Share this post.

A Holistic Approach to the Digital Detox

By Dr. Nicole Loreto, PhD, MSc

HAS THE POWER AND VERSATILITY OF OUR SMARTPHONES BECOME SO ADDICTIVE THAT WE FIND IT HARD TO DISCONNECT?

Like many of you, I continue to work from home, spending most of my day in front of a computer screen. And if I am not on my zillionth Zoom meeting, I can be found on the phone scrolling pages of my latest newsfeed and checking the tweets of those I am following (which never takes just a few minutes). According to the latest research, I am proof that, on average, a person will look or swipe their screen more than 300 times a day. A Nielsen market study also found that we are on our smartphones for more than four hours a day.

Our smartphones have become “pocket computers” allowing us to work and stay connected with colleagues, friends, and families anywhere in the world. We can research just about anything quickly, play games, send videos, and text messages. We have learned so much with the simple touch of a screen.

IS LOW IMPULSE CONTROL THE REASON WE FIND OURSELVES SOMETIMES DISTRACTED AND EXHAUSTED WHEN WE SEE OUR PHONE?

Renowned McGill University neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin was one of the first scientists to characterize our interaction on social media platforms as a neural addiction. Our daily need to check emails, phone, Facebook, and Twitter activates a feedback loop in the nucleus accumbens, known as our brain’s pleasure center. When we get a notification of an incoming email or a “like” on our Facebook or Instagram page, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine and sends it along a reward pathway that gives us that “good feeling/vibe”.

Dopamine is that famous neurotransmitter associated with desire, food, love, sex, and yes, gambling and drugs. That means every time dopamine is released, it stimulates our reward circuit giving us immediate satisfaction. And with anything we enjoy in life, we want more of it. However, that’s not all. Our prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that gives us the decision-making and ability to make a judgment, actually surrenders to the power of something new, telling our brain there is something new worth looking at.

Imagine, you are writing the last page of your report while your phone pings with an incoming text message. Your prefrontal cortex immediately shifts attention to that new “thing” and gets a jolt of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. You respond and feel immediately rewarded for shifting your attention and in the process, forget what you were actually working on and develop a social media habit that is hard to break. Levitin argues that this constant multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop where we reward the brain for losing focus while it searches for that new stimulation.

Research has also found that the power of the jolt in dopamine release is also related to the importance of the sender of the message. It made sense when a good friend could not complete her thought midway through our conversation, interrupted by the email flashing on her watch and it also explains why I check for messages on my phone when I wake up in the middle of the night, a rather irrational act! If it is any consolation, according to Dscout, more than 87% of us check our phones between midnight and 5 am.

OUR YOUTH ARE HOOKED AND FEELING ANXIOUS IF THEY ARE NOT ON THEIR PHONES

For our kids, social media plays a starring role in their lives. Preadolescents and adolescents thrive on connecting with their friends on social media platforms, captivated by the “likes” and number of followers they get on their Instagram, Snapchat, or share with TikTok. They are constantly texting and receiving what a youth psychologist colleague refers to as jolts of “easy dopamine”. Seeing teens walking slouched with their heads down has become the norm. Why, because of FOMO: “Fear of Missing Out”. Many kids sleep with their phones or hide them under their pillow so that parents cannot notice that they are checking for the latest likes or comments in the wee hours of the night. This is not a very good practice when we know that the blue-emitting light of a phone can impede the melatonin production that helps us sleep. Brain imaging has shown that this ongoing stimulation creates dopamine cravings in the brain, altering the reward circuitry potentially leading to substantial changes in how the brain develops in adolescence. There is also growing evidence that intensive screen time can impact learning, memory, and mental health. (Neophytou, Manwell and Eikelboom, 2019).

HOW DIGITAL HAS OUR LIFE BECOME?

It’s worth asking ourselves, what kind of relationship we want to have with technology?

For me, I love their convenience and versatility allowing me to work remotely, but I don’t want my life to be defined by it. By recognizing and being conscious of the use of technology in our lives, we can decide how much undistracted time we want to give our brain and mind. I have tested and used a number of strategies that could be helpful in reducing some of our screen time and find greater balance in our life.

