Since the beginning of the digital revolution, our society has seen a massive interest in the deregulation of ideals – deconstructing our identities, our traditions and our values. Unsurprisingly we’ve become a lot more individualistic, which comes hand-in-hand with questions about our wellbeing. We’re told how to be mindful, how to thrive, how to be successful, and how to balance our work and life… the list goes on. Computer science professor Cal Newport dared the nation to go on a “digital detox” for the whole month of January, to realign our values and live more intentionally. His latest book Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology discusses how our use of technology has become a pattern of behavior that damages our wellbeing. On the surface, technologies are entertaining, informative and useful. It is becoming ever more difficult to break the cycle and detach from the over-connected world, particularly as people’s jobs are increasingly dependent on being digitally accessible and maintaining an online profile. Let’s consider the question, “Is it time for a digital detox?”
The Minimalism Hype
Marie Condo’s new Netflix series has transformed the idea of cleaning and brought minimalism into the mainstream. Cal Newport, however, argues that being a minimalist has nothing to do with the number of possessions a person it has – it has to do with developing a mindset.
Newport calls for the eradication of mindless consumption and distraction, whereby people only use technology when they have to, in a way that serves a purpose. He argues that people can become much more intentional in the way they use technology, and in that way are able to reconnect with the offline world and place greater value on areas that give meaning. His book combines psychology, history, and self-help in arguing that technology should not be viewed as a necessity or replacement to living, but should instead be embedded as the supporting role. In doing so, we are able to live a more intentional alternative life.
Along with the minimalism hype, there’s also an increasing amount of weight placed on our mental wellbeing. I think it’s amazing we’re paying attention to and prioritizing mental health when it has been so discarded in the past. However, alongside this new attention to mental health comes a certain amount of pressure that our lives need to be as healthy and balanced as possible. People are being told that a bowl of oats in the morning, yoga in the afternoon and a kale smoothie in between will do the trick to make us happy. The problem with the Internet is that is has a tendency to capitalize on an interest or philosophy and reduce it to something that no longer has meaning. The same has happened to wellbeing.
What do experts say about time for a digital detox?
Ironically, social media that endorses wellbeing can also create and maintain the anxiety-inducing effect that media has over us. Like alcohol and over-eating, social media numbs the mind through repeated processes of instant gratification. This process of instant gratification is addictive and, when overused, its effect can leave people feeling anxious and unhappy. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between high technology usage and higher levels of stress and anxiety. But writing an article about wellbeing is no longer enough to ensure that our society is taking this digital over-connectedness seriously. Instead we need to change the script until “digital detoxes” are deeply embedded in our culture. Speaker agencies like JLA find experts to convey to businesses how the modern online world is impacting their employees, and what they can do to ensure that employees don’t feel the need to always be connected from a careers-perspective.
Sociologist Sherry Turkle believes we live in an ‘always-on’ culture. That is, we are physically unable to totally disconnect from the outside world. Our phones know everything about us, from our location to our interests to our patterns of consumption. For many, sustaining a digital portfolio and being accessible 24/7 can be a necessary part of one’s profession or developing their career. Furthermore, the constant trail of newsfeeds and photos produces a sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and causes people to judge their own lives more harshly. That is, people end up comparing other lives displayed online to their own, leaving people feeling that they are not living up to their potential – or worse, that someone else’s potential is greater than theirs. Oliver James talks about how the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ culture has become more apparent and unavoidable since the digital revolution. Not only are we a more anxious society, but an envious and jealous one as well. If we’re always “on”, the need to find time for a digital detox is imperative.
Motivational speaker and sleep scientist, Matthew Walker is the author of Why We Sleep, which examines the impact of lack of sleep on our bodies. He looks at how our society demands less sleep, more time online and the effects that has on our production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. In a recent keynote speech at the How To Academy in London, he discussed how a lack of sleep is damaging our health, increasing the number of cardiac arrests, stomach cancers, and ulcers. He spoke about how evolution should have forced our bodies to adapt to a culture of requiring less sleep. But the fact that we haven’t adjusted means that sleep is and always will be a biological innate need and has to be prioritized. According to the Sleep Foundation, using technology after only 1 and a half hours before bed can block the production of melatonin, shifting the circadian rhythm by an hour. The association between anxiety and loss of sleep is also cyclical—they both are the cause of and result of the other. Once you enter the cycle it can be difficult to escape it.
This ever-connectedness however also creates a feeling of burnout and a strong desire to unplug. Cal Newport may be arguing for digital minimalism for the sake of finding greater meaning and living more intentionally, but other experts are revealing how technologies are physically harming our health. Increased stress, anxiety and loss of sleep all reveal that our bodies still need to unwind in the offline, no matter how much society demands the opposite. A month-long digital detox may be inconvenient and impossible for various reasons, but it is clearly worth scheduling moments to unplug throughout the day. We need to learn how to incorporate digital minimalism into our everyday lives, remaining conscious of the fact that technologies are harmful and our already over-connected-society will only worsen over time. Do you join me in saying, “Yes, this is a time for a digital detox”?