Time to Unplug: A Call for Digital Minimalism

Why eschewing tech may be good for mental well-being...
30 July 2019


A smartphone, increasingly used to access social media and other online resources


Since the beginning of the digital revolution, our society has seen a growing concern for individual wellbeing, a desire to define the self and project as authentically as possible one’s identity...

It’s no surprise since we are constantly being fed a range of stories from around the world, forcing us to question our own patterns of behaviour, lifestyle and values. The question of what we should be doing with our time as we compare ourselves to others becomes increasingly prominent. We’re told how to be mindful, how to thrive, how to be successful, and how to balance our work and life.

While we may be more concerned about mental health and wellbeing, which had previously been largely regarded as irrelevant, there’s an increasing amount of pressure to "live the best life possible", which permeates through our screens. Ironically, social media that promotes healthy living and mindfulness can also provoke anxiety. Like alcohol and over-eating, social media induces instant gratification by creating a mind numbing-effect. This kind of gratification can become addictive and, when overused, leaves us feeling anxious and unhappy. There is evidence to suggest that we are becoming over-dependent - and even addicted - to our phones. Think about how you feel when you realise you have forgotten your phone, or left it behind somewhere. It is uncomfortable knowing that such a small device carries so much mental weight.

According to Ofcom1, 94% of British adults own a mobile phone, of which 75% are smartphones. And ironically, while mobiles were first introduced to enable on-the-go phone calls, a study undertaken by Deloitte found that 33% of smartphone users don’t actually make phone calls! Today, we use our smartphones for absolutely everything, from boarding a plane to finding a future partner. It feels almost inconceivable to suggest that we should be digitally unplugging ourselves for more than several hours. When our everyday habits and tasks are so deeply enmeshed in the digital, is it realistically possible? Cal Newport, a computer science professor, challenged the nation to go on a "digital detox" for a whole month in January. His latest book, Digital Minimalism: On Living Better with Less Technology, tells readers how a "digital declutter" will help people realign and live more intentionally.

Some anthropologists, like Mark Deuze, have argued that life is now inherently mediated – even newborns have a digital footprint. As such, Western metropolitan realities can no longer be set apart from the digital. We’re so severely enmeshed in technology today that perhaps digital de-cluttering is just an attempt to resist the inevitable: a form of denial painted in nostalgia. We’re trying to get through a brick wall with a spoon – and that brick wall widens by an inch every day. But there may be some sense in focusing on the individual mind, rather than thinking so macro.

Is there logic behind a digital de-clutter?

1.      ‘Always-on’ culture and ‘FOMO’

Sociologist Sherry Turkle discusses the ‘always-on’ culture that we now live in2. Newsfeeds and photos release a constant sense of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), causing people to feel anxious that they are not living up to their potential, or worse their potential doesn’t equate to that of others. It’s easy enough to forget that a person’s life on social media is not a reality, but a polished story made to seem like a reflection of that reality. Psychologist and writer Oliver James3 discusses the ‘keeping-up-with-the-Joneses’ culture that social media has brought about. It has not only created an anxious society but an envious and jealous one as well.

It’s easy enough to think about the filters that permeate across ‘society’s’ online world, but what about those on our own and the effects they have on our sense of self? As social media forces us to compare our realities to others, it’s easy to view our lives as inadequate compared to the seemingly glamorous experiences that we’re exposed to. We’re forced into creating ‘highlight reels’ of our own lives and edit ourselves in ways that we wouldn’t normally think to. This unsurprisingly interrupts our sense of self, splitting us into the online and offline. Bo Burnham’s new film Eighth Grade poignantly depicts the deep insecurity that photo filters and flawless selfies can leave in young people.

2.     Sleep disturbance

Screens emit a blue light that affect the release of melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep and helps to regulate circadian cycles (the body clock that controls how and when we sleep). According to the Sleep Foundation, melatonin can be blocked after spending as little as 1.5 hours in front of a screen before bed, shifting the circadian rhythm by an hour4. Technology such as phones, tablets, laptops, television provide mental stimulation and cause us to feel alert, which is obviously not what’s supposed to happen just before bed. Not only do Generation Z and Y report problems with technology addiction, but the Sleep Foundation also found that they don’t sleep as well as Generation X and the Baby Boomers. 22% of Generation Z, and 18% of Generation Y, reported issues with sleeping compared to only 9% amongst Baby Boomers. Lack of sleep, or disturbed sleep, can have a profound impact on our wellbeing. Studies have revealed that insomnia and anxiety are interrelated – both triggering one another – meaning once you fall victim to one, it can be a struggle break free of the other5.

Concluding thoughts

While ‘minimalism’ may be a buzzword and a millennial trend at the moment – which always warrants some scepticism – there may be some logic to what Newport is referring to. It may be more productive to consider digital minimalism as another form of modern stoicism – a philosophy rather than a science. While there is some science that suggests that over-using technology is causing us harm, there is not enough to support the claim that digital minimalism will solve our modern problems like anxiety, stress and insomnia. Perhaps the symptoms we associate with technology are part of a much bigger problem that we have to face rather than escape. Newport argues that by owning fewer things and finding pleasure from the non-material world, minimalists are able to be “more intentional” in finding meaning – perhaps it is here that humans will begin to find more peace and wellbeing. Our lives may be too deeply entrenched to attempt month-long digital-detoxes and pretend that they can be normalised. What we need to be doing is adopting, slowly but surely, modern stoic values and, as Oliver James advocates, learning to reconnect with what we already have...


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