The power of the digital world is vast. For instance, a town in the Netherlands recently installed traffic lights in the pavement to help pedestrians distracted by their smartphones to cross the road safely1. Because of the digital world, people are putting if not their lives, then certainly their wellbeing, at risk through 24/7 connectivity.
Two worlds collide
Digital devices are also intruding on real-world relationships. Smartphones have invaded every social interaction, from family mealtimes to business meetings. And, while they may allow us to reconnect with long lost friends, digital benchmarks can lead us to favour the quantity of our personal relationships over the quality of them.
Elsewhere, research shows that many smartphone users now consider their digital device to be an extension of themselves. The instant rewards of digital interaction, such as likes, are also making smartphones highly addictive. Scientists are therefore observing a growing trend towards smartphone separation anxiety, called 'nomophobia'2.
Undeniably, the overuse of digital devices can have a negative impact on our mental and physical health. Yet recognising the potential downsides of digital overload is just the first step in regaining control. Positive actions are also required:
1. Set boundaries. Small steps like agreeing not to look at emails after 8pm can go a long way. Other examples would be having a designated 'device zone' during dinner or banning devices from the bedroom.
2. Do a digital spring clean. Decluttering will help ensure your device is less of a distraction. Do things like delete unwanted apps, unsubscribe from news feeds or turn off push notifications.
3. Go analogue. Looking to 'old school' activities is sometimes the right thing to do. Write your shopping list with a pen and paper, read a paperback book instead of an e-reader or give an offline hobby like knitting or playing a guitar a go.
4. Interact in person. The likes of Snapchat and Instagram mean that we don't talk to people as much anymore. This can lead to feelings of isolation and even deteriorating social skills3. Go out and meet a friend for coffee, or meet new people to reduce the lure of a device.
Switching off from the digital world on your own terms isn't a sign of losing control. In fact, it will empower you to drive your own agenda. Most importantly, regaining a balance between your digital and physical lives should also help to improve your social wellbeing and reinforce your sense of identity, whilst enabling you to be more productive.
As the father of the smartphone, Steve Jobs, once said: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition."
1The Independent, Traffic lights built into pavement for smartphone-using pedestrians in Netherlands, February 2017
2The Independent, Smartphone separation anxiety: Scientists explain why you feel bad without your phone, August 2017
3The Atlantic, Have smartphones destroyed a generation?, September 2017