Ahead of National Unplugging Day, is it time to put technology aside? Olivia Goldhill heads to a technology addiction therapist to address her smartphone compulsions
How many times a day do you check your emails on your phone? Be honest. If you scroll through your notifications before you’re out of bed in the morning, gaze at the screen whenever you’re in a queue and can’t resist a peek mid-meal, then it’s probably easier to count how many times you check per hour.
The average Briton spends the equivalent of two working days a week on their smartphones, and a quarter check their mobile 50 times a day, according to research from price comparison website comparethemarket.com. A fifth of Britons even use their phone while on the loo.
Others have seriously problematic relationships with technology. Nearly four in five students experience mental distress and isolation when forced to unplug for 24 hours, according to a 2011 study, and technology addiction is a growing psychiatric field .
Next month, the UK will embrace a US tradition for National Unplugging Day, where participants will spend an entire day without technology. I have no plans of going cold turkey, but I’d like to prevent technology from bleeding into every waking moment. And so I head to a therapy session with Dr Richard Graham, a psychiatrist at Nightingale Hospital who specialised in technology addiction.
A technology addiction therapy session
Fortunately, I don’t have a genuine tech addiction. I have no emotional issues triggered by a text message and I haven’t lost all my friends because Candy Crush is just too irresistible to put down. But growing chunks of my time seem to be taken up by scrolling, browsing and tapping. Half an evening can disappear as I catch up on the latest article or Twitter debate, and with no real relaxation or productivity to show for it.
Dr Graham says that this is a common phenomenon. “It’s a habit that seems to lose its meaning,” he says. “This drifting, surfing activity is so casual it’s almost mindless. I think that’s why we can feel dissatisfied and wonder what we’ve been doing with our time.”
Before the session, I fill out a form that details all my technology habits. On paper, it’s shocking how long I spend online – up to 13 ½ hours per day. In my defence, the vast majority of that is taken up on my computer at work. But I also spend an awful lot of time on my smartphone and laptop. If I’m not asleep, on the tube, or out with friends then chances are I’ll be connected to some device or another.
Farmville for journalists
I’m not expecting to uncover any particularly troubling behaviour, but Dr Graham soon identifies one of my most addictive habits. We’re talking about work-life boundaries (extremely blurred, of course), and I mention parsley.com, a data analysis tool that tracks how many people view each Telegraph article. If one of my articles is doing particularly well, then I’ll refresh parsley.com several times an evening, to watch the clicks climb higher.
Dr Graham says that this is similar to the way teenage girls use Instagram to build a public profile, and then get a kick from the number of likes each image receives.
“In the end, you’re counting, and you’re being defined by what other people think,” he says. “It’s something you really care about, and this is a growing profile that you want to nurture. In a sense, it’s a Farmville for journalists.”
I’ve never really understood the infatuation with Instagram – or Farmville – before, but this comparison makes sense. Just as I care about how my articles are received, there are others who care greatly about how their photos are viewed on social networks. It can be a major source of self-esteem for the “pics or it didn’t happen” generation, says Dr Graham.
Why technology is personal
We run through my messaging habits (my smartphone updates come from a mixture of SMS, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype), Facebook use (“It’s part of the landscape and probably always will be,” says Dr Graham) and the number of tabs I have open at any one time (many), before Dr Graham uncovers another red flag.
My to-do lists, which I keep on iCloud Notes and edit through my phone and desktop, are overflowing. I have 14 different pages of notes, each focused on different areas. There’s a weekly calendar, with things to accomplish each day, a list of long-term projects and a “whenever” list, of things that I could do but aren’t really that important.
“I spend an enormous amount of time re-arranging my to do lists,” I tell Dr Graham. “If I didn’t have them, I don’t know how I’d cope. What if I forgot so many things?”
This seemed perfectly sensible (if a touch neurotic) at the time, but I now realise how mad it sounds. Dr Graham, says my to-do lists are making me more anxious, rather than less. “You’re simply creating more things that are separate from you, that you have to keep checking to make sure they’re there. You’re using that as an external brain to outsource what you need to remember, and your reliance is making you anxious,” he tells me.
I expected to spend my therapy session hearing how a truly addicted person would behave, compared to my more moderate behaviour, but technology therapy turns out to be far more personal. This is inevitable, says Dr Graham, because our relationships to devices and apps are personal. “Technology and behaviour are so entwined that you can’t understand one without the other,” he says.
A detox isn’t reasonable
It was far easier to have a total technology detox in 2005. One decade on, both work and friendships are so dependent on gadgets that it’s impractical to switch off entirely, says Dr Graham.
Instead, he advises me to limit the number of times I check on my articles after work. And he suggests I prioritise my to-do list through different apps, so I’m not “trying to carry around the British library”.
Technology has also created a significant shift in work-life boundaries, and I’m certainly not the only one to glance at my phone moments before going to bed. This late-night screen glare is disturbing sleep for millions of people, says Dr Graham. “Sleep deficiency may be one of the greatest health deficits of our age,” he adds.
Of course, technology has improved our lives in many immeasurable ways. As someone in a long-distance relationship, my life would be significantly worse without the wonders of Skype. But there’s a danger of becoming endlessly distracted by the incessant notifications and updates and messages.
“There can be a loss in your life that comes from skimming the surface,” says Dr Graham. “Technology means that we live in a world of clutter.” Online addiction therapy isn’t commonplace yet, but as the internet seems into every hour of our days, it doesn’t make sense to separate technology from mental health. Why shouldn’t a therapist help tidy up the technological clutter?
Take our quiz* to find out how addicted to your smart phone you are:
If you answered yes to 5 or fewer, you do not have a problem
6-10: try to cut back on your usage
10-15: you have a bit of a problem
16-20: your addiction to your phone is out of control
*Questions devised by psychologists at Iowa State University to measure the degree of “no mobile phone phobia” – or, nomophobia.
This article was written by Olivia Goldhill from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.