Motivated

Employing Digital Minimalism for a Healthier Lifestyle


written by Cecilia Pang - Aug 2, 2021
medically reviewed by Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - ,

Photo Credit: by Austin Poon, Unsplash.com
Photo Credit: by Austin Poon, Unsplash.com

Eight hours. That’s the average amount of time Americans spend in front of a screen per a day. While these are numbers that were reported in a 2020 study commissioned by eMarketer, they have drastically surged as a result of the pandemic and are projected to rise. This can be frightening and can heighten concerns pertaining to eye strain, headaches, or other health issues but in our fight and journey to stay healthy, it’s also important to recognize that the online technologies we access through our screens are also beneficial. Therefore, rather than focus only on the detrimental effects of excessive screen time and use of other online technologies, this article also seeks to provide tips on how to maximize the benefits of these online technologies while mitigating its harms.

With the advent of smart devices infiltrating our society and more personally, all aspects of our homes, we are increasingly dependent on our use of online technologies within our day to day lives. Especially for youth who have grown up in tandem with these devices and their irresistibly designed screens, smartphones, iPads, laptops, or smart TVs have not only become a ubiquitous part of everyday life but also an inescapable reality of human experience. And as we have become more adapted to this reality–where most kids are receiving a smartphone by age ten - our devices that are with us or around us are leaving us in a constant state of distraction and potentially affecting our cognitive functions.

Emerging scientific evidence suggests that frequent online and digital technology use has a significant impact–both negative and positive–on brain function and behaviour. The potential harmful effects include the heightened attention-deficit symptoms (ADHD), impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep. On the other hand, however, various apps and other online tools can benefit brain health by improving memory, multitasking skills, fluid intelligence, and other cognitive abilities. When it comes to health, online technologies and their advancements have helped to improve healthcare access by providing more efficient patient care or faster medical results. Some apps offer mental health interventions, health self-management tools, reminders for medications or checkups, and skills training. But it’s crucial to keep in mind that when it comes to many of our fears about loss of focus or memory or even enhanced anxiety for adolescents and young adults, it’s still too early to conclude whether our devices or online technologies are the root causes. As Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford, shares “the science does tell us that there is a negative relationship between using more online media simultaneously and working memory capacity, but there’s no indication as to whether the online media behaviour is causing the change.”

Nonetheless, it’s important to put into context what we, as individuals, are up against. In fact, many of the companies designing our devices are powerfully persuasive and pervasive in the ways in which they strive to influence our psychology. As Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin says “we’re all pawns in a grand experiment to be manipulated by digital stimuli to which no one has given explicit consent. This is happening insidiously under the radar.” Various concerns have been raised by neuroscientists, psychologists, counsellors, cognitive scientists, philosophers, and more, when it comes to both our mental and physical health. But indeed, it’s our constant use of our online technologies and smart devices that are allowing intelligent systems and companies designing such technologies to learn more about our psychological behaviours. In this way, furthering these companies’ abilities in capturing our time and attention with varying degrees of validity or accuracy. The better these companies get at doing so, the more profit they’re able to capture through revenues streams of ad revenue. Hence, a reinforcing cycle and feedback loop is initiated as the screens we are attracted to become even harder to resist.

Therefore, even if the jury is still out about the long-term effects on our cognitive functions and mental health, it’s clear that spending a lot of time with our screens impacts us most prominently by taking time away from our activities and our life in the real world. In doing so, this can mean less breaks from gazing at our screens for long periods of time. In fact, research demonstrates that we often forget to blink, and that digital eye strain reduces our blink rate by a half. And up to twenty-five percent of Canadians suffer from dry eye, an eye condition linked to excess screen time. Studies also link long durations of screen time with insomnia symptoms in teenagers. By emitting short-wavelength blue light that resembles sunlight, screens from smartphones, tablets, TVs, or computers deceive our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime. With a decrease in melatonin production, a necessary hormone for our natural sleep-wake cycle, our excessive screen use especially in the evening can detrimentally alter the body’s circadian rhythms making it difficult to fall or stay asleep. Furthermore, if we’re glancing down all the time, there’s not only a lot of strain on our eyes or our sleep but also our muscles that aren’t necessarily adapted to our inclination when we use our devices to cower our shoulders inwards or our general slouching posture.

Perhaps indirectly, the most health-challenging aspects in our digital preoccupation as captured by Adam Gazzaley (Professor of Neurology at University of California San Francisco and author of The Distracted Mind) is the displacement it creates from our face-to-face interactions and conversations with the people around us and the physicality of our natural spaces. From having quiet, internally focused moments to having undistracted conversations with loved ones, our infatuation with our online technologies and spending time with them can negatively affect our ability to build and maintain healthy and interactive relationships with the people as well as world around us.

With this in mind, we have to recognize how in the same way, online technologies can also help us foster and deepen our relationships with others around the world or in unprecedented ways. Indeed, systemic reviews of the existing literature demonstrate that people who perceived that their interactions online were more positive and believed that they had social support appeared to have lower levels of depression, anxiety, or feelings of loneliness. However, similarly the reverse also held true. People who perceived that they had more negative social interactions online were more prone to reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety. It can be said then that a lot of the benefits or detriments from our devices and online technologies are more likely to be primarily determined by perception. It’s not necessarily social media platforms, smartphones, or all online technologies at fault but the individual’s personal relationship with them and their perspective on the perceived quality and value that they derive from such tools.

So let’s get to reconciling all the negatives and positives of our collectively high levels of screen time!

