The statistics are sobering. The average person checks their smartphone more than 150 times a day or every 6.5 minutes on average, and a quarter of us spend more time online than asleep, putting us at higher risk of stress, anxiety, burnout and depression.

The World Health Organization predicts that stress and depression will be the biggest causes of ill health by 2020, and that digital overload is a major contributor. Dr. David Greenfield, Director of the Center for Technology and Internet Addiction, knows all about digital overload, having recently conducted a study that revealed 9 out of 10 Americans were “overusing, abusing or misusing their devices.”

But how do you know if you are overusing? Greenfield says someone may need to rein in their smartphone habit if “right before they go to bed the last thing they do before they pass out is check their phone and the minute they open their eyes, they check their phone.”

This is why the need for a new type of detox – a digital one – is now being taken seriously by an increasing number of individuals as well as high-profile companies. A ‘digital detox’ is another name for turning off your smartphone, tablet and computer for a period and going ‘cold turkey’. Instead, you use the time to reduce your stress and begin to socialize in the ‘real world’.

One solution to tech overload is already offered by car giant Daimler, which has introduced an ‘out-of-office’ auto-delete option, whereby all emails that are received when employees are on vacation are automatically deleted and must be resent on their return. Google offers another antidote to digital burnout by running courses for its staff to encourage ‘mindfulness’ at work or ‘being in the now.’ The desired effect is that employees become more energetic and focused within their working hours by switching off from technology for a period of time.

Breaking the addiction

A way to avoid the compulsive lure of technology, therefore, might be to take a purifying digital detox vacation, where participating resorts proudly promote their lack of Wi-Fi and phone signal.

Ryan Holmes, CEO of social media company HootSuite went on a two-week digital detox during a holiday to Mexico. His aim was to try to “fully disconnect from the never-ending obligations and the constant stimuli.” Ironically, by switching off from all things digital for two whole weeks, Holmes actually started to appreciate it more. His detox allowed him time to reflect on the fact that technology had let him experience some of the most rewarding and eventful moments of his life. “Technology is a part of me now and it’s how I interact with many of the most important people in my life,” he says. “It’s also made me who I am both professionally and personally.”

Another successful digital detox was carried out by employees at Transport for London who underwent a mindfulness program that resulted in days off sick due to stress, anxiety and depression falling by 70% and absences for all health conditions falling by 50% in the three years following.

However you decide to get away from technology, the key word is ‘choice,’ says mindfulness expert Dr. Barbara Mariposa, who claims that “multitasking and information overload are literally driving us crazy.”

“Choose when to use your digital devices and when not to.” She suggests that next time you leave your office or home, leave your phone in your pocket or bag for half an hour. Talk to the people around you or simply watch what’s going on.

“Take a few deep breaths and bring yourself into the present moment. Just be,” she says. “Feel the ripples of relaxation as you choose to unplug and refresh, rather than feed the monster of constant ‘doing’. You stand to gain hugely in well-being and equanimity.” — Angela Singleton

Published: September 2015

Graphic: Dieter Braun