It’s Time for a Digital Detox: Tips for Stepping Away

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. Dr. Hallowell and guests explore internet addiction and the obsession we have to our screens. Do you need a digital detox?

Episode 7: Our Obsession with Our Devices

Female 1: About a week and a half ago my phone just shut off out of the blue, wouldn’t turn on for 30 minutes. I was basically having a meltdown.

Female 2: Every single time we’re in a restaurant he’s like, “Mommy. Can I have your iPad?” I’m like, “Can we just enjoy this fish?”

Female 3: We all have these dreams of unplugging and yet it seems impossible.

DR. HALLOWELL: Hello. Welcome to Distraction, our show about life in what we call the age of distraction. How to manage it and what to do about it. You just heard some people fighting an uphill battle to tear themselves away from their electronic devices. Today we’re going to get started exploring our screen obsession we have, so many of us, to our screens and the places they take us and don’t take us, whether it’s reading work-related email all night long, sneaking off to play Candy Crush or visit your favorite other kind of site, or losing hours and hours of your life to Facebook, Pinterest, and shopping on Amazon. Our fixation for something to engage with seems limitless. You really need to be careful about this because if you don’t take charge, these devices will take charge of you.

You just heard from some people who are struggling to tear themselves away from their smartphones, laptops, iPads, you name it. You’ll hear more from those folks later in the show. Our first guest is someone who has strong opinions on internet addiction and our need to constantly check all our texts, emails, and voice-mails. Michael Schulson is the author of a very provocative article called “If the Internet Is Addictive, Why Don’t We Regulate It?”

screen sucking

Schulson: When someone talks about feeling sucked into Facebook, even when the description of that uses really strong language, the language of addiction and the language of compulsion. The person who ends up getting blamed for this is the user, and what ends up getting described is that the user has really poor self-control. What that seems to really miss is that a lot of these products and a lot of these tools are seemingly being designed. Actually, I say seemingly. Absolutely are being designed to produce particular states of compulsion or absorption that hijacks users’ self-control. Really the genesis for this is wondering why is it that we tend to blame the user instead of blaming designers. With something like Facebook, for example, infinite scroll is probably the most obvious case.

Infinite scroll is when you’re going through a webpage when you get to the bottom it clicks if forward and keeps producing more material. You never reach the bottom of the page. What this seems to do, and what this seems to be deigned to do, is to continually draw you in. This particular product design consultant named Nir Eyal. Nir is out in California, he consults with major companies on building compulsive products. They’re products that will suck you in in certain ways. What really struck me back, his book is called Hooked, and he’s very explicit in this book about creating products that in many ways mimic narcotics or mimic drugs. It mimic things that we would consider illegal or of questionable utility for society and that we would also consider pretty dangerous.

When you post something on Facebook you’re not sure what you’re going to get back, so you don’t know whether a bunch of people are going to like it, and you’re going to have this positive feedback with the likes or whether your investment is going to plateau. The uncertainty of what you’re going to get out of that experience and the way that it’s designed to produce that kind of hit or miss behavior ends up being part of what draws you in.

He points out alcohol distillers can say, “Look. We don’t know who the alcoholics are. You can’t blame us. We sell the products; the alcoholics buy it. We have no idea who they are.” Facebook knows who its version of alcoholics are and no one holds them accountable for that. There is very little sense that they’re in any way responsible for this, and they’re in any way connected to this. It’s completely put on the user. I think that that’s really strange and seems to smack a certain kind of unfairness.

DR. HALLOWELL: If you say Facebook is fully aware of this and they even have somebody writing without shame, that he’s very proud of his ability to design a way to sucker people in and hook them, it certainly should set off alarms. Maybe we shouldn’t just give these people a license to do that to us with no regulation whatsoever.

Schulson: I think that there’s this sense that regulation involves the reduction of freedoms. There’s been an enormous amount of nervousness about anything surrounding regulation with the web. I think there are good reasons for that. I think it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to regulate a lot of technology. One idea, and I think it’s a really interesting one, would be to be able to build into your browser, as a required thing that web browsers give you, little things that let you set and say, “I want to spend no more than 30 minutes a day on Twitter. I want to spend no more than an hour a day playing Angry Birds.” Then when the system has certain ways to remind or nudge you that you’re not doing what you want to be doing.

DR. HALLOWELL: Michael Schulson, author of If the Internet is Addictive, Why Don’t We Regulate It?
It’s a powerful piece. Thank you, Michael, so much for joining us.

Schulson: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

DR. HALLOWELL: As I said to Michael, I think he’s on to something of profound importance that we all should take seriously, as seriously as we take what we eat. What we pay attention to and what we allow ourselves to get involved with electronically has a tremendous impact on the quality of our lives.