Five Steps to a Different and More Mindful Approach to Online Technologies

At this point in time, it’s unclear on how exactly excessive online technology use is affecting our health–especially coming to more conclusive terms as to whether our online behaviours are causing some of negative and scary results. But what is clear, is that it is affecting us all in different ways; ways that we intimately experience on a daily basis. For me, I acknowledge how easily distracted I can be when I used to have my phone on with push notifications. Or how much I multi-tasked when working on a school assignment thinking that I was being more efficient, when truly I was not. What I’ve found revolutionary in the past year is combining the insights and tips from the books Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, The End of Absence by Michael Harris, and Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Without further ado, let’s get into how exactly we can harness the benefits of our online and digital technologies while mitigating its harms. Because realistically, it’s almost impossible for many of us to completely eradicate much of our online technology use. Instead, as Newport highlights, we have to be more intentional about reaping the benefits of the online tools we use and to actively curb its other less beneficial effects.

First, it’s all about reframing. Before we even begin on making any drastic changes in our lives pertaining to our device use and online time, we can employ an identity centered approach to initiating sustainable long-term habits or lifestyles. Newport introduces the “digital minimalism” philosophy where technology use becomes rooted in our deep values. When we begin to see our online technology use in this light, we begin to process clearer answers to questions about what tools we should you and how often we should use them. Similarly, as Clear demonstrates in his book about forming long lasting habits, approaching news changes is about manifesting the type of person we hope to become. When we think about harnessing the benefits of our online time, we can think of ourselves with the identity of “mindful tech users” or even “digital minimalist!”

Second, acknowledge and be truthful with ourselves and the people around us on what’s working and what isn’t. Pinpointing what tools we use and for how long can be a more tangible way in seeing how much time we are getting distracted scrolling across our social media feeds or endlessly web surfing. Installing an app, turning on screen time on our devices, or using blocking timed tools such as Forest can help us keep track of when and where we’re spending so much of our time and our life.

Third, employ a digital declutter. Very much like the month-long retreat Harris takes and captures within his book, Newport suggests a practice in which we define, or for some of us redefine, our technology rules. We take some time to reflect on what type of boundaries we might want to set such as a no phone in the bedroom policy or turning off the TV after two episodes of a series or even choosing to call a family or friend as opposed to only texting them. Your rules are your rules, and it comes down from the first step of our identity: the person we are and want to be as well as our values: what do we want to prioritize? During the thirty days detox or declutter, we can do our best to eliminate any non-essential screen time (that isn’t for work, emergencies, or other life sustaining functions). This will look very different for different people, but the central question will be: do I really need to be bringing my phone with me when I’m spending time with my family? Do I really need to have my phone on after 10pm?

Fourth, reintegrating your tools on your terms. The point of such a declutter in step four is to allow ourselves a time and space where we can enter a state of true solitude. One in which we spend more time alone with our own thoughts or being present with the people around us–undistracted. By having a declutter, we can finally hear ourselves and be in tune with what we want. When we discover how little we really need our phones 24/7, we can be much more confident in our own abilities to maintain the boundaries and enact the rules we’ve set for ourselves in step three. Focus on extracting the very benefits of the tools that are aligned with your values. For instance, if you enjoy the social connection and new relationships you build via social media then set a set amount of time each week to use social media. However, outside of that time don’t check social media or if you find the temptation to check, turn off push notifications or best yet delete the apps on your phone.

Fifth, finish with the Bennett principle. Prioritize demanding activity over passive consumption. During our mindfulness process of realigning our technological practices with our values, we were bound to come to a realization that much of our screen time is passive. Whether it’s mindlessly liking every post on our social media newsfeed, hopping from app to app during our down time, or scrolling for new updates every couple of seconds as we wait in line for our coffee…what previously existed in those spaces might have been conversations with a passerby or spending time building on a hobby after a long day of work. It could have been curling up with a book or strumming a few chords to a guitar. To ensure that when we are bored, we don’t start passively using our devices and add on screen time, we can focus on using our skills to produce valuable things or work on tangible projects in the physical world. We can seek activities that require real world social interactions.

Sources

“Canadians Spend 11 Hours per day on Screens, Alcon Survey Shows.” Cision, September 2019.

Davies, Samuel Thomas. “Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.” Sam V. Davies.

“How Does Technology Use Affect Men’s and Women’s Health?” Northwest Primary Care.

Johnson, Jon. “Negative Effects of Technology: What to Know.” Medical News Today, February 25, 2020.

Makin, Simon. “Searching for Digital Technology’s Effects on Well-Being.” Nature, November 2018.

Pacheco, Danielle, and Nilong Vyas. “Screen Time and Insomnia: What It Means for Teens.” Sleep Foundation, February 2021.

Resnick, Brian, Julia Belluz, and Eliza Barclay. “Is Our Constant Use of Digital Technologies Affecting our Brain Health? We Asked 11 Experts?” Vox Media, February 26, 2019.

Roberts, Nicole F. “How Much Time Americans Spend in Front of Screens Will Terrify You.” Forbes, January 24, 2019.

Seabrook, Elizabeth M et al. “Social Networking Sites, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review.” JMIR mental health vol. 3,4 e50. 23 Nov. 2016, doi:10.2196/mental.5842

Small, Gary W et al. “Brain health consequences of digital technology use
.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 22,2 (2020): 179-187. doi:10.31887/DCNS.2020.22.2/gsmall

Wedner, Diane. “The Real Effects of Technology on Your Health.” Everyday Health, November 2017.

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