Admit it: you’re in your own little world right now, aren’t you?
I mean, your body might be in bed, or on the bus, or sat on the toilet seat. But right now, you’re not really there… you’re reading this... luxuriating in your digital lifestyle.
Most likely you’re on your mobile phone or tablet, and you're getting a quiet fix of that other life you lead. You know the one. The life that’s full of promise and intrigue, questions and answers, new obsessions, and an infinite audience of fans (or foes) to share them with. You’re cocooned in the magical blanket that wraps itself around you when you stare into the abyss of a backlit screen, scrolling away to your heart’s content… You’re living your online life – and loving it.
So, where’s the harm in that?
According to recent research, time spent online by the average Brit amounts to a total of 22 years, one month, and four days of their life. That's longer than some of you have been alive. A poll of 2,000 adults found that they spend around 59 hours per week on the internet – the equivalent of more than two full days floating in cyberspace.
It’s pretty scary when you think about it. How and when did our digital lifestyles become all-consuming?
February 7 2023 is Safer Internet Day, an annual event set up in 2004 to promote the safe, responsible, and positive use of digital technology for young people. This year, the focus is on ‘making space for conversations about life online’ and aims to get both children and adults talking about their alternate digital lives.
Although Safer Internet Day is targeted at younger users, the messages around discussing ‘life online’ are relevant regardless of how old you are. Ever felt down for days because of a nasty incident on social media? Or been glued to your iPhone for hours because you’ve been sucked into watching too much TikTok?
If you’ve ever felt the negative impact of what happens when digital life affects your mental health, then it’s time to get some perspective on how you’re choosing to live life online.
Talking about internet use as an adult feels a bit taboo. It’s kind of like when the doctor asks you how many units you drink per week. We all know the ‘right’ answer, and if the reality is very different from that, the temptation is to bend the truth or play it down with excuses. ‘Everyone’s on their phone all the time, it’s just what people do now.’
But just because it’s become the norm, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Problematic Internet Use (PIU) is a condition where – as the name suggests – overuse of the internet starts to negatively affect everyday life and overall wellbeing. Constantly checking social media, obsessing over apps, and overuse of online games are all forms of digital addiction and symptoms of PIU.
Recent studies have shown links between PIU and patients with anxiety disorders, OCD, depression, and ADHD. Digital addiction is also associated with other forms of addiction and substance abuse. That's not to say that everyone who ever reaches for a quick Insta-fix now and then has an internet problem. But it’s a stark reminder why digital life is best lived in moderation, especially if you have experience of poor mental health.
Social media is especially high on the list for aggravating symptoms of anxiety and depression. The poisonous mix of comparison and validation that digital platforms like Facebook and Instagram offer up is the ideal breeding ground for poor mental health. Couple this with the allure of having feedback from ‘friends’ 24/7 and you’ve got the perfect recipe for seriously unhealthy digital addiction. There’s also the danger that social media starts to replace real social events, offering an ‘easier’ way to interact with others that ultimately makes social anxiety worse.
Gaming is another source of digital online entertainment that, if left unchecked, can have a serious impact on mental health, with links to depression, social anxiety, poor emotional regulation, and interpersonal conflict. The biggest problem here is accessibility. While it’s impractical for most people to spend every spare minute plugged into a console, having their phone to hand all day every day means it’s game on for online games, no matter where they are.
Then there’s the issue of sleep interference caused by an unhealthy digital lifestyle. Studies have shown two or more hours of screentime before bed can seriously impact the melatonin surge we all need to fall asleep. It also results in lower quality sleep, meaning your brain and body can’t function as they should. And if there's one thing guaranteed to derail mental health, it’s a lack of quality sleep.
Of course, online gaming and social media have plenty of positive influences too, including building friendships and developing businesses. The key thing here is to keep checking that you’re using them in moderation.
If any (or all) of the above rings true for you, then you could benefit from giving your digital lifestyle an MOT. Here are some tips on how to cut down on time spent online, kick that digital addiction, and claw back a few of those 22 years you’d otherwise be lost in cyberspace...
When you find yourself at a loose end and reaching for your phone or tablet, stop and ask yourself, ‘What do I really want?’ The answer may surprise you. Quite often, digital devices are a kind of crutch we use to escape from being alone or feeling awkward or bored. Calling yourself out on these digital lifestyle habits has an empowering effect on your life in the real world while downplaying your online one. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but practise this regularly and you’ll soon start to build up that resistance muscle!
If you know you’re going to be in a situation where getting sucked into life online is inevitable, bring back-up. A book (remember those!), magazine, or crossword puzzle are great substitutes for screentime when you’re stuck waiting for the bus or an appointment.
Set some time aside to go through your devices and reassess the apps you’re using. Be honest with yourself about how using that app feels, why you’re using it, and what it adds to your real-world life. If the cons outweigh the pros, be ruthless and delete it.
This is a particularly good approach if more than one person in the household is keen to do a digital detox. Choose a room – or several – that are no-phone zones, meaning you cannot use your phone or any other digital devices in those rooms. The bedroom is a good place to start. (The living room is a bold move, but a great shout if you really want to crack down hard on yourselves. Remember the smoking ban? How much easier was it to quit when the only place you could have a ciggie was behind the wheelie bins outside the pub?)
If a whole room is too tricky, you could try introducing a watershed for phones and tablets, so all digital devices are switched off at an agreed time in the evening. This also helps with ensuring you get a good night’s sleep.
Rather than relying on apps for all your social time, make plans to see people in the real world – and stick to them! It can feel weird meeting up with friends when you’re used to chatting online, but the benefits of catching up face-to-face will give you far bigger feel-good boost.
Thanks to the popularity of Stanger Things, board games like Dungeons and Dragons are enjoying a renaissance. (Yes, yes, we know. D&D has always been cool...) Organising regular games nights with friends is a great way to get your gaming fix away from the internet and up your mental health IRL.
This is a big one, but the rewards are huge. Choose one day a week where your phone is turned off and the internet is a no-go. Warn any friends and relatives who might try to contact you that you’re going dark for 24 hours and you’ll see them on the other side. Once you’ve got a taste for it, you’ll be booking all kinds of off-grid holidays and only checking in with your online life when it suits you.
Vive la real world!