Again, you can’t abstain from it any more than you can abstain from food, but you can be a highly selective consumer. It does take discipline, but more than that it takes education. Be wise to how these people are drawing you in, be wise to the tricks they’re playing. It’s like the manufacturers who load up the cereals with sugar to keep kids eating them. Be wise to this so you can push back, so that you can resist, so that you can take charge instead of it taking charge of you. The internet and our electronics are wonderful. I love them. I use them all the time, but if I’m not careful they will take me away from what matters most to me in life as opposed to enriching what matters most to me in life.

Clearly the web is a profound temptation for many, including Layla.

Always On: Setting the Terms for Cellphone Availability

internet addiction

Layla: About a week and a half ago, maybe two weeks ago, my phone just shut off out of the blue, wouldn’t turn on for 30 minutes. I was basically having a meltdown. There’s always something happening.

DR. HALLOWELL: Who are these personal messages from?

Layla: Mom, dad, sister, brother.

DR. HALLOWELL: Mostly family?

Layla: Yes.

DR. HALLOWELL: It sounds like in your case your phone is like a companion to the way you stay in touch with your family.

Layla: Yeah, for sure. Honestly, I love my parents very much. But even if I say I’m going to a movie if either or both of them forgets that I said that, rather than go back and look at their text messages or what have you, they’ll call me and keep calling and keep calling. If I don’t answer, “Oh. My, God. Send the police to the apartment.”

DR. HALLOWELL: You’re not alone. Lots and lots of people are very attached to their electronic devices. The way most people do it is to train the people who are trying to get in touch with you, it’s got to be two ways. You say, “Mom and dad I’m going to cut back on my availability, and I’ll only check my cellphone at nine AM, noon, three PM, and six PM. Don’t try to reach me at other times.” You have to revise their expectations too. Good luck in controlling it.

Layla: Yeah. Is there medication for that?

DR. HALLOWELL: It’s called the off button.

Layla: Right. Power off.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thanks Layla.

Layla: Thank you.

DR. HALLOWELL: Take care.

Smarter Than a Smartphone

DR. HALLOWELL: What if Layla tried something simpler? Use the phone as a phone and nothing more. There are very creative guys, Joe Holier and his partner Kaiwei Tang, I hope I pronounced that properly, have come up with a clever option. We spoke with Joe about the idea he and Kaiwei created.

Joe: We’re building a Light Phone, it’s basically a credit card sized cellphone that only makes phone calls. The idea is that it’s your phone away from phone. Keeps your same phone number, gives you access to 10 speed dial contacts, and limits which calls actually forward through to your Light Phone, but basically it encourages you to leave the smartphone behind and step away to enjoy some quality time in the moment, but still maintaining that piece of mind that if you needed to be reached or reach someone you can. We were studying how people related to their smartphones and we realized that everyone was habitually overwhelmed. Some products that we were using on our devices were actually engineered to use our vulnerabilities against us.

I found myself bringing my smartphone with me and not enjoying my day as much as I could because I was bothered by things like email. I had this realization that our smartphones aren’t really phones they’re computers, but because they’re masked as our phone we end up bringing them everywhere. When you consciously make the choice to leave the phone behind and “go light” as we like to call it there’s this initial anxiety that you feel. It’s less and less each time you go where you forget about the things you’re missing out on. You actually just get distracted by the present.

Actually, one of our early users told us that she had never really thought about the idea that she could go to the park on a Saturday by herself without her smartphone as something she could do, it just wasn’t really encouraged on social media. It wasn’t share-able; it wasn’t Instagram-able.

On one side of the object is this tool that allows you to make a phone call and it’s very slim and it fits in your pocket, but on the other side we want it to be this aspiration and this reminder that, “Hey. When’s the last time I stepped away?” What I’m learning is that a half hour a day, and hour a day, or a couple 15 minute breaks can be really powerful. For me, I find it as the most appreciative that I am. I think the internet, too often the smartphone, the Instagram, it tries to make me feel like I’m not enough or I should have more and I should want more. It’s just that little reminder that, “Hey. My life is awesome. Stop complaining and remember that daily.”

DR. HALLOWELL: He made an interesting point. You do not have to be a slave to your devices, but you do need to set boundaries. Take back control. Maybe we all need a digital detox.

We All Need a Digital Detox

Susan: The average American spends 60 hours each week surfing the web and currently owns four digital devices.

DR. HALLOWELL: That’s author Susan Scutti, who published her research on the subject in Medical Daily in a great article about the Digital Detox.

Susan: My job itself is sort of a digital onslaught. I sit at a computer all day and I go through massive amounts of information and by the end of the week, and this is an end of the week, I am ready for a digital detox. When your attention is pulled constantly in different directions I think it’s very difficult to retrain yourself to concentrate and pay great attention when you need to. I think the only way to achieve that is by stepping away from the computer, putting down the phone, not turning on the objects that are surrounding us. Most of what we receive is not presenting, not relevant to our immediate lives, and not important.

DR. HALLOWELL: Not only is it unimportant, it can make you feel bad about yourself.

