Every time I see a post on Facebook or Twitter telling people that the author is breaking up with his phone or going on “digital detox”, I squirm a little in agony.
Is this because of the irony of such posts on a medium that these folks are trying to wean off? Or is it the ridiculousness of such neo-Luddite efforts in an age where just about every aspect of life is going or has gone digital?
As we head into a new year, such exercises will appear even more common. A resolution to spend less screen time and more face time (not the Apple version) will fill up social media, like it or not.
That’s what a New York Times tech columnist did actually, through an effort that he detailed in a writeup. Okay, I ended up reading that article on a laptop, clicked through from a post on the New York Times Facebook page that I follow.
The author, Kevin Roose, goes on to describe how he measured his screen time and came up with ways to cut down the dependence on the digital stuff. He also had help from a coach, despite also talking down self-help gurus who are all too ready to get on this new therapy gravy train.
The irony is inescapable. It’s like someone serving you a nice slice of pizza while saying he has weaned off pizzas because they are bad.
Digital addiction is a real and serious issue. People have died from playing games non-stop. