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[dropcap size=small]A[/dropcap]pple CEO Tim Cook wants you to put down your phone. Microsoft founder Bill Gates wants you to put down your phone. Google VP of product management Sameer Samat wants you to put down your phone. All three are joining the growing ranks of famous tech titans (including Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and tech billionaire Mark Cuban) who, after years of developing products designed to keep you glued to your phone, want you to put it down.

Some Singaporeans, such as Joan Chong and Roy Teoh, are heeding the call. Ms Chong, a millennial blogger writing for Minimalism In Singapore says she declutters her smartphone every other month by removing apps she hasn’t used for awhile. She groups all the remaining apps in folders (labelled ‘Work’, ‘Travel’, ‘Personal’, etc) so she doesn’t see individual apps and is less tempted to click on them. She relies on a somewhat more “analogue” way of organising her life – a Google sheet with rows and columns indicating various goals and the steps needed to achieve them.

“Apps are designed to be fun and addictive. They’re designed to have you scrolling through endless information and images, and being generally distracted… But I hated being chained to my phone, it was hindering me from my goals. So I decided to get rid of as many unnecessary apps and devices as possible, to keep my life clean and focused,” says Ms Chong, a teacher.

Mr Teoh, a copywriter, forbids his two kids from using gadgets at the dinner table and during homework time, wary of how phone apps might undermine their mental and emotional development. Smartphones are also banned on family vacations – except for taking pictures, locating places and calculating currency conversions.

“I want them to be aware of the new environment, instead of being lost in the virtual world,” says Mr Teoh. “I’ve read the studies that link social media to teenage depression and it scares me. Instead of linking people up and encouraging socialness, social media is doing the opposite – keeping kids in their bedrooms, feeling envious of friends and influencers who are always going to parties and on holidays.”

Tech superstars have long made it a point to limit their own children’s screen time. Gates refused to give his kids cell phones till they were much older. Cook, who has no children of his own, prohibits his teenage nephew from joining social networks. His predecessor Steve Jobs barred gadgets at the dinner table, insisting his kids talked about things such as books and history.

Recent articles point to a growing disparity between the rich and poor on how much time they spend with technology. Whereas the rich once flaunted the top-shelf tech they owned, now they’re cutting down on screen time in favour of human interaction.

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In a March 2019 New York Times article titled Human Contact Is Now A Luxury Good, Nellie Bowles writes about the “luxurification” of human engagement: “The rich have grown afraid of screens. They want their children to play with blocks, and tech-free private schools are booming. Humans are more expensive, and rich people are willing and able to pay for them.”

It cites a startling study supported by the US National Institutes of Health of more than 11,000 children on their brain development: “Children who spent more than two hours a day looking at a screen got lower scores on thinking and language tests… For some kids, there is premature thinning of their cerebral cortex.”

Tech Traps

A few years ago, such warnings from tech honchos would be inconceivable. Until then, popular social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat proudly paraded their latest functions designed to keep you happily distracted. The most addictive part of social media is the “like” or “love” button, which has become a source of social approval that users long for. Jostling for “likes” is a contemporary sport, with those attaining huge numbers wielding tremendous power and influence.

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But statistics are triggering alarm bells. Since the advent of the smartphone and social media, cases of clinical depression and youth suicide have sharply risen, as Jean Twenge details in her widely-read and -referenced 2017 book iGen. Dr Twenge’s critics says it’s simplistic to link these psychological issues directly to smartphones and social media. However, in the preceding eras before that – including the now seemingly antiquated era of just basic email and web surfing – there had been no such spikes.

“With email, you just check it and then go to sleep. The next morning, you check it again. But it’s different with social media. Every minute, there’s a possibility of seeing more likes for your posts. So it keeps my kids awake wondering how many likes they’re getting for their posts,” says Mr Teoh. His two boys are aged eight and 11.

Tech proponents argue that social media offers a range of unprecedented benefits, such as organising events and staying in touch with family and friends. And while that is true, it is also true that social media companies employ neuroscientists and “attention engineers” to make their products addictive. The benefits and harm of social media become hard to separate because they exist on the same platform.

But digital mindfulness advocates think it’s only a matter of time before the world catches up to understanding the real harm of social media. After all, they say, in the 1930s to 1950s, cigarettes were touted as good for your health, curing your sore throat and clearing your lungs. It was only later when lung cancer started to spike in the 1940s that doctors linked it to cigarettes. Similarly, fast food was once regarded as tasty treats, until doctors sounded the alarm on its sodium, cholesterol and unhealthy fat content. Ten years ago, few would consider paying 25 percent more for organic food – now organic food is found in every respectable grocery store. In all these cases, scientific knowledge has helped swing the pendulum to the other side.

