8 Signs You Need a Digital Detox
Last Updated: Jun 30, 2015
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As I try to write this article, I’m simultaneously streaming a DJ set on Mixcloud, reading an article on qz.com about Trent Reznor, researching its author on Twitter and periodically checking Facebook. My mental landscape is cluttered with platforms and advertising; windows and videos clamor for pixelated precedence; and I can’t seem to focus. Sound familiar? Making the cognitive leap from ingesting and processing information to applying that knowledge requires the discipline to silence the distractions. Yet the distractions keep growing, with on-demand entertainment fighting for our attention and social media becoming more insistent, pushing all types of notifications into our purview. It would be no surprise, therefore, that many of us may need a digital detox. Here are eight signs that you need to unplug, along with recommendations on how to detox.
YOU NEVER READ AN ARTICLE FROM BEGINNING TO END
The multitasking usually associated with online habits can have detrimental effects on your cognitive function. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences study indicated that your ability to filter information can be negatively impacted from too much mental juggling. What’s more, according to a study published in Developmental Psychology, “Media multitasking was…associated with negative social indicators,” meaning that multitasking online can inhibit one’s ability to relate to others. How, then, can you improve your attention span and ability to focus? A recent study reported in The Atlantic suggests that one can rebuild attention span through online games -- that is, if you want to spend more time online. Or try rewarding yourself for completing long tasks offline to help positively reinforce lengthening your attention span.
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YOUR VISION GOES BLURRY AFTER LOOKING AT A SCREEN
Does your vision go a bit blurry after a few hours spent surfing the Internet on your mobile phone? Not good news, according to Ed Greene, CEO of The Vision Council. “Digital devices are an important part of our everyday lives, from business and recreation to socialization and even education, but this behavior poses a potential risk to our eyes,” he says. More than a third of adults in the United States spend four to six hours per day tied to their phone, tablet and/or computer. The problem is that smartphones and other digital tools are not designed for reading, requiring our eyes to continuously refocus to process content and text of varying sizes. If you have symptoms like red, itchy or dry eyes, blurred vision, general fatigue, back pain, neck pain and headaches, it’s time to reevaluate your device use. The Vision Council report also suggests taking a “20-20-20” break. That’s taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes and looking at something 20 feet away.
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YOU CAN’T MAKE UP YOUR MIND
Believe it or not, reliance on smartphones is associated with lower problem-solving and analytical skills. Perhaps the immediate accessibility of contacts, texts, Internet surfing, shopping, navigation, applications and games isn’t always a good thing. Nathaniel Barr, Ph.D., Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience researcher at University of Waterloo, recently co-authored an article that discussed how people “offload thinking to technology.” He says, “An active mind is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy life. As such, we strongly encourage people to continue to think analytically in their daily lives…although we can now Google a wealth of information.” Some researchers suggest that playing games like crossword puzzles can help improve critical-thinking skills, according to one article in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.
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YOU KEEP BUMPING INTO THINGS
Brain scans have revealed multiple neurological changes as a result of Internet addiction, according to Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., writing for Psychology Today. The images suggest that too much screen time can cause atrophy and shrinkage of the brain’s gray matter, which governs executive functions like planning and organizing. “Spotty” white matter also seen in brain scans indicates that what she calls “electronic screen syndrome” may affect connections between the body and the brain as well as between brain hemispheres and higher and lower brain centers. So, can using your phone cause you to be clumsier? When you are walking and typing, yes. Reacting to an increase of cellphone-related injuries, a study from Stony Brook University found that pedestrians on their phones are 61 percent more likely to veer off course. The simple solution: Don’t walk and type at the same time, and even be careful about walking and talking on your phone. Furthermore, reading books and envisioning what you’re reading can assist in positive brain function and spatial intelligence, according to a study published in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.
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YOU CAN’T FUNCTION WHEN YOUR PHONE DIES
Once upon a time, it was possible to travel without GPS. It required referring to a physical map, noting landmarks and exercising that spatial intelligence we just mentioned. Deductive reasoning was required, like factoring time of day, the shadows on the ground and nearby landmarks to figure out which direction is north. The overuse of phones has also been linked to impulsive behavior such as “urgency, lack of premeditation, lack of perseverance and sensation seeking,” according to an article in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Being agile and resourceful requires a certain amount of self-reliance we aren’t used to anymore. It’s easy to rely on the lazy instant gratification our phones provide. To help overcome that, go on an adventure and get lost on purpose the next time you travel to a new city. Or grab an actual paper trail map and go on a hike where there is no cell service. You may be surprised at how much more grounded you feel.
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YOU CHECK YOUR EMAIL AND/OR SOCIAL FEEDS THROUGHOUT EVERY MEAL
While dining out, we often see couples and even whole groups of people constantly checking their phones. Are they texting one another instead of talking? Are they Instagramming their food? What dire thing is more important than sharing a meal with someone you value, making eye contact and engaging? A common characteristic that researchers have identified among those who are diagnosed with so-called Internet addiction disorder (IAD) is a lack of impulse control that’s similar to OCD. What’s more, a 2012 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging compared MRIs of males with IAD and those without and discovered different neural activity that demonstrated a lack of inhibitory control. It’s essential, then, to unplug and focus on visceral, interpersonal interaction. To help reduce your reliance on technology and improve your interactions, schedule in-person meetings with friends, and turn off your phone for the duration of your time together.
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SOCIAL MEDIA MAKES YOU FEEL NEGATIVE ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE
While interacting with others online seems that it would promote social connection, there is evidence that it does the opposite. Many studies have linked overuse of social platforms with social anxiety, loneliness, depression and more severe problems like suicidal thoughts or bipolar disorder. If you suffer from low self-esteem or feel isolated when you’re logged into Facebook, Twitter or other social platforms, consider taking a one-week break from social media and see how you feel. Then, if you feel like you want to return to social media, choose the platform that makes you feel the most positive about your life and limit your interaction to that one. While your Klout score may suffer, chances are you’ll feel renewed, grounded and more connected -- to yourself.
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YOU TALK IN HASHTAGS AND ACRONYMS, EVEN IRL
While he’s not a linguist or a psychologist, the actor Ralph Fiennes talked about how Twitter is “eroding language” at the BFI Film Awards a few years ago. He went on to say, “Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.” So, why are we using shorthand to rush through communicating with each other -- other than thinking it sounds cool? It may relate to the damage to the brain’s gray matter found in scans of the screen-addicted. According to the Psychology Today article, “A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known as the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion.” So show your love to your fellow humans by speaking in complete sentences using whole words. Remember, while the virtual world hosts infinite hours of information, distraction and interaction, be sure to fit in some time to reunite with the benefits of the visceral, human world.
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