Most of us now know that we need to spend less time on our smartphones and tablets. It is similar to the recommendations of 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, 150 minutes of exercise a week and 7 hours or more of sleep. However, you may not be aware that you should also add at least 2 hours in nature per week to this list and there is a growing body of scientific research to support it 1.
In this article I would like to take you on a short digital detox journey to discover a few surprises about our brains, explain some of the reasons why we might be spending too much time on our digital devices, and to remind you how amazing real life can be by taking part in ‘unplugged’ activities such as Forest Bathing, which will reward you with a much deeper and richer experience. I will also share my experiences of my first Forest Bathing event with Forest Clouds Nature Therapy.
Let’s talk about the brain
When is now?
In the excellent book ‘The Brain, A User’s Guide’, (2018) 2, the New Scientist details some amazing facts about our brains. As adults we think that we become conscious of events as they happen, and that’s certainly how it feels, but we are wrong! Our conscious experience lives in the past and lags behind the outside world by about 250 to 300mS. Our vision, hearing and other senses are all processed at different speeds, but our conscious perception of how we see the world around us is fully synchronised. Our digitally connected world operates and distracts us at a much faster speed than our consciousness, and so it’s easy to experience the stress of information overload.
How much are we conscious of?
According to the fascinating book ‘Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’, (2017)3, Max Tegmark states that roughly 10 million bits of information enter our brain from our senses each second, but we are only ever consciously aware of a tiny fraction, 10 to 50 bits. So, what we see and experience is not all that there is!
Our conscious can be thought of as the CEO of our mind, dealing with only the important decisions demanding immediate attention or complex analysis of data. It’s easy to see why we don’t notice things when we are lost in our smartphones and tablets, even when they are right in front of us.
How many senses do we have?
If like me, you immediately and confidently thought of 5, then you might be surprised to learn that you are wrong!
It’s an example of the ‘illusion of knowledge’, whereby we think that we know something, but in reality we don’t. In this case we may have been taught that we have 5 senses at school and have never thought to question it.
In ‘The Brain, A User’s Guide’, (2018) 2, the New Scientist tells us that we have between 22 and 33 senses.
So, what are these senses?
The five that we probably thought off are in fact thirteen.
- Vision (4): light intensity and the colours: red, yellow/green, blue.
- Taste (5): sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami (meatiness).
- Touch (2): light touch, pressure.
- Hearing (1)
- Smell (1)
But we also have:
- Temperature (2): hot & cold.
- Balance (2): linear & rotational acceleration.
- Pain (3)
- Movement of body and limbs (3)
- Sense of inner state of body (10)
Using our smartphones and tablets tends to excite just a few of our senses and so leads to a shallower experience than many activities in the real world.
Why do we spend so much time on our smartphones and tablets?
For the most of us being online, whether on our smartphones, tablets or other devices is essential to live and work in our modern digitally connected world. This could be using technology for tasks that make our lives easier, more efficient or rewarding at home or at work, connecting with our friends and family. They are also invaluable for news, shopping, education, health and fitness, entertainment and much more.
The problem is that if we are constantly engaged or distracted by our smartphones and tablets, we become unresponsive and withdrawn to those around us. In particular there are studies that show that unresponsive parents can cause very young children to become confused and distressed 4. But we also miss out on many real world activities, and this impacts the quality of our human interactions, relationships and our health and wellbeing.
Here are a few of the reasons why this happens:
- Our favourite Social Media Apps, Websites and Games use psychological techniques that operate on our unconscious mind to keep us engaged for longer and coming back for more. They also heighten our Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO).
- Being on our smartphones and tablets makes us feel busy, and we believe that we are being more productive. We also feel uncomfortable or guilty if we are not busy doing something. But in reality, they are designed to constantly distract us and so make us significantly less productive. Many of the things we do on our smartphones and online at home and at work have no productivity value at all!
- We believe that we have too much to do and not enough time, so we are often tired, which makes us more vulnerable.
- Our digital world operates much faster than we can consciously respond to, and so we tend to respond unconsciously to their persuasive design techniques.
- Our media relies on drama to grab our attention as we are naturally drawn to extremes 5. Negative stories, extreme opposites and conflicts are much more dramatic, engaging and provocative. However this is not how the world really is, and for some people this distortion can be a cause of stress.
What research tells us about being immersed in nature
In June 2019 the Guardian reported that a two-hour dose of nature per week significantly boosts health and wellbeing, even if you simply sit and enjoy the peace 1. The research, published in the Journal of Scientific Reports by Dr Mathew White, an environmental phycologist at the University of Exeter Medical School, used data from a Natural England survey, this is the world’s largest study collecting data on people’s weekly contact with the natural world. However, it did not include time people spent in their gardens. Although the study did not investigate why being in nature was so beneficial, it suggested that a sense of tranquillity and having time to think could be part of the reason. Interestingly they also found that stress reduction is increased if you are in a location of outstanding natural beauty and biodiversity.
