You open an app on your smartphone to clear an alert.
And look! A friend posted a picture from her vacation in Bora Bora.
The next thing you know you’ve clicked through the entirety of her 43-photo album.
You’ve also opened three browser windows to scope out the best time to travel to the Pacific island, how to get a deal on four-star resorts, and what bathing suit is best for your body type.
The bathing suit site prompts you to see its latest look on Instagram, where you have three new messages and 15 new likes to see.
An hour later, you remembered you were just trying to plan your meals for the week, and now you’re following Bora Bora natives and pinning a new straw hat for the beach to your “Dream Trip” board.
This digital time drain is real.
Having our phones, laptops, smart watches, and tablets constantly within reach has made us hyperconnected — and hyperdistracted.
We feel attached to the people and lives on our phones, but disconnected from our real life storylines.
Tom Kersting, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist, and author of “Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids.”
“No matter where you look, it seems that everyone is disengaged from the moment and instead staring at a device,” he told Healthline. “This is causing family issues, work issues, etcetera, as we become more disconnected from each other. These are classic signs of addiction.”
Think addiction is too strong a word for the constant need to check, and check again, everything from Instagram likes to work emails?
“Technology becomes a problem when it begins interfering with your daily life, leading to addiction,” Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, a therapist practicing in New York, told Healthline.
Hershenson treats individuals with social media and technology addiction.
“Social media in particular is addictive given the validation factor. Getting ‘likes’ on pictures or ‘follows’ on newsfeeds affirms our existence similar to someone smiling at you in real life,” she said. “Quite simply, being acknowledged makes us feel good. Due to the constant availability of social media, this validation is available at our fingertips.”
The push to disconnect
It might be hard to remember a time without a smartphone, but keep in mind that the iPhone is only a decade old.
The internet as we know it is 25 years old.
Cell phones 15 years ago did little more than send SMS messages and make calls, and connecting to people 4,000 miles away with the click of a button was talk left for futuristic sci-fi movies.
Our digital addiction is new in the course of human history, and as it goes with most mainstream phenomena, a counterculture has cropped up to try to stymie it.
Restaurants have started banning phones from tables. One chicken restaurant incentivizes phone-free dining by offering families who put their phones in a “cell phone coop” free ice cream cones at the end of the meal.
Some tech companies encourage their employees to take a Digital Sabbath, a day (or at least a portion of a day) where they completely unplug and reconnect with a nondigital reality.
Even new technology is popping up to answer the need for less technology.
The Light Phone is a credit card sized phone that can only make calls, stores nine numbers, and displays the time. The cost is $150 for the phone and $5 in monthly phone charges. You can forward calls from your smartphone to the new phone, and leave behind the constant pings of social media and apps as often (or as little) as you’d like.
The demand for basic phones is growing, too. Sales of smartphones have slipped in recent years, and streamlined phones are gaining market share.
All of these trends point to a slow but deliberate shift to stop — or at least better control — our digital exposure every day.
How to do a digital detox
Your time and your attention are two of your greatest resources.
Companies will — and do — pay big money to grab as much of that as they can.
Learning to take back those resources and curate your day in a more healthful, productive way starts with taking an audit of where your day is going.
“I’m at a computer all day, every day, as part of a distributed organization,” Kate Sullivan, content director for a publishing agency, told Healthline. “While we try to be reasonable with our expectations, I work with a lot of people around the world, and that means I’m often working beyond ‘normal’ hours. That takes a toll. We need downtime to recharge our batteries, especially working in a creative profession.”
Sullivan takes part in a digital detox every day. She instituted three “unreachable” periods: first thing in the morning, on her midday break, and again at the end of the day.
“I don’t use any electronic equipment at the start and end of the day, and I control my midday use carefully,” Sullivan said. “This gives me the space and time to step away from constant pings and updates and daily life — and to let my eyes and hands rest and relax instead of encouraging eyestrain and repetitive motion syndrome.”
Collectively, we know how to stop a digital addiction — just stop looking at your phone so much. Realistically though, that answer isn’t simple.
“The sympathetic nervous system, the body’s natural alarm-stress response, kicks in when our devices are removed,” Kersting said. “It’s a physical withdrawal much like alcohol withdrawal.”
The idyllic way to do a digital detox involves a glamorous retreat to a no-signal oasis with beach huts and mixed drinks, but that’s not realistic, and it might not break your habit long-term.
Instead, look for ways to carve out tech-free times every day. Here are seven steps that can help you digitally detox as little or as much as you’d like:
Leave the phone behind: Try turning your phone or tablet on airplane mode or leaving it in another room while you’re working or playing with the kids. Just a few hours without the phone and the constant nag to check it can help break the cycle.
Stop the pings: “I turned off all notifications on my phone,” Susan Mahon, a digital web editor told Healthline. “Not having the constant pings begging for my attention helped reduce my mental stress and made me feel more in control of my day.”
Hershenson suggested turning off notifications as a first step, too.
“Schedule times in which you check technology, such as only during your lunch break,” she said.
Give yourself a curfew: If you find yourself spending an hour or two swiping through Instagram or Flipbook before bed, set a phone or device cutoff time. After 9 p.m. the device goes into a drawer until you’re ready to leave for the office the next day.
Don’t wake up with your phone: If the first thing you reach for is your phone, break the habit by leaving it in another room when you go to bed. Invest in an alarm clock, and don’t touch your phone for the first hour after you wake up. If an hour seems too long, start with 15 minutes and work your way up.
Establish tech-free zones: Create rules around events or places, and enforce them with every family member or guest. For example, don’t bring your phone to the table, and don’t take it out of your pocket or purse when you’re dining with friends. If you have family movie nights, phones and tablets must stay in bedrooms. The break may feel like a fight at first, but soon, everyone will appreciate the opportunity to withdraw.
Step away during the day: “In the middle of the day, instead of taking a typical lunch break, I take an hour mini-detox,” Sullivan said. “When the weather’s nice, I go outside for a walk or a run. If the weather’s crappy, I use the elliptical instead. I’ll occasionally listen to a podcast during this time, but my phone goes on ‘do not disturb,’ and I shut down my computer. When I’m constantly pinging back and forth between various requests and tasks, I can’t settle into a creative flow, and I start feeling burned out.”
Reward yourself with tech-free times: Each day, give yourself an hour of “you time.” Treat yourself to a new magazine or a few chapters of your favorite podcast (with your phone on airplane mode). Take a hike, and leave the phone behind. You can even unwind in the bathtub with your favorite tunes on a Bluetooth speaker. Just make sure the phone isn’t in the room with you. You just might be tempted to start pinning new recipes or weekend projects. That’s adding to your to-do list, and that’s no fun at all.