Top tips for improving your relationship with technology in 2021

Break your social media habits, reduce your screen time, stop oversharing and be kind

If you have old technology lying around, gather it up. Functional technology can find a new home but even your broken items have value. Photograph: iStock

If you have old technology lying around, gather it up. Functional technology can find a new home but even your broken items have value. Photograph: iStock


New year, new you – or so it goes every year. This year, why not make some tech resolutions worth sticking to for 2021?


If you have old technology lying around, gather it up. Functional technology can find a new home but even your broken items have value. Old mobile phones, tablets, laptops and cables can be recycled, with the various components split apart and put through the recycling process. In fact, a report published earlier this year showed our tendency to hoard old tech gadgets could lead to a shortage in the raw materials needed for batteries.

If you are sending something for recycling, make sure all your accounts are logged out and the device has been wiped of all your sensitive data. Sometimes a factory reset isn’t enough as fragments of data can be recovered by more determined users. In the case of laptops, that may mean removing the drive completely and destroying it for complete peace of mind. For businesses, however, there are companies that promise a secure IT recycling service.

Buy better

Technology has fuelled a lot of good in the world but it is also responsible for a massive amount of pollution. From the growing mountain of electronic waste to the mining that is needed for some of the vital components, there are negative impacts from our hunger for the latest and greatest gadgets.

Technology that can be easily upgraded or repaired may be the solution. For example, the Fairphone, an Android handset, allows you to swap out components and repair the screen or camera unit yourself. It even gives you the screwdriver to do so in the box.

Shop online – but go local

This Christmas was very different when it came to shopping. With non-essential retailers closed under coronavirus restrictions in the lead up to the Christmas period, people had to go online to get their shopping done. That meant doing it early to make sure your items arrived on time.

Online shopping hasn’t always been positive for Irish companies though. In the past few years, reports have shown about 60 per cent of our total online spend has been outside the State, which adds up to a lot of lost sales for domestic retailers. But online shopping doesn’t mean that you have to go overseas. There are plenty of Irish retailers that have an established presence online – including some who have just come to the realisation that they need one to survive – with some uniquely-Irish products to offer alongside the standard stuff you can pick up at various retailers.

There are some definite advantages to staying local. Returns can be easier – and in some cases cheaper, depending on the item – and you only have An Post to deal with. Add in the potential complications with shopping from our nearest neighbour post-Brexit and there’s a compelling case for keeping it in the State.

If you are a regular shopper with UK-based retailers and have been reliant on virtual address providers such as Parcel Motel, Parcel Wizard or AddressPal to take advantage of cheaper or free UK delivery, there is bad news. As I write, AddressPal is the only one left standing and the costs have just gone up.

Parcel Motel temporarily stopped its UK virtual address service from December 28th as the finer details around Brexit were getting worked out while DPD’s Parcel Wizard ceased operation, citing the complications of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Break your social media habit

Social media may have been a lifeline during lockdown, but it can also be addictive – and toxic. There have been numerous studies looking at the impact of social media on our lives and, while it may not be all negative, the results haven’t filled us with joy either.

From self-esteem and mental health issues to the detrimental effect that social media has on our attention span and ability to connect with other human beings, there are plenty of reasons to dial back the use of such sites.

It doesn’t mean you have to cut yourself off completely though. We just need to get tighter control on our phone habits. You can use third-party apps, such as Moment, to lock you out of social media after you reach a time limit or a pomodoro app, such as Bear Focus or Forest, to take your attention away from your phone for set periods of time when you are trying to complete tasks. The digital wellbeing settings on Android will allow you to schedule time limits for your apps too, as will screen time on iOS.

These settings and apps can help you cut down on screen time, something most people have probably seen increase over the pandemic, so you’ll get two benefits in one.

Stop oversharing

Just because an app asks for access to your daily movements, address book and your entire photo library from the past 10 years doesn’t mean you have to give it. If it’s not essential that an app has access to your contacts list, you can – and probably should – refuse permission to do so. We are living in an era where data is valuable and the amount of it that is harvested by some apps is staggering.