In the best-selling book ‘Drunk Tank Pink – The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave’ 6 Adam Alter refers to Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and says that ‘Nature restores your mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore your body’. Urban man-made environments can deplete us by demanding our attention and bombarding us with stimulation, whereas natural environments demand very little from us and give us time to think as much or as little as we like, and thereby rest our mental resources.
My Experience of Forest Bathing
It’s easy to forget just how amazing our experiences in the real and natural world can be. One of the best ways to digital detox is to undertake ‘unplugged’ activities that focus our attention on our senses, relax our minds and give us time to think. In July I had the pleasure of my first Forest Bathing event guided by Ruth from Forest Clouds Nature Therapy. It was located in the woods at Hanningfield Reservoir Nature Reserve and was in support of the Essex Wildlife Trust. Earlier in the year I had taken part in the Water Aid Hanningfield triathlon and had run through the woods we were about to explore.
A key part of digital wellbeing is to replace the superficial distractions and addiction of our smartphones and tablets with an activity that helps us engage with our humanity. So, this was an excellent way to take a digital detox. I really enjoyed my first Forest Bathing experience. The company was great, and Ruth's invitations and suggestions helped us to reconnect with our senses and acted as our pathway back to nature. What struck me was that it’s only when we are free from our digital devices that we have time and space to really think and appreciate the amazing richness of the natural world around us.
Top ten digital detox tips
Here are my top ten tips for taking back control:
Tip 1: Embrace as many real world activities that will benefit your health and wellbeing as possible, such as Forest Bathing. When we are focussed on an activity, we are less likely to be distracted.
Tip 2: Make sleep a priority 7. You’re worth it and not much good to anyone else if you don’t. Prepare yourself for sleep by acknowledging its importance and letting go of all the events of the day. If it helps, write down all the things you believe you need to remember for the next day on a piece of paper, so that you can forget about them until the morning.
Tip 3: Switch your Smartphones and Tablets off and put them away completely out of sight, preferably in another room, at least thirty minutes before lights out. This is essential if you want to get to sleep as the blue light emitted from screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin. This increases alertness and resets the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm) to a later schedule 8 .
Tip 4: Nominate certain rooms in your house or apartment as Digital Detox sanctuaries where Smartphones and Tablets are left outside. If you want to, put a sign up at the entrance and a basket or container to safely store your devices.
Tip 5: Nominate meal times and other family times as ‘Unplugged’ activities.
Tip 6: Establish digital detox rules and work together as a household to implement them, but put them somewhere visible, like the fridge.
Tip 7: Get rid of distractions by turning off App notifications.
Tip 8: Decide in advance what times of the day you will give yourself permission to check your smartphone or tablet. Write these times down and display them somewhere visible. Give yourself a reward when you are successful.
Tip 9: Think about how you can reduce the amount of media you consume. The media’s reliance on the use of drama and extremes to grab our attention, creates the illusion of constant deterioration and a distorted world view that can create stress for many people 5 .
Tip 10: Always remember that no one ever ran a marathon having not run before, or having not done any training. Our journey to achieve a better and more sustainable digital/real life balance will take time and require many small steps.
In this blog article I set out to engage your curiosity and explain some of the reasons why we are all spending too much time on our Smartphones and Tablets. I wanted to remind you just how amazing real life and human experiences can be by taking part in ‘unplugged’ activities that will reward you with a much deeper and richer experience, such as Forest Bathing.
Everyone has the potential to make positive changes in their lives, we just have to want to do it and believe we can. Digital wellbeing is about restoring the balance between our digital and real lives. This means reducing the time we spend on our smartphones and tablets, and being in control of when and where we use them, what we do on them, and most importantly how long for. To be successful we need to replace the superficial distractions and addiction of our smartphones and tablets with other activities that helps us engage with our humanity
‘Two-Hour ‘Dose’ of Nature Significantly Boosts Health – Study’, (13 Jun 2019), Damian Carrington, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jun/13/two-hour-dose-nature-weekly-boosts-health-study-finds. ↩ ↩
‘Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’, (2017), Max Tegmark, Penguin Books. ↩
‘Parents: Put Down Your Smart Phones’, (26 April 2018), Tracy A. Dennis-Tiwary Ph.D., https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/more-feeling/201804/parents-put-down-your-smart-phones. ↩
‘Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Focuses that Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave’, (2015), Adam Alter, CPI Group (UK). ↩
‘The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time’, (2016), Arianna Huffington, W.H.Allen. ↩
‘How Blue Light Affects Kids & Sleep’, (20-Jul-2018), www.sleepfoundation.org/articles. ↩