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You Don't Need a Digital Detox: You Just Need to Learn to Set Limits and Boundaries

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Just before I left on an eight-day road trip vacation, most often without a cell signal or wifi, I read with interest Matt Haber's New York Times article entitled, "A Trip to Camp to Break a Tech Addiction." I vowed to pay attention to my own feelings about being disconnected and to see if a digital detox, like the one described in the article, made sense for someone like me, a writer, a professor and someone who is connected from the moment I awaken to late into the evening. When my phone buzzes I feel a bit like Pavlov's dog as I rapidly reach into my pocket to embrace whatever virtual missive awaits me. On some level I know that this obsession -- and yes, it is an obsession and I will talk about that later -- is not good for me. As a long-time college professor with an intense interest in psychological research and neuroscience investigations, I am aware of what has happened to us over the past few years as we have become more immersed in our amazing technological world. I have studied it and written about it and feel as though I am just getting a handle on the issue and the possible solution to staying sane in this amazing high-tech world we have created with help from people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. And I have to say that just as in the medical field, I am not sure that a radical detox, defined as completely giving up technology for a period of time, will be successful. In this post I hope to explain my thoughts and make a case for a different approach.

A little back story first. I am a research psychologist who has studied the "psychology of technology" for nearly 30 years. I am both a geek and an advocate for the use of technology in education and someone who has studied the potential downsides of technology. What I have noticed over the last few years, both anecdotally and through research, is that we are all acting as though we are obsessed with our technology, and particularly our smartphones. Here are some observations I made on my road trip through the beautiful northwest national parks:

  • At dinner, even in the most remote locations, people were trying to find places where they would get even a tiny cell signal. I watched one man stand with one foot in the highway which he claimed was where he could get at least one bar.
  • We checked into a lodge in Yellowstone where we expected wifi and discovered the wifi router was broken. I felt a twinge of upset since I was "promised" that I could connect and was hoping to do some work that night. The gentleman next to me, however, was so angry that he was yelling at the manager and that made me realize the absurdity of the situation.
  • As we headed for the top of Signal Mountain in the Grand Tetons we turned the final corner and saw at least a dozen people using their phones. Lo and behold, Signal Mountain has a cell tower and rather than actually looking at the amazing vista, most people, young and old, were fiddling with their smartphones.
  • I carried two smartphones in my pocket, my daughter's and mine, and on our last day we hiked up to Inspiration Point in The Grand Tetons (actually I hiked while she crutched having just had ankle surgery). As we reached the top, both phones began to buzz like crazy bringing in texts, phone calls and email messages that we were not able to get elsewhere. I ignored the buzzing and realized that somehow I had inadvertently figured out how to let go.

When I headed home from Jackson Hole, flying out amidst the Tetons, I realized that although I had used my phone daily I had somehow accidentally set up my own detox. But it is a bit more complicated than that so let me explain more in detail about what went through my mind as the trip unfolded.

From Day 1 I was aware that phone access was going to be scarce. I wasn't worried a lot about this although I did promise myself that I would check in at night in the hotel. I even -- shudder, shudder -- left my laptop at home and only traveled with my smartphone (although I must confess that twice along the way I did use my daughter's laptop at night for particularly long email responses). As we drove through four states that first day I kept glancing at my phone to see if we had a signal. Mostly nothing and when I did get a signal I realized that the incoming messages were mostly garbage and could either be deleted or saved for later response. One email from a reporter got answered on the road with my dictating a response to my daughter that I would answer the email questions that night at the hotel. Each day I spent less and less time checking my phone, not by design, but by a very steep learning curve. If you pull your phone out of your pocket 100 times and only 1 or 2 times is there even anything new to look at, you slowly start to realize that your constant checking behavior may not be healthy for you.

My colleagues and I at the George Marsh Applied Cognition Lab at California State University, Dominguez Hills have been studying this "checking in" behavior for several years and have seen a dramatic increase in how often young people -- and when I say young people I mean mostly those under the age of 40 -- check their phone even without an alert. Far more than half check in with their smartphone every 15 minutes or less. In a study of the impact of technology use on sleeping habits, we found that 75 percent of university students slept with their phone next to the bed either on full ringtone or on vibrate and woke up most nights to check in either due to an alert interrupting their sleep or their brain telling them to check. In addition, those who used their smartphone more during the last hour before sleep had more sleep difficulties and were more sleep deprived, identical to findings from the National Sleep Foundation. When we completed this study I wondered what impact my late night phone use might be having. Heck, I was only playing Words with Friends ... well, and responding to e-mails, checking my Twitter feed, looking at my ESPN app, reading my Zite newsreader and (uh oh). I made a conscious decision about six months ago to turn off my phone at 11p.m. and even though I use it as a alarm clock I vowed not to check it if I got up in the middle of the night or woke up a bit early and planned to try to sleep more.

