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Illustration by Marianne Wilson

Expert advice on how to digital detox in self-isolation

Screen time has skyrocketed as we all stay inside to combat the pandemic, but now more than ever is an opportunity to disconnect

Do you feel like you are missing a fragment of your soul when you accidentally leave the house without your phone? Are you basically unable to navigate your way to the shops without it? Check your Insta 35 times a day? On your phone even more now that you can’t leave your house? Do you wonder what this says about you? Whether you might... have a problem? 

Personally my screen time has skyrocketed since we went into lockdown and I find it hard to break away from my computer when I “WFH”. If I do it’s to run (with music and a running app, on my phone), to make a phone call (with my phone), or to check Whatsapp (yes, phone). After work, if I’m feeling really wild, I will watch something – on a screen – or else venture onto Houseparty or Zoom, via my laptop.

I think you’re getting the point: recent events aren’t doing much to help us disconnect, and while we want to provide you with a lot of the exciting new things to do across the digital landscape, it also feels important to sometimes switch off. 

Just how important that is exactly, and how we go about it, is something explored in a new book called Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnectingby Trine Syvertsen, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo. Based on extensive research and interviews with media users, Syvertsen explores “how media industries intensify the quest for attention, how companies and governments team up to get everybody online, and how the main responsibility for managing online risks and problems is placed on the users’ shoulders.” Below, we asked Syvertsen about her research, why it’s so hard to get offline, and for some tips on digital detoxing.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced a lot of us to stay inside – do you think this is increasing our screentime, and have you seen any evidence of that?

Trine Syvertsen: Yes, I’ve seen all sorts of evidence. We put out a survey to about 500 Norwegians so far, and people report that they are spending more time looking at screens, paying more attention to social media, but also all sorts of digital platforms, including work platforms (like Slack and Zoom). We know from the news that TV viewing is up as well; people say that for the first time in a long time, they’ve been watching the evening news with their whole family. People aren’t able to socialise face to face so we have more messaging, phone calls, and even digital drinking parties. 

It’s like a big communication experiment, and although this is not a representative survey, responses are mixed. Some are surprised at how well they are dealing with the increase, and others are already quite sick of it. People have told us about how they miss small talk. One guy said he misses the colleagues he doesn’t even like, and with schools closed, parents have told us they’ve just given up trying to control their kids’ screen time.

A lot of studies say more screen time and time on social media is bad for our mental health – does that mean that this period is?

Trine Syvertsen: Again, people have very mixed experiences. Some people describe great improvement from a digital detox, how they are more focused, concentrated and present when they stop using technology. Some get disappointed. Others can’t do it and are still glued to the screen. I’m not a psychologist, but I know there are surveys that also say technology is good for your mental health as well as bad, or that social media doesn’t have that much impact, so it’s not easy to draw any conclusions, we’re quite early into this kind of research. What we can prove is that a lot of people talk about digital detox, and maybe try. But we don’t really know how successful people are. Statistics show that between 30 and 50 per cent of people in the UK and Norway think they are online too much, but the figures for who’s actually managing to do something about it are much lower. 

One word that kept coming up in my research is ambivalence – our relationship with tech seems to be a mix of pleasure and dislike – we enjoy and rely on it, but also feel guilt-ridden about how much we use it. It’s a big trend to talk about tech use more and more like an identity issue; you can show off how good you are at disconnecting or how virtuous you are for not having social media while complaining about how other people are on their phones the whole time. But for some, it’s hard to quit because you have work to do on your phone or computer, but then it constantly tempts you to stay online.

“One of the ways that the industry is actually taking responsibility is to give you tools so that you can be responsible” – Trine Syvertsen

This idea of guilt... you’ve said in the book that people place a lot of guilt on themselves for being so obsessed with their phones, but these technologies are actually designed to keep us using… 

Trine Syvertsen: Yes, digital media is expanding and improving, and so is internet access and smartphone connectivity. Historically people have always been overwhelmed by new technologies – from the telegraph to cinema to television – but the new thing is that we can’t escape the internet, there’s a 24 seven connectivity and we are also encouraged to use digital platforms because it saves society money and admin, so there’s also been a very big effort to make sure that everybody has the possibility to be online, meaning it’s harder to get those natural breaks in, where you can get away from it.