Try a few and see how you feel and how your mind responds:

  • Digital Detox – In the past decade, the Digital Detox movement led by former technology executives has stressed the impact of intensive screen time on our brain and health and advocates for different detox strategies, like the 30-day challenge. I use technology in my work so I prefer mini detox sessions liberating myself at least 2 hours a day from social media platforms and longer on weekends. I feel calmer and less ‘distracted’.Tanya Goodin, UK-based founder of the digital detox movement Time To Log Off suggests setting boundaries between screen time that is helpful and screen time that is harmful. She also recommends setting morning and evening routines which I think is helpful in delineating between work and personal time, a challenge in our digital world.
  • Take a walk – Walking outside is one of the best stress-reducing and mind-relieving strategies. If you are not feeling great, try walking for 10-15 minutes instead of swiping on your phone looking for something to cheer you up. Research has found that walking raises our energy levels and lifts our spirit and mood. It’s also good for brain functioning.
  • Turn off notifications – Turn off the notifications that you think you can live without. You will see the frequency of alerts and messages drop exponentially and your mind won’t get interrupted as often. It may not be complete peace of mind, but you will feel a positive effect. Reduce the shopping sale notifications as well, a trigger that leads to online shopping. A difficult habit to curb!
  • Change the color of your screen – Former Apple and Google Executives responsible for getting us hooked on our sleek and aesthetically pleasing smartphone screens are now suggesting we can reduce our intensive screen time by changing the color of the screen to grayscale. I can tell you by experience that this is quite boring. While it might only reduce your screen time, you will not feel compelled to check your phone every minute. Worth trying a few days a month!
  • Tech-free dinners – I used to tell my “now adult” children to place their phones in the basket for uninterrupted dinner time, a minimum of 30-45 minutes. They would hear “Family time is family time, nothing between us and food”. I have now extended that practice with friends who come over for dinner for good food and good conversation.
  • Avoid using your phone one hour before going to bed (or 30 min at the minimum) – I mentioned that the blue light impedes the melatonin production that helps us sleep. Even with blue light filters, the blue light of your screen can still suppress the secretion of the hormone melatonin and disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Seek out meaningful and relaxing content  – A good book is a sure way to get off your phone for a few hours and let your mind wander freely. I make a point of reading before bedtime and longer periods on weekends. Meditation is also a great screen time reliever (you have to close your eyes even if you are listening to an App on your phone!).
  • Use the“Screen Time” function to help limit time on your device and monitor your consumption – The “Screen Time” function of your phone helps you be aware of your screen time usage. And ironically it does give you a sense of control by setting limits and timing on your Apps. It tells you once you have reached your limit and you have to override it to continue. It does help curb our habits. I had to show my mother how to limit her screen time usage on a crossword game she cannot let go of.

Employing some of the strategies can help relieve our minds from constant distractions and will enable us to enjoy our surroundings: nature and those we care for.

DR. NICOLE LORETO, PhD, MSc, Nicole Loreto holds a Doctorate in Health Psychology, a Master of Science in Communications and Management and a Bachelor of Social Work. She brings a wealth of experience in health promotion, communications, public affairs, and mental health advocacy including eating disorders and violence against women. Nicole spent more than two decades working with children, youth, and women to develop healthier life pathways through gaining new skills, confidence, and resiliency. A passionate speaker, Nicole is a fervent promoter of positive psychology, resiliency, and the mind-body connection. Nicole created the Is It Just Me? mental health literacy program, which has reached more than 20,000 students, reducing stigma, and encouraging students to seek help when they need it. Nicole and her team designed two apps, Healthy Minds and Game Ready, which foster mental wellness and coping skills. Nicole sits on a number of non-profit community boards and is a member of the Ontario Hospital Association’s French Language Council and the Hospital Sector Representative of the Réseau, the network advocating quality health care services in French. Nicole is also a recipient of Ottawa’s 40 Under 40 Award.