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Digital detox: Living in an analogue world for better mental health

There feels a slight irony in talking about the impact of digital living, and the benefits of digital detoxing, on a digital platform. As healthcare professionals and researchers review the effects of a digital world on our mental and physical health, it is becoming more evident that platforms such as social media, streaming services, and messaging apps are becoming more addictive and creating a greater gap between an analogue reality and a filtered best life. That said, technology has a key part play in our lives, and has enabled professional and personal connections, especially during the pandemic, when isolation has been a challenge for a lot of people.

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The effects on a digital lifestyle.

As you read this blog, access social media, watch television and check your emails, how focused are you on the experience, the information presented, just being in that moment? In a compelling podcast Feel Better, Live More, Dr Rangan Chatterjee explores how living in an ultra-connected world could be making us feel lonelier. Some striking insights explored in conversation with Cal Newport, Professor of Computer Science, highlight:

· Digital interactions do not create the same reactions in the brain as human connections, and can leave us feeling more isolated, and trigger a danger response in our minds.

· In a western world often characterised by plenty, social media can play on our fear of missing out, be it in friendships or the latest trends, and clever algorithms are constantly hooking us back in.

· We have almost stopped observing real life; you only have to look around a coffee shop to see our inability to just ‘be’, without that need for external and technological stimulation.

· Our desire for everything on demand – when was the last time you listened to an entire album just to enjoy the music, rather than a compilation of your favourite tracks?

· The effects on younger people and seeming inability to cope without ever-present access to technology.

These are high level observations that won’t be true for everyone all the time, but many of us can relate to the experience of simultaneously watching TV, scrolling through social, and talking to a loved one. Engaging in everything but focusing on nothing!

How digitalised has the world become?

Across the world, We are social reported that in January 2022 social media users hit the highest ever level at 4.62 billion; that’s 58.4% of the world’s population. On average across the world, we spend 3 hours and 43 minutes a day on mobile devices accessing the internet, with the UK averaging 2 hours 41 minutes. It is interesting in this context to reflect on the number of times we may have said “if only I had more time to read that book… hit the gym… take up a new hobby… or visit friends and family.”, whilst continuing to consume screen time at such significant rates.

Generationally there are also key differences, with the younger generation growing up in a digital first, on-demand, and high content environment. Add in the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, and the intensity to be online and digitally connected has only grown further.

So how are our digital lifestyles really affecting us?

There is a lot of data on the physical and mental health impacts of digitalisation, but some key highlights from HelpGuide and Medical News Today include:

· Growing levels of depression and anxiety, caused by the lack of physically seeing and experiencing being with people.

· Inadequacy, with constant life comparison leading to low self-esteem, especially when you add in image manipulation, the constant need for gratification, and only sharing life highlights.

· Isolation: no matter how much you like or comment on social posts, those deeper level connections, and real checking in, just don’t take place in the same way. It’s quite easy for us all to put a digital facade over our lives.

· Sleep issues, including the effects of blue light and content stimulating our brains just before bed. These combine to really reduce our ability to switch off and have a significant impact on the quality of sleep we experience.

· Most digital activities are sedentary and are now said to be contributing to increasing levels of obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and other lifestyle diseases.

So what can we do to embrace technology without retreating from the real world?

We all recognise that technology has a key part to play in our lives and, whilst it is easy to focus on the pitfalls of a digital lifestyle, we mustn’t overlook that, without digital advancements the world would not have coped through the pandemic in the way that it has. From keeping us connected with family and friends on Zoom quizzes and accessing the latest news updates, to responding the very real and immediate medical research needs the pandemic presented, technology has been a massive enabler. The question is ‘how do we strike the right balance?’ The simplest place to start is to think when could you be without technology and just be present, be it watching a film or really playing with your children? Simply being in that moment and appreciating the now? As Professor Cal Newport discusses further in the podcast, where you go detox from digital is a personal choice, with some going to the extreme of removing all non-essential digital technology from their lives. For those looking to adopt more of a ‘half-way house’ approach, here are some practical tips from

· Set screen time limits and turn off push notifications for certain periods of the day, reducing the level of constant distraction.

· Convert your screen to black and white, reducing the stimulation and appeal of content.

· Pick key times when you don’t engage with technology and remove it from your environment.

· Make bedrooms a technology-free zone.

· Engage in a new hobby, sport, activity in the analogue world… and why not do it with loved ones for double benefits?

· Spring clean your digital life, deleting unused apps, cleansing your social media connections, and choosing to only engage with people who make you smile.

GKA’s place in this space?

On a human level, as we come out of the winter, we wanted to share this great podcast with you and maybe just get us all thinking about a better digital life balance. If you have made it this far, you may also be interested to know a bit more about GKA and what we do in this space. As a medical market research fieldwork agency, we work with world-leading medical market research organisations to improve healthcare. From patient and Healthcare Professionals recruitment to research moderation and report writing, we cover all services and therapy areas. If you are interested in understanding more, please contact Charlotte Cullen on +44(0)1242 220240 or email to discuss how GKA could partner with you.