martin and British Olympic swimmer Tom Daly.

“As people become more and more exhausted by the demands of modern life we wanted to offer a break from the digital world, allowing guests to reconnect with loved ones and gain an insight into a traditional Bedouin experience,” says Koudsi, adding that guests also often report having enjoyed better sleep during their stay at the resort.

Did you manage to make it through this article without checking your smartphone? Even if you made it this far without gazing at your pocket-sized pal, it’s still probably time for some time apart. Go on. Put him in the desk drawer for a couple of hours. You won’t hurt his feelings. It doesn’t have feelings. He’s not a he. He’s an it. It’s a phone, and it’s not your friend. It’s a problem, and it’s time to seek help.