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Switch off to join the real world


Switch off to join the real world

When left to our own devices, we have become socially programmed to reach for our smartphones and tablets to find comfort in social media. But the time has come to stop scrolling and make real connections.

When young mum *Maree deleted her Facebook account, she was inundated with messages of concern: “What is wrong? Is everything okay? Did someone hack your account?”

In reality, she was in dire need of a digital detox and a break from the incessant pull towards her social media accounts.

“Our kids started asking us to spend time off our phones and it really made me realise how sad that statement was, coming from them,” she explains.

“I wanted to be more present and have them remember me for playing with them and being interactive, rather than filming to upload to my (social media) stories or spending that time scrolling through Facebook and missing out on the magic of their childhood.”

Like so many people, Maree found herself starting each day by reaching for her phone and scrolling through her social media accounts. It was the same each night before she went to sleep.

“It would take me a while to then get to sleep or I’d have an interrupted sleep and scroll some more,” she tells My Weekly Preview.

This habit is not limited to a particular generation. Statistics indicate that social media addiction is prevalent across all age groups. University of the Sunshine Coast senior lecturer, social media and public relations educator Dr Karen Sutherland says many factors have contributed to our increased use. Those include the evolution and increased accessibility of smartphone technology, plus our need for connection, entertainment and distraction.

“There have been many studies exploring the way the brain can receive a hit of dopamine when users check social media to see people engaged with their content in positive ways,” she says.

“There have also been studies to show that FOMO is a very real phenomenon for some. The platforms have been designed to be sticky, to keep people coming back, and some have even been accused of rewarding people for the time spent on the sites by increasing the reach of their content.

“The constant need to check can also become a habit if not approaching social media in a more mindful and intentional way. It becomes an easy go-to to relieve boredom or to pass the time.”

Elizabeth Hughes is the founder of mindfulness mentoring and coaching business The Mindful Executive, and one half of The Digital Detox Project.

Founded in 2016, the project was born out of a growing desire to slow down and switch off.

“The Digital Detox Project enabled us to do this by combining ancient wisdom with contemporary learnings from neuroscience, cyber psychology, and experiential learning techniques and activities,” Ms Hughes says. “We now share these pragmatic and empowering ways with others to stay calm, get focused and build real relationships in our complex and ever-changing environment.

“Most of us are in some ways looking for a level of peace, simple productivity, and human relationships which nurture and support us.

“However, for many of us, the one thing that is getting in our way is inability to escape technology. We feel anxious that if we disconnect from the chatter, ping, ring and buzz of our devices, our incredibly noisy world might just collapse.

“As creatures of habit, who care about what others think, love novelty and have a fear of missing out, without clear intent as to our use of social media and boundaries around it, it can be tricky for us manage or reduce our use of social media.”

Dr Sutherland says studies have shown the benefits of taking breaks from excessive smartphone use.

“From my own experience, I definitely notice the benefits of spending regular time in nature and connecting with people offline. Sometimes I don’t remember and appreciate the benefits until I am actually undertaking these activities. It is too easy to become immersed into the online world, but social media should be used to enhance our offline world, not replace it.”

* The name has been changed to protect her identity.


Time to switch off? Here are some tips from Dr Karen Sutherland.

  • Turn on sleep mode when you go to bed.
  • Turn off notifications (do this with email, too).
  • Limit your social media time during the day. For example, 20 minutes in the morning, lunchtime and evening.
  • When you need to dive deeply into a task, put your out-of-office on (explaining why you will not be available until later in the day), put the phone on flight mode and put it in a drawer in another room.
  • Be more intentional when you pick up your phone. What exactly are you using it for? Approach social media as a tool, not just a mindless form of entertainment.


Digital detox strategy

Recognising the signs of unhelpful social media use is the all-important first step to creating a digital detox strategy that works for you, says expert Elizabeth Hughes.

She says everyone needs to ask themselves these questions, which were devised by leading internet addiction disorder experts Dr Kimberly Young and Dr David Greenfield. The questions give users an indication of how much they need to change in order to switch off.

