We all want a digital detox (right after we check our email)

Sign of the Times: Irish people are doing more and more online. We want to switch off but can’t

The results of the 2019 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2019.

It is Easter weekend, and I’m standing by the water, watching my children swim. Two teenage girls in swimsuits are paddling on a surfboard nearby. One has a cord around her neck. A clear, waterproof pouch is hanging from the end, and inside the pouch is her smartphone.

Every so often, she stops paddling, and picks it up. She spends a few seconds frowning at her screen, swiping, scrolling, tapping, and then resumes paddling. When the surfboard tips over and sends her into the freezing water, I hear an anguished, “My phone!” But the phone survives in its little pouch; as I leave, she’s back on the surfboard, jabbing at the screen.

You could say this is a sign of the times; evidence of screen-time addiction; a bad case of Fomo, or fear of missing out. You could call it just being a teenager.


We are using technology in almost all its forms more than ever, we are increasingly concerned about aspects of it, and we are at a loss to know what to do about it

But there is a growing sense among many of us that we are witnessing a fundamental and alarming change in the way we use technology and manage our time – and that, in turn, is having an impact on our ability to be in the moment, to focus, and to interact with each other.

What the B&A Sign of the Times research – the Techscape aspect of the survey questioned 1,000 adults in January and February this year – shows is that a conflict is crystallising in our relationship with technology. Three interesting trends in particular emerge from the data: we are using technology in almost all its forms more than ever; we are increasingly concerned about aspects of it, and we are at a loss to know what to do about it.

The research found that all under-50s with a mobile phone now have a smartphone, and smartphone ownership among the over-65s is increasing steadily. Three in four of us are on the internet every day, and we’re doing more of everything online.

Despite some recent negative publicity Facebook has been attracting, our usage of it is unabated: the average user spends 10 hours a week on it, up from eight hours on the previous survey. We're streaming, sharing, shopping, swiping, liking, clicking, chatting, connecting, emailing, dating, downloading, catching up, researching, following and gaming like never before.

But the data shows that at least some of us are taking steps towards reducing our reliance: the number of people who check emails, texts or go on social media last thing at night or first thing in the morning is 46 per cent; down from 60 per cent in 2017. The number of people who use social media overall decreased marginally from 2018.

“We embrace new habits and apps with glee but also attempt abstinence or digital detox from time to time,” the research finds. We worry about our data, our privacy, identity theft and the implications of increasingly personalised ads. We are beginning to realise that smartphones are “not neutral” in our lives.

“In 2019, we are increasingly aware of their detrimental impact, but have yet to establish what is ‘healthy’ smartphone behaviour,” the research states.

What all of this shows is the paradox at the heart of our relationship with technology, psychologist Aidan Healy of the organisation Unplug says, a Dublin-based consultancy that helps people to develop "positive tech habits".

In workshops, he asks people to describe how they feel about their phone. What emerges is a “love-hate relationship”. Often, “they will say ‘I love it; I love the power it gives me; I love the control; I love the feeling of connection; and the feeling I can have anything I want anytime I want’.”

When he asks what they dislike, “they’ll say ‘It takes away my power; it takes away my control; it takes away my connection with other people, and it takes me out of a moment I want to be in’.”

The B&A research found that almost two in five of the 25-35 cohort are checking work emails on holiday, with half checking their text messages or emails when they can’t sleep. A lot of the check-in compulsion is rooted in fear, Healy says. “When you look at [the reasons for] people checking their email at night or on holidays; it’s often because if they think, ‘I don’t feel safe’ or ‘I have fear of missing out’. Most of it is fear – if people won the lotto and had €30 million in their bank account they wouldn’t check their email in the middle of the night.”

Organisations are facing a dilemma about how to counteract the creep of the always-on culture, he says. “Absolutely, there are organisations out there whose priority is not helping employees to switch off, but many more know that if they want to retain top talent, and want people at their best – thinking critically, being creative and being innovative – they’re not going to do that if they are burnt out.”

But are we too quick to blame corporate culture, or reach for the latest app to help us “detox”, when the answer lies in fundamental human strengths like willpower and self control?