So far I have done fairly well with this routine and I think that my brain is doing better. Basically, I still use my smartphone all the time but I think that by small modifications in how and when I check in I am gradually changing the biochemistry of my brain. How can that be? Well, one thing I am learning from neuroscience is that when you are anxious your brain is releasing some neurotransmitters -- while removing others -- with the result being outward physical symptoms of anxiety such as intrusive thoughts, sweaty palms, racing heart and more. The intrusive thoughts were the telltale sign for me. I would be watching the news and almost subconsciously I would pick up my phone and thumb my way to one app or the other even though I was not really looking for anything in particular. I found that my external attention to the news was being distracted by my internal urging to check in with my phone. Strangely, most of the time I had no idea what my brain was urging me to check but check I did.

Why won't a digital detox work? I have no data to support this but have talked to quite a few people who have attempted to go on data fasts ranging from a few days to an entire year. The upshot is that they simply don't work. Spending a short time experiencing nature or spending time with friends and family is great and helpful but the bottom line is that until you change the way your brain perceives the world you are not going to stop it from enjoining you to constantly stay in touch. I think that Matt Haber's first sentence sums up how salient the internal pressure is to check in when he says, "There was a phantom buzzing in my shorts. I had carried my iPhone in my left front pocket for so many years that my jeans have permanent rectangular fade marks over my thigh. By now the phone is almost an extension of my nervous system; even without the thing on my person, I could still feel it tingle like a missing limb." That's those neurotransmitters at work urging you to check the tingling phantom vibrations when there has been no external stimulus to indicate an incoming alert.

So, what is the solution? I advocate setting three types of limits on your own behavior much as we set limits on our children's behaviors. The first one is to not let yourself use technology for longer than 90 minutes at one sitting. Every 90 minutes or so take a 10-minute break and do something nontechnological that neuroscientists now know serve to reset your brain chemistry. For example, walking outside in the natural world resets your brain. Several recent studies have demonstrated that nature is restorative. Exercising works, too, as does meditation, talking to a friend (live), listening to music, practicing a foreign language and even taking a hot shower. The old adage that you have your best thoughts in the shower is true! When your brain is calm it often enters a state known as the Default Mode Network, which is evident, when we are being creative, daydreaming and find our mind wandering. When was the last time you allowed yourself even 10 minutes to let your mind wander?

The second limit is more difficult for some people. I firmly believe that for a teenager and an adult, the ratio of tech time to non-tech time (and I am not counting sleeping time as non-tech time) should be five to one. So, if you are working for two hours on your computer then you need to set aside about 20-25 minutes for time without technology. This is different than the brain-resetting breaks. You need chunks of time away from technology to remind you that life is more than staring into a screen.

Finally, the last limit is teaching yourself what I call "technology breaks." I have teachers around the country using these in their classrooms and bosses using them during meetings. I have even encouraged families who bring their phones to the dinner table to learn to use tech breaks. Here's how it works in the classroom or boardroom. Everyone is given a minute (or two or whatever you choose) to check their phone and then each phone is turned to silent and placed upside down on the table or desk in plain sight. Then one person sets an alarm for 15 minutes and when it goes off stands up and yells "Tech Break!" and everyone gets one-minute to check in. After a week or so the savvy teacher or boss extends the tech break to 20 minutes, and then 25 and finally up to 30 minutes, the maximum I have found to successfully keep the anxiety-laden neurotransmitters at bay. What you are doing is training your brain that it is fine to go 15 minutes or even longer without checking in and nothing earth shattering is going to happen if you only check in periodically. You may not be the first to "like" your friend's Facebook post or Instagram photo but does it really matter in the long run? Will your friend feel badly that you weren't the first?

The bottom line is that a detox is an interesting idea but, quite honestly, it does not tackle the problem that our brain is often the culprit in setting up a feeling that we must constantly check in with our virtual worlds or we will miss out on something important. Just as we do with our children, we need to set limits and boundaries on our behavior and slowly, ever so slowly, wean ourselves off of constant checking in to checking in on a schedule that allows us to stop being Pavlov's dog.

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