Plus this is an industry. The business model of the telecommunication companies is to monetise the time we spend on our phones by making us rely on their services, and also by selling ads against time and users. It’s called the attention economy: they want your time and your engagement so they use measures, for example, from games – gamification includes things like likes and notifications and, and constant little invitations to log on.

One of the ways that we can see this play out is when people describe a checking cycle. You pick up your phone and you go through three or four different apps, for example, in a cycle. News, Facebook, Instagram, the weather. People describe how that is fun for maybe five or ten minutes. It’s lovely, it’s a break. But then they tend to maybe sit there for maybe half an hour or an hour, still going in circles. But there are no new Facebook likes and the weather hasn’t changed. They’re set up to make you wait for something to change or for something to happen. People tell me that they know that they’re wasting their time but it feels really hard to get out. 

I don’t remember people really talking about their screen time a few years ago, is that new… 

Trine Syvertsen: There is a tendency to put the responsibility on to individuals for controlling potential usage problems. People who watch too much TV tend to blame television companies for putting out trash. But people who have problems dealing with social media, they tend to blame themselves for lack of willpower. I’ve done many interviews and it’s very common that people say how bad they are at self-regulating. The industry has put screen time functions in place in response to this criticism. I think it’s a paradox that one of the ways that the industry is taking responsibility is to give you tools so that you can be responsible “and shame on you if you don’t use them.” It’s actually absolving them of responsibility.

There is a whole industry around digital detox, can you say more? 

Trine Syvertsen: As well as all the self-help books, there are various kinds of retreats and hotels and camps that you can go to. One of the most famous is in California, called Camp Grounded. A lot of them combine things like yoga or mindfulness. The Scottish Tourist Board and also I think Swiss and Norwegian tourist boards talk about how you can go to the mountains and do digital detox because they have areas with very bad coverage. I went to a digital detox camp to do some fieldwork in Norway last summer and I found it wasn’t only about detoxing, but by putting away the phone, socialising or playing or having fun in a different way, we could really talk to each other face to face without interruption.

Most people I interviewed in the book said they digitally detoxed because they wanted to be more present. The other reasons were usually productivity, to finish a project for example, and privacy – so people giving up Facebook our of concern about their data, say. 

Is there a best way to digital detox, in your opinion?

Trine Syvertsen: In a sense, we can compare this to a diet. It’s not one size fits all, and it’s not about binging or purging, but more a lifelong balance. It’s very difficult, both with food with invasive technology. People are successful for a while and then, you know, they eat all the chocolate. Accepting failure is very important. Forgiving yourself for failure is very important!

And from all your research, if someone wanted to cut down on screen time right now because they were feeling overwhelmed, what should they do? 

Trine Syvertsen: People have different methods. You can try to regulate your behaviour or you can regulate the technology, right? So if you want to regulate behaviour, you can decide certain situations or places where you don’t want to use your phone, like at the dinner table or in the bathroom in the morning. You will notice if it is out of sight you will use it less. Or, you can regulate the technology. For example, monitor screen time, download an app that shuts you out, or get an old fashioned phone – you know, take out your old Nokia and use it over the weekends.

The impression I get is that space restrictions are most effective. It’s easier to do than time restrictions. So if you put away your phone physically, or you move to a room where you don’t have physical screens, or you agree with the people around you that all meals, for example, will be screen-free, that seems to be easier for people than, for example, setting personal time limits.

Given the situation right now, one thing that people are also doing is rationing their news, for example, disabling push notifications, and allowing checks two or three times a day maximum, as not to get overwhelmed. I think the other thing is also to try to get some of that face to face contact in within the digital platforms – if you’re going to use social media then video call. The people we surveyed said they were missing eye contact. 

Finally, one of the things that runs through the evidence is that people tend to get too little sleep because they bring screens into bed with them. My impression is that one of the important things in this situation is to get enough sleep and try to balance your digital life so it doesn’t invade your bed too much. So put your phone across the room or out of the room when you sleep.