Phones, iPads, computers, email, cloud programs, smart TVs, games and on it goes. Adults and children alike are connected to some form of device and online tool every day for work, school or simply to stay connected.
These devices, plus millions of online tools and applications (apps), are designed to make our lives easier, more efficient and more inclusive. But do they really? And is there a point when technology becomes too consuming and a digital detox is desperately needed? We’ve done some digging and asked around, and the results may surprise you.
Sunshine Coast clinical psychologist and author Dr Rebecca Ray says when it comes to tech time, it’s important to be realistic.
“Some screen time is inevitable, and even useful in today’s age. But too much is when it impacts on your wellbeing and relationships. Look for signs of reduced concentration and productivity, or if you’re distracted when you’re spending time with those close to you as markers that a digital detox could be useful for bringing you back to centre.”
Dr Erica Mealy is a lecturer in computer science at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and she says it’s all about self-awareness and moderation.
“Many good things can be very bad for us if used excessively,” she says. “Too much technology can lead us to de-skilling and an over-reliance on technology. The real driver for me is asking if the technology is helpful.
“Often, we make tech the only choice when design activities or brainstorming might actually be better accomplished on a white board or Post-its. It’s a matter of taking a step back to reflect and see if the technology is really necessary and if it’s helping,” Dr Mealy says.
“It comes down to evaluating what your life needs and if you find yourself being overly attached to your device, taking the steps to disconnect more. It’s a hard thing to do alone, and sometimes it’s a loved one or colleague that might bring it to your attention.”
Dr Karen Sutherland is the program co-ordinator of the Bachelor of Communication (Social Media) at the University of the Sunshine Coast and she also recognises devices play a large and crucial role in many people’s work. But she advises when socialising or at home with the family, be present in the moment.
“Put your phone in your bag or on the table and avoid being actively on it all the time when in the company of others.”
As well as providing benefits in a work setting, some social media apps like Facebook can be useful.
Buderim parents, Kate and Aaron Davies and their two boys, Hayden, eight, and Mason, six, positively use some apps to stay in touch. “Aaron has worked away since before our children were born,” Mrs Davies says. “We use Snapchat and Facebook video messenger to talk/see him on his weeks away. They boys love being able to see him as well as talk to him.
“There’s little games they can play together and funny filters they use so they always have a lot of fun showing daddy their funny faces.”
But often, use isn’t always so innocent and fun, as people become consumed. When asked if people are comparing their lives to others and their achievements, Dr Ray says, “Not potentially, definitely.
“Social media can be a very destructive force for a person’s sense of self-worth when they fall into the trap of comparing themselves negatively, or reducing their socialising to only the virtual world, thus missing out on the neural benefits of face-to-face connection away from screens.”
Dr Rachel Wheeler and her colleague Dr Tracey Hunter of The Wellbeing Codes agree. “One of the problems with social media is that it prohibits us from activating our inner dialogue of self-praise and self-validation,” Dr Wheeler says.
“We become dependent and sometimes addicted to the external validation that we are unable to give ourselves, by relying on comments and likes about our posts as validation that we are okay, popular, acceptable, beautiful and desirable.
“This is very short-lived and risky because your whole sense of self-worth becomes dependent on validation from others. Which is why you have to post again and again to get more likes and compliments.
“It literally is addictive because of the dopamine rush your brain gets in its reward centre from the likes and comments. Facebook would have been an epic fail if there was no ‘like’ button, because there would be no dopamine reward cycle for the brain.”
Online platforms also enable a space where people practise behaviours otherwise not acceptable. “There’s the child or adult who is polite when face-to-face, but participates in hurtful or bullying comments in an online forum,” Dr Mealy says.
“So-called ‘keyboard warriors’ can feel empowered to vent their frustrations in ways that they would not consider appropriate in person, which can be intensely hurtful and harmful to the receiver of the message. Which they do often because there’s not necessarily instant or proportional feedback.”
So, what are some of the other red flags we need to be aware of when digital use is too high or risky? Dr Ray says these can include reduced attention and concentration, low mood and anxiety, especially negative comparison with others. “Attaching self-worth to positive or negative experiences online, an inability to stay present in relationships, a sense of addiction to the screen, anxiety and FOMO when unable to the access the phone, for example, are all red flags,” she adds.
For Mrs Davies and her husband, she says they use social media but are mindful of ensuring a good balance between screen time and getting out and about.
“Myself and Aaron use social media,” she says. “The kids are too young for these platforms yet. I do take note of the tracker on my phone of how much time I spend on Facebook and Instagram etc, and try to make a conscious effort to not spend too much time on these platforms.
“They are a great way to stay in touch with family and friends, and a great way to make new friends as well. [But] I can see why people take breaks from social media as it can be very addictive.”
USC associate professor of child development and learning Dr Michael Nagel says time off screens is better than time on. “There are also a worrying and growing number of studies suggesting that social media is a major contributing factor to a vast array of mental health issues in young people, ranging from anxiety and depression to bullying and other problems.”
He says parents need to be a part of any discussion around social media and help establish healthy boundaries and monitor usage.
When it comes to the younger generation on social media, Dr Sutherland says parents should monitor the usage and content their children are consuming. “Parents should be in the same room as kids when they’re using devices with social media apps. Whether it is Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, it is important to have control over what children are consuming.”
With the many apps available now, Dr Nagel is also concerned about the number of alarming issues surrounding apps that are labelled as educational. “Anyone can build an app and call it educational or a learning tool.
“Researchers I personally know looked at 80,000 apps that were badged as being ‘learning’ or ‘educational’ tools, and concluded that almost all were nothing more than ‘digital’ candy. Meaning, they gave kids a rush but never really amounted to more than that.
“To date, very few apps are constructed with an understanding of the ‘learning’ sciences and are nothing more than a bit of entertainment at best.
“It’s also important to know that the design of apps and games are informed by experts in gambling addiction so that they can ‘hook’ people into repetitive usage,” Dr Nagel adds.
If you’re seeing the warning signs in your children or experiencing some of them yourself, there are some easy-to-follow steps that may help.
Dr Nagel says start by reducing screen time, which “must become the new priority for child and adolescent health”.
He also encourages in-person socialisation and promotes activities that require face-to-face interaction.
“Set limits: create ‘no phone and no technology zones’ and use the TeenSafe app to disable smartphones at your desired times. Think of this as a digital curfew. And lastly, no smartphones or devices before age six,” he adds.
For adults, he also suggests taking social media off the phone.
“You’ll likely be more intentional about when and where you dip into Facebook and Instagram if you only do it on a computer. If you’re a regular social media user, you might be amazed to find how much time you actually spend on these apps.”
Tech is fun, so why limit it?
Social media can prohibit people from activating our inner dialogue of self-praise and self-validation.
Anxiety and FOMO when unable to access your phone are signs you may need a digital detox.
Parents should monitor usage and content their children are consuming.
Having tech-free time allows people to decompress from information overload and reconnect.
Remember that tech time out can help boost mood by allowing you more time to spend outdoors or to be creative.
5 signs to watch
- Too much technology is when it impacts on your wellbeing and relationships.
- Technology overload can lead to de-skilling and an over-reliance on it.
- Reflect and see if technology is really necessary and if it’s helping.
- When socialising or at home with the family, put away devices to be present in the moment.
- Social media can be a very destructive force for a person’s sense of self worth.