On Facebook – ironically – a handful of Facebook Groups have sprung up to espouse digital decluttering, digital mindfulness and digital minimalism. All three concepts are alike in proposing the use of technology only insofar as it benefits your life. Technology, they say, should not be allowed to overwhelm you with information, distract your attention from worthwhile tasks, manipulate your mood or sense of self-worth, or extract your private data. If it does, you need to control it.

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These Facebook groups each have a few hundred members or less. But one site, Digital Mindfulness with Vinayak Garg, has attracted over 51,000 followers. Mr Garg is a Delhi-based writer and technopreneur developing technology that promotes health and mindfulness. He says: “Smartphone notifications are running our lives and putting us on auto-pilot. They take us away from where we are at the moment, to a never ending maze of the online world. They keep us constantly over-stimulated and leave us no time to reflect on our thoughts, to think and be creative. … We need to take charge and decide to use technology only when it adds value to our lives. We need to decide to use the phone only when we have a clear purpose of what we want to achieve from the interaction.”

He suggests simple steps such as putting your phone in your bag instead of on the table when you’re talking to someone, using as your phone wallpaper the words “Is this important?” or “Get off the phone ASAP” as a constant reminder to limit your use, and learning to enjoy the process of being bored. “Boredom is essential for creativity and problem solving, two skills we are losing out on,” he says, echoing the opinion of psychologists on the importance of mental downtime.

Digital Fasting

In Feb 2019, Georgetown University associate professor of computer science Cal Newport published a book titled Digital Minimalism that became a New York Times bestseller. In it, he asks his readers to go offline for 30 days and reclaim analogue leisure activities such as taking walks, gardening and talking to friends. If, after 30 days, you discover that you really cannot live without some online activity, you add them back one by one, carefully assessing their impact. Newport ran this experiment on 1,600 people and the benefits were substantial. Though many participants struggled in the first few weeks, they subsequently reported less anxiety, higher creativity and greater interaction with loved ones.

“Simply put, humans are not wired to be consistently wired,” says Newport. The human brain, he says, has developed over time to need face-to-face human interaction. Social media tries to offer shortcuts via “likes” and “hearts” which induce superficial pleasures. Smartphones provide similar shortcuts through text messages and photo sharing, making us think we’re engaged in quality human interaction. But they’re poor substitutes for hearing a person’s voice, reading her face and gauging her emotions – activities that the human brain wants to engage in to feel alive and stimulated, Newport asserts.

The rising concern over tech addiction coincides with the rise of mindfulness across the world, as people look for ways to handle anxiety and distraction. In Singapore, Mr Kathirasan K founded the Centre for Mindfulness Singapore in 2015. In the first year, it attracted 40 students. But in the last two years, those numbers have risen substantially, with some 4,000 students from various schools, companies and the general public enrolling in its courses.

Smartphone addiction
Digital addiction is a growing problem.

“The growth has been exponential, especially now that mental health is recognised as a huge component of well-being,” says Mr Kathirasan. “One area of concern among our students is technology and how it’s become so pervasive in our lives. Some of our students have come to think of it as an addiction, because it affects their ability to concentrate at work. They want to take up mindfulness as a way to reduce the anxiety as well as improve their work performance.”

Mr Kathirasan says various schools have also taken their students to the centre in part to address this addiction. Many young people, he says, are confused by the kind of happiness they get from being popular on social media, versus the kind of happiness they experience from spending time with people: “Human interaction gives you a deeper, more profound kind of joy and contentment. It makes you feel safe and loved. This cannot be substituted by the happiness you might feel from getting many likes for an Instagram post.”

Mr Kathirasan and his team try to tackle digital addiction and distraction by focusing on the mind, “because if you can master your mind, you can master the behaviour… and this kind of addiction is a brain phenomenon.”  Studies show mindfulness exercises help strengthen the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with decision-making, while at the same time reduce the activity of the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes responses such stress and anxiety.

Despite the popularity of mindfulness classes, Ms Chong, who co-founded the Facebook group Minimalism In Singapore, still doesn’t think many Singaporeans will embrace digitalism mindfulness, decluttering and minimalism. “Minimalism as a movement has made a small impact on Singapore, so I suspect digital minimalism will be similarly small. If you look around you on the bus or on the MRT, almost everyone is engaged in their smartphones… But if they were willing to try some form of digital decluttering, they might be surprised by how much more efficient and productive they can be.”

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.