There was more than one type of cold turkey on my social feeds this Christmas. Post after post announced people logging off to spend ‘quality time’ in the real world, or leaving platforms altogether. Meanwhile many of the rest of us feel in a state of flux; increasingly sick of the bottomless scroll, yet craving it more than ever. I think I’ve deleted and reinstalled Instagram more times over the past month than I’ve actually posted.
But there is another way. In her new book Screen Time, published last week, tech journalist Becca Caddy digs into the science on everything from mental health and body image to echo chambers and data security, explaining the good, the bad and the ugly of our tech habits through a filter of gentle pragmatism. Nomophobics (those who fear being detached from mobile phone connectivity) needn’t panic – it won’t make you want to throw your phone in the sea, so much as stroke it tenderly and promise to treat it better.
“I want to offer an alternative point of view from the advice already out there about ‘digital detoxes’ and ‘breaking up with’ your devices,” Caddy tells me. “Hiding or downgrading your phone or deleting your apps might give you some short-term relief, but has the potential to lead to even more excessive use.”
Besides, it’s not all bad. “There’s a lot to cherish about what technology provides us with, and how it extends our ability to participate in and enjoy the world,” she says. “Reaching for your phone for distraction or connection is a welcome comfort – especially if this past year’s events have made you feel isolated.” Which comes as a relief to those of us who can’t stop doomscrolling on the toilet (guilty).
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If you can’t face a full tech break, that’s OK. “The research points more toward focusing on filling your newsfeeds and time with what makes you feel good,” says Becca. “Removing things just leaves an empty space – you need to replace it with a different activity, something that feels better for you.”
Which could mean the old chestnuts: going for a walk, reading a book, having a bath...but it could also mean losing yourself in a mobile game, sending your best friend a rambling voicenote, or swapping your hate-follows for a feed full of happy seals. Since deleting my Twitter app I’ve reinstalled Pinterest, and the brain space that used to be filled with angry hot takes is now full of twirly candles. It’s not Proust, but I’ll take it.
Not in that sense - although a ring selfie is a surefire way to bring the likes in – but interact with content, rather than being a passive onlooker. While numerous studies have linked mindless scrolling with a decrease in overall well-being, it turns out the opposite is true if we get involved. “People are happier and less likely to feel the ill effects of time spent online when they play a more active role by commenting, liking, sharing, and messaging people,” explains Caddy. Your new motto? “Lurk less, heart more.”
Though many of us think we’re ‘addicted’ to our devices, the word can make us feel powerless to change. “I recommend people view their tech compulsions as habits,” says Caddy. “There are lots of ways we can become more aware of our habits and start to change them. Something as simple as a post-it on your computer can prompt you to go for regular walks, or a word on your phone’s home screen can remind you to check your to-do list.”
Habits are made up of three parts – cue, routine and reward. Identify your cues and you can start to change the ‘routine’ part for an equal, or greater, reward. So ‘I’m bored > I scroll Instagram > I feel briefly less bored’ could become ‘I’m bored > I re-watch the Harry Styles and Phoebe Waller-Bridge dance routine > I feel briefly less bored, and slightly aroused’. To cite a random example.
While every new flicker on our screens can create a fake sense of urgency, switching notifications off altogether can actually lead us to check our phones more often out of FOMO. Instead, keep the notifications that give you a boost, and turn off the rest. “Silence any apps that don’t connect you to other people,” suggests Caddy. “That fitness app which tells you to go and do squats is far less satisfying than a juicy new DM.”
She also recommends turning off notifications for likes and follows to reduce ‘within-phone interruptions’. “This is when you look at your phone for one reason and end up getting dragged into a ‘scroll hole’ on a different app entirely, which can derail you for up to four times longer than expected.” Though it is always nice to see your ex’s cousin’s dog is doing well.
Alarmist narratives around tech use have led many of us to feel like we’re in a constant game of chicken with our phone, where picking it up at all is an instant fail. But instead of believing that time spent on devices = bad while time spent breathing deeply in leggings = good, Caddy advises creating an “emotional management toolkit” on your phone, which you can steer yourself towards during low moments.
“Think of it as your SOS grab-bag,” she explains. “It can include things like soothing playlists, podcasts matched to different moods, Pinterest boards that fill you with delight, or a streaming watchlist of comfort viewing. Equip yourself with things that make you feel better when you need it the most.”
If ever there were a time to prioritise feeling better over self-flagellation, it’s now.