Digital detox: should we put our smartphones away?

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 4-6Technological futures

Turn off your mobile phone, they say! Resist the next tweet! Stop instagramming, or continually chatting with your mates. Our devices demand constant attention in the form of alerts, vibrations and notifications. As Julia Hobsbawm, author of Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload, has noted, the internet generation is living in an ‘always on’ culture. And as many people struggle to escape the office in the face of new mobile technologies that dissolve boundaries between our home life and working life, the idea of undergoing a ‘digital detox’ is becoming all the rage.

Neuroscientists and psychiatrists warn the convenience of phones comes at the cost of a compulsive urge to stay connected. With some surveys showing a typical user now taps, touches or swipes their phone approaching 3,000 times each day, many argue that we’ve become too distracted, addicted to the dopamine-like buzz of constantly communicating. Consequently, phones are now credited with all manner of ills, from declining empathy to increased insomnia, from the ability of teenagers and the ‘iGen’ to handle adversity to a skewed work-life balance and dwindling levels of well-being in adults.

Small wonder a veritable industry of self-help books, courses and gurus (all available online of course!) has sprung up, extolling the virtues of going outside, smelling the fresh air, even of writing letters — yes, with pens, paper and stamps — to reconnect and find yourself. Indeed, Apple and Google now incorporate well-being features into their phone operating systems to help you monitor your usage.

Sceptics point out that the advent of new technologies has often provoked medical and moral panics. In the 1970s, for example, hippy-inspired ideas of the ’good life’ led to calls to detox from excessive consumption and modernism. Others say that we face a new, more testing challenge – the inescapable monopoly that technology companies have over our lives, with our love of tech deliberately created by design. Through carefully crafted features that ‘nudge’ us, our messaging apps, social platforms and even games deliberately keep us addicted, unable to stop using them. Like a helpless drug addict, we’ve been socially conditioned, waiting for the next Facebook ‘like’, ‘retweet’, or achieving the next level on a multiplayer game. 

With an estimated 2.5 billion (and rising) smartphones in use, and with us sending out billions of social messages every hour, there’s little doubt that we are enthralled by the possibilities offered by the latest technologies and tools. But is this really an addiction or might these tools be fulfilling a well-understood social itch? Are phones really undermining our well-being, or is it a sign that society is increasingly likely to view developments through the prism of health and inclined to see new technologies as stressful? Are we genuinely beholden to technology companies, as some allege?