Health & Fitness Wellness

Does your family need to do a digital detox?

We all love our smartphones and our tablets, but hands up as to who feels guilty about spending too much time on them? And what about the expectation from work that we need to be available all the time because of them? Information overload is one of the biggest ramifications of the digital era. Does your family need a digital detox? Dr Quratulain Zaidi of MindNLife explores the issue.

Avoid information overload by having time away from devices
We should try and schedule time away from devices to avoid information overload

“I got to a stage last year where my body was responding with a stress reaction to current affairs. The challenge, though, was not getting sucked into the world of constant updates. At the same time, a few patients were reminding me of their own challenges with technology and its impact on their families – sometimes even describing the smartphone as the “third person” in a relationship. I realised then that people are suffering from a constant need to have all the information, all the time. This “compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information”, as the dictionary puts it, has a name: infomania.

What is the impact of information overload?

In 2011, it was determined that Americans take in around five times as much information every day as they did in 1986. Every day, the average adult consumes 15.5 hours’ worth of media – the equivalent of 174 newspapers of data. Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, an expert in consumer psychology from UCL, says that it isn’t scientifically possible to process more than a certain amount of information in a day; those who try to do so – the “digital junkies” – are overindulging in information that’s not meaningfully stored or used. My daughter often reminds me there is no such thing as multitasking, there is only “multi-failing”. (Sometimes I regret teaching her that!) She’s right, though: research has shown that our brains aren’t wired to multitask; when we think we’re multitasking, we’re actually rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting our neural resources. Moreover, when we spend time online, constant interruptions in the form of notifications (everything from email alerts to newsfeeds) impact our ability to focus and concentrate. These distractions can almost become a default, and paying attention to something for any significant length of time then becomes a challenge. Information overload can also lead to headaches, insomnia, decreased appetite and increased irritability.

What about the impact on families and children?

With the current levels of media consumption among adults, I worry about the impact on our younger generation (the “cyber citizens”) if we don’t model the right behaviours with our technology. If media use displaces hands-on exploration and face-to-face interaction, it will have an impact on our children and their cognitive social emotional development. Indeed, there is an increase in the number of teens who feel they are addicted to their mobile devices, and the number of rehabilitation centres are increasing around the world (and the highest number is in Asia). In my office, I see many teens addicted to their mobile devices who have been mentally impacted by online predators, and by joining unhelpful and even dangerous so-called “self-help groups”. This trend is one to be worried about, and we have to be mindful about our own relationship with technology and what younger ones see as modelled behaviour. It’s having a detrimental impact on the next generation.

Try a digital detox to avoid information overload
A recent survey showed high satisfaction levels among people who tried a digital detox

Ask yourself, “Am I addicted?”

The brain’s chemistry changes with technology use; interaction with screens leads to increased levels of dopamine. When our brains gets used to the higher level of dopamine, we can suffer withdrawal symptoms when screens are taken away. If you’re worried about your own dependency, run through this 10-point questionnaire. If you agree with four or more points, you need to revisit your relationship with technology.


1. stay online longer than you expected more and more often?

2. ignore and avoid other work or activities to spend more time onscreen?

3. often check messages or emails before doing something else you need to do, even delaying meals?

4. frequently get annoyed or irritable if someone bothers you when you’re trying to do something online or on your phone?

5. prefer to spend time with people online or through messaging rather than being with them face to face?

6. think a lot about when you can get back online when you’re offline?

7. argue with, or feel criticised by friends, partners or family about the amount of time you spend online?

8. get excited, anticipating when you can next get online, and also thinking about what you will do?

9. prefer on-screen activities now to going out and doing something else?

10. hide, or become defensive about what you do online?

What can I do?

Give digital detox a go! A recent survey in the UK of digital detox participants found that it was generally a positive experience, with a third saying they were more productive and a quarter saying they enjoyed life more. (Still, not everyone was convinced: 16 percent said they felt like they were missing out, and eight percent felt anxious.) Plan your detox for a vacation or a weekend, put the phone away between 8am and 8pm, and make a list of all the things you enjoy doing in life, but aren’t doing presently, and do them! Focus on the real world and enjoy social interactions. If that seems like a step too far, try to change one habit a week: for example, ban all devices from the dining table, then from the bedroom; or only check emails every two hours. And when you do happen to be online, prioritise and focus on one task and finish it.

Final word

Technology is here to stay and we will be bombarded with information overload; FOMO – the fear of missing out – will rear its ugly head from time to time. However, we have a choice: we can be ruled by the infomaniac inside us, or we can take charge and filter the information we consume and make it meaningful to our lives. So, starting in the new year, why not put the smart phone away and observe the positive impact on body, mind and life? Strive to experience “JOMO” – the joy of missing out!”

Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works in private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of international schools.

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This article first appeared in the Dec/Jan edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.