Do you or a loved one …

  • Feel preoccupied with the internet (meaning thinking about previous online activity or anticipating the next online session)?
  • Feel restless, moody, depressed or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop internet use?
  • Stay online longer than intended?
  • Use technology as a way of escaping problems or relieving feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety or depression?
  • Feel the need to respond immediately to your smartphone?
  • Constantly check the phone even when it does not ring or vibrate?
  • Ignore what’s happening in real time in favour of the virtual world?
  • Feel anxious when away from the device or computer?
  • Neglect friends and family?
  • Skimp on sleep because you are on the internet or a device?

If you answered yes to a number of these points, it might be time to consider a detox. Here are Elizabeth’s tips for a mini detox:

Get clear on what matters to you: In today’s noisy, opinionated world we can get caught up in everyone else’s idea of what’s important. This is the time to gain clarity on what is important and meaningful to you and how you want to spend your time. Clear intention and commitment to what’s meaningful for you is key to the success of any time away from social media.

Take the first step: Research shows that it is unplanned separation from our devices which causes us the most anxiety.

However, most of us – we are talking 60 per cent – just don’t like giving up our phone. Start with proving you can do 15 minutes without technology, then move to 30, 60 minutes and then up to a couple of hours. Use this practice to help master these incremental changes and be kind to yourself.

Set mindful technology limits:

  • Establish tech-free times, such as the hour before bed or the first hour after waking up. If you think screens before bed aren’t a big deal, think again. Harvard researchers recently found our favourite machines can disrupt melatonin production, sleep quality and mood, which can encourage life-altering health problems.
  • Designate tech-free places, such as the dinner table, the car, the family room, or staff meetings.
  • Set a timer for the amount of time you are really prepared to spend on the internet/social media/working on emails. Then stop when it buzzes.
  • Try leaving your phone in the car or your bag, rather than your pocket, while you run errands.
  • Get outside, move and breathe – take a walk outside instead of cruising the internet during a break. Grab a tea, coffee or water while consciously breathing deeply and noticing your five senses.


‘Virtual autism’: What are screens doing to our kids?

University of the Sunshine Coast senior lecturer in psychology Dr Rachael Sharman says it is possible to switch off, and the sooner the better when it comes to our kids and screens.

“Psychologists are now talking about Intensive Early Screen Exposure which is associated with altered brain trajectories in very young children in particular,” Dr Sharman says.

“It is vital we don’t shape the human brain entirely around technologies – or it will miss out on the experiences it expects via evolution.

“Too much too soon is very bad for young children, especially.”

Dr Sharman and USC Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel invested time and research into the subject, which culminated in the launch of their book, Becoming Autistic – How technology is altering the minds of the next generation, earlier this year.

“Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that involves impaired social and communication skills and is usually accompanied by a deficit in theory of mind, or the understanding that we all share individual and different states of mind, emotions, thoughts, beliefs and knowledge,” Dr Sharman says.

“The rise of over-exposure to screen-based gadgets appears to be also stunting the development of attention, theory or mind, and social skills in children.

“It is a topic of increasing alarm among neuroscientists around the world as these deficits resemble those typically found in autism.

“Clinical psychologists have even coined the term ‘virtual autism’ to describe children displaying autistic-like behaviours as a result of over-exposure to screens.”

The impacts appear to flow from childhood to adolescence, Dr Nagel adds.

“Worryingly, this is evident in the increasing number of adolescents having difficulties in understanding the perspectives of others, and in processing and incorporating ideas that don’t fit with their own,” he says.

The book, which offers practical tips for parents and educators, is available at


Candice's passion for journalism led her to the Sunshine Coast 12 years ago where she has worked across multiple media and communication platforms. An avid traveller (she lists Paris, Venice and Vietnam as her faves), this mum of one loves meeting with people from all walks of life and finds inspiration within their stories. Candice joined the team in 2014 and is MWP's editor.

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