Is our use of digital devices now an unmanageable aspect of modern life?  With the average UK adult now reported to spend more time on a screen than they do asleep, many of us are questioning the effects of the “permanently switched on” on-line culture.  

The report, by University of Leeds, found that adults in the UK spend an average of 8 hours and forty one minutes on a screen.  We check our smartphone on average 150 times a day .  We spend approximately two and a half hours a day on social media – up from one and a half hours calculated in 2012 as average.

Other than the staggering amount of time we spend, are the effects of our near permanent digital culture so harmful?  Anecdotally, many of us report a general feel of overwhelm, faced with a constantly full in-box and incessant notifications.  We talk about feeling stressed and poor sleep patterns.

Healthcare experts have long associated poor sleep with screen usage in the hours before bed.  95% of the adult population admits to using a screen of some type in the hour before they try to sleep.  Artificial blue light emitting from screen increases alertness and supresses the hormone melatonin by up to 22%, which has a negative impact on sleep.

Our increasingly digital lifestyle is reducing our attention spans and levels of concentration.  According to a survey carried out by Microsoft Corp, people now lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs).  Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began, the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.  

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli – they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media”, the report read.

Furthermore, we are finding it increasingly hard to “switch off” and digitally disconnect.  60% of the adult population claim that taking a holiday does little to relieve stress.  More than a quarter of adults surveyed claimed to be even more stressed when they returned to work.  Many reported checking emails and taking work-related phone calls multiple times a day.  

Digital Detox was a phrase first coined in 2012, to describe a period – several days or weeks – where individuals took a complete absence from technology, gadgets, screens and any on-line communication.  Enthusiastic detoxers reported relief from anxiety and stress, better sleep, improved concentration and mental performance.  Some describe a greater sense of time, compared to the version we race against most days.  Others describe experiencing better “connectedness” to friends and family, and an improved ability to be present for those around us.

Does a Digital Detox need to be a complete shut-down for it to be effective?  Some say that a complete respite from all electronic communication, screens and gadgets for a minimum of 2 days per week is the best way to restore poor sleep and concentration patterns and to break the cycle of so-called dependency on our smartphones and gadgets.  The 5:2 digital diet has been adopted by some as a way of staying in touch, but having two non-negotiable electronic free days.

If a complete digital abstinence, fills you with horror, here are some five simple steps for a more balanced digital life:

  1. Buy an alarm clock.  Most people sleep with or near their mobile phones.  Put phones away at least an hour before bedtime, and allow yourself at  least fifteen minutes before checking phone in the morning. 
  2. If you haven’t used an App recently, delete it.  Not only will it simplify your life, but it will make your device work faster and better.  You can always re-install it from the App store later, should you discover it’s really necessary.
  3. Turn off notifications.  Stop the noise by deleting app-by-app. It may laborious but the absence of alerts and alarms, reduces feelings of stress and being on hyper-alert.  It’s a good tool for improving concentration.
  4. Commit to checking social media no more than twice a day.  Be strict with this one.  It’s a hard habit to form but make an agreement to check in at lunchtime and once in the evening only.  Restore your degree of control over social media, rather than let it control you.
  5. For the really brave, take an electronic day off.  Tell friends, family and colleagues that you will not be in contact for a 24 hour period.  If necessary, designate a family member/friend as emergency contact, then put your phone and lap top away….

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