"People convince themselves they're so important, that the place will fall apart or the project won't get done if they don't answer an email, but it's just an excuse to avoid exercising self-control. We have to figure out how to get to a level of sustainable use," Dr Eoin Whelan says, a lecturer in Business Information Systems at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

He recently carried out soon-to-be-published research on how the academic performance of students is impacted by “social media overload”– the phenomenon whereby users are exposed to a volume of information and communication demands that requires “energy and cognitive processing beyond their capabilities”.

He found that when students over-use technology, they get overwhelmed, which has a negative impact on their self-control, leading them to spend more time in destructive, time-wasting behaviours – like scrolling mindlessly on their phone. As a consequence, their academic performance suffers. It is, in other words, a vicious cycle.

For Whelan, “sustainable use” strategies include things like only checking your email or social media at certain times during the day, and then disconnecting when you’re trying to get focused work done.

Whelan is sceptical of apps or programmes that offer to help people detox from their digital dependence. “The digital tech industry is the best in the world at creating new markets for itself. It’s a lot easier to pay €10 for an app,” he says, than to take responsibility for your own habits. Self-control, he says, is like a muscle; the more you use, the better you’ll get.

Eighteen months ago, he swapped his own smartphone for an old-fashioned, call- and text-only, Nokia. Aside from a few WhatsApp groups related to his children’s activities, he says he hasn’t missed anything. “You have to stop worrying are you going to miss out on emails, but very rarely is something that urgent that it needs an instant response.”

Telling a 25-year-old overachiever to 'just switch off' is like telling people who are trying to diet to 'just don't eat the pizza'. It's not that they didn't realise pizza is bad for them

But for some people, Healy says, it’s not as simple as just mustering some self-control. “The reason we need help unplugging is because technology taps into some core psychological and emotional human needs, and those needs are very challenging to override on our own.”

So “telling a 25-year-old who’s an overachiever and is trying to prove themselves in a new job, ‘just switch off’ or ‘just turn off your notifications’, is like telling people who are trying to diet ‘just don’t eat the pizza’. The reason they’re eating it is not because they didn’t realise that pizza is bad for them.”

Another troubling element of the B&A research is the correlation between low self-esteem and social media use. Technology is very good at tapping into our core insecurities and needs, Healy says. He points out that when Facebook started, its most successful alert – the one that got the highest engagement – was the one that notified you when someone had tagged a photo of you on Facebook.

Though the B&A survey found that the self-esteem of young people is linked to their social media habits, it's not only the young who are vulnerable to the negative effects of the comparison culture, says Siobhan Murray, a psychotherapist and the author of The Burnout Solution.

“It’s the ‘They’re all off skiing and I’m not off skiing’ phenomenon,” she says. “But nobody is putting up on social media that they’re having a fight about whose turn it is to put the wash on.”

Murray says parents are increasingly worried about their children’s relationships with technology, but are sometimes guilty of sticking their heads in the sand. “I was speaking to somebody recently who has a 12-year-old daughter. She took the phone off her daughter for a week. When she went to give it back, there were 7,000 WhatsApp messages on the child’s phone.” The daughter never got the phone back.

Outside of those extremes, “there’s no one-size-fits-all solution” to getting technology to work for you, instead of feeling enslaved by it, says Murray. “The dopamine hit that people get from looking at social media affects different people in different ways, just like there are some who can give up smoking easily.”

Trying to enforce a digital detox can be source of stress in itself, she suggests. This is a phenomenon that Whelan and his team at NUIG are planning to investigate in a further study, along with the links between difficulties controlling technology and an individual’s personality, motivations and psychological needs.

But the bottom line, Murray says, is that “if you check your phone usage and you’ve been on it for five hours a day, then you probably need to make some changes. The two words I say morning noon and night are ‘personal responsibility’.”

For her, that means having her phone on “do not disturb” mode when she’s working. “It’s interesting that the term ‘multi-tasking’ came out of the tech industry. It’s designed for computers, not human brains,” she points out.

Block off time “and focus on one thing at a time,” says Whelan. “There’s nothing more complicated about it than that.”

“Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” It was the Nobel prize-winning Norwegian political scientist Christian Lange who first said this. His remarks were made in 1921, at a time when communications technology meant “post, telegraph, telephone, and popular press”; and the “dangerous master” he was warning about was new weapons technology.

Nearly a century later, his words could be an anthem for the digitally distressed.