So much so that Apple has started publishing the privacy credentials of apps, forcing developers to be transparent about what data they are collecting from users and how they are using it. It’s designed to be like a nutritional label but for apps. Some make for eye-opening reading. Facebook, for example, has a significant “data linked to you” section that should give many people pause for thought.

Not all apps have it yet though. Apple is requiring developers to provide the information as new apps are submitted to its store or when an existing app is updated. It’s self reported too, although if a spot check reveals a developer has misled Apple, there are consequences.

You should also look at changing your browser or adding an extension that blocks the most common advertising trackers. Look at Ghostery for both an extension to your desktop browser and as a mobile browser, or privacy-focused browser Brave. Tor Browser is also an option if you want to keep your browsing history reasonably private.

Boost your security

We can’t say this enough: strong passwords and two-factor authentication are two of the most effective weapons you have to protect your confidential information. LastPass, 1Password and Dashlane can all help with creating strong passwords and, more importantly, saving them so you don’t forget them.

Most of the more common services have two-factor authentication available, where you need a code sent to your phone or email in addition to your log-in and password details. If your accounts support it, switch it on.

Stay up to date

We’ve all been guilty of it: leaving software updates sitting there because we are too busy or don’t want to have to deal with the downtime while the update installs. And we’ve all heard the stories about the buggy updates that caused issues with phones and laptops or rendered apps unusable for the sake of a few new features.

But software updates also have an important purpose – security. Developers patch holes and vulnerabilities through these releases that could otherwise leave your devices open to malicious users. Delaying installing them could do more harm to you than good.

Most devices have the option to automatically install updates. On iOS, look for the “update” section in your settings and click “automatic updates”. You will have to go into the general settings folder and click “software” to find it. For Android, select “download updates automatically” under the “software updates” section in your settings.

But if that is too much of a loss of control for you, just check in regularly to make sure your operating system and apps are the most recent version. It may save you a few problems down the line.

Read the link

It is so tempting to read a headline and fire off a pithy update. But as we all know, sometimes the headline doesn’t reflect the entire article. It’s a short attention-grabbing line to pull you in and make you read the piece. If you don’t get past the headline, how do you know your point wasn’t already addressed?

Even Twitter prompts you to open the link before you tweet it these days. It doesn’t force you to, however. You can just ignore it and retweet anyway, but we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Bin the notifications

Notifications seem like a good idea. They draw your attention to something important, making sure you don’t miss what’s going on. Social media, favourite retailers, emails, text messages, shopping apps, online learning . . . they all use notifications to keep you engaging with the app.

Quite frankly, it’s exhausting, not to mention stressful and distracting.

Eventually, you end up ignoring the notifications, which means you are stressing yourself out for nothing. Do you really need to know when the latest stock drops in your online shopping app? Or that it’s time to log your water intake for the day? Cut it down to the essentials and you might find notifications become a benefit instead of a burden.

Make it accessible

Posting an image on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram? Fill out the alt-text field with a concise description of your image to make it accessible for those with visual impairments. On Facebook, you can find the option to edit alt text under the three dots in the top corner of your photo post prior to publishing. Instagram will generate an automatic alt text for your image but you can edit it under advanced settings before you hit share. If you want to edit the alt text on an image on Twitter, look for the small alt tag on the photo.

Back it up

It’s very easy these days to make sure you don’t lose your data. And yet, we do. Enabling automatic back-ups and syncing will help minimise that, backing your device up to the cloud on a regular basis. Should the worst happen and your device breaks, goes missing or is stolen, you should be able to install that back-up on a new device.

For Android users, that can be found under “accounts and back-up” in your settings. Click on “back up and restore” and set “back up my data” on. For iPhone users, go to settings and choose your profile picture. Scroll down to “iCloud back-up” and switch it on.

Be kind

“Be kind” may be the most elementary of things, but it is often the first to go out the door. When people are shouting about political differences on Facebook or dismissing their opponents as “woke” on Twitter, it’s hard to remember that there are real people behind those accounts.

It’s better to think before you type, rather than have a tech giant prompt you to rethink a potentially-bullying comment.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there are few things on the internet that are truly anonymous. It’s one thing to say something from behind the anonymity of your keyboard, it’s quite another when you have to confront the reality face to face.