Susan: To anyone older who remembers a time before social media, all the results and findings of any of these studies seem fairly obvious that it cultivates narcissism in the people who use them. That people reading their friends post, which only show glamorous dinners at glamorous restaurants, beautiful vacations, bragging basically, that reading these posts we all feel are self-image diminished it creates anxiety in us and we start to feel depressed. That’s how it makes them feel bad.

One of my coworkers was talking about just seeing friends from high school talking about buying a house, she and her husband are not ready to buy a house and yet both of them feel inadequate. They’ll see friends who have better paying jobs talking about this online, and yet she hasn’t seen the actual house, she’s out of touch with these friends other than on Facebook, and yet it still affects her.

digital detox

DR. HALLOWELL: Thanks, Susan. The article is called “Digital Detox, What It Is and Why You Need One“. Believe me, we all need one. Read more about how you can free yourself from stress and anxiety.

Okay, we’ve been talking about the patterns you have that lead you to waste time. Waste time doing what I call screen sucking, just mindlessly using one devise or another rather than doing what really matters in your life. In my own case I can be a compulsive email checker and I check my iPhone not two or three times an hour, but two or three times a minute. It’s a habit that I’m trying to break. It is very distracting. These patterns keep us from doing what we really want to be doing. The good news is they are habits that can be broken. The bad news is they can get us into all kinds of time wasting situations if we’re not careful.

Each of our producers agreed to sit down while we listened in and timed them to see just how far gone they are in terms of screen sucking.

Kristin: I would say I probably check in with Facebook three to five times a day. Oh, God. A freaking animal video, I have to watch it. Oh, my God. This elephant is literally just sitting on peoples laps like a lap dog. It’s precious.

Sarah: Okay. I am on just a news site. Sometimes I like to read the news because I don’t watch it. 28-year-old arrested following animal cruelty investigation. There’s her mug shot.

Roxanne: I’m going to launch Instagram. I think Ellen Degeneres is really funny but I don’t watch her show at all. She’s got a funny picture of her in what looks like a Liberace kind of outfit and this is nothing that I need to know.

Kristin: Oh, my gosh. Eating chocolate makes you smarter? Click.

Sarah: I’m always interested in the drama, it’s horrible. Officials, a four-year-old shot mom unsure how he got gun.

Roxanne: There’s this woman, she is documenting the death of her dog, his slow demise. I don’t want that into my life and yet there it is.

Sarah: I’m seeing stuff about cool teenage bedrooms. I don’t have a teenager. You just totally zone out. I’m scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

Kristin: That was uneventful and a complete waste of my time.

Roxanne: I got really conscious of how much time I was wasting and how much my son saw me on the phone and he would say, “Can I do Instagram with you mommy?” I’m like, “Oh. Let’s go do something else.”

Sarah: Why do we do that? Something that’s a waste of my time, I know it’s a waste of my time, I’m not gaining anything from it, but I still do it. It’s totally mindless.

Roxanne: Wait, how long did I do that? Oh, my God. Eight minutes.

Kristen: Six times three is like, 18 minutes a day. That’s probably the least amount of time I’ve spent on it.

Sarah: I just spent 10 minutes doing that?

Roxanne: None of this helps my life.

Kristin: All right, I need to shut this off.

DR. HALLOWELL: She’s right, shut it down, turn it off, move on with your life. All right, consider this. According to Informate Mobil Intelligence, Americans spend an average of five hours on their smart phones every day.

Okay. Now I want us all to do something together that will help us all be safer. Commit to being a safe, distraction free driver by taking the pledge to drive phone free at, the official US government website for distracted driving. The fact that there is such a website at all proves to you how important this issue is. It’s become like drinking and driving. Using cellphones while you’re driving is really dangerous. High schoolers and their parents all across the country are making this pledge to be safe drivers, and I am too. Do it with me. We’re obviously living in a digital world, and that’s not going to go away.

In fact, we don’t want it to go away. It’s really fun, it’s really exciting, it opens worlds of possibility in terms of running your life, starting a business, finding romance, selling something, buying something, you name it. We can now do it in ways undreamt of in history. It’s a wonderful world to be living in. At the same time, you got to be careful. You don’t want to get overloaded in terms of screen time.

Closing Statements

We’d love to hear from you what suggestions you have, because this is all uncharted territory. What suggestions do you have, what tips and tricks do you have that we could share with our listeners? We’re really trying to create a community around this, so connect with us. Go to our website, email your comments and questions at [email protected], and please rate us on iTunes and leave a review. That really helps us with ratings, as you could imagine getting a podcast started, getting out to the numbers that we really hope to reach we depend on you. Help us out. Just go to iTunes and rate us and write a review. Thanks so much. Distraction is produced by Collisions, the podcast division of CRN International. Collisions, podcasts for curious people.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “Our Obsession with Our Devices”. Distraction is available on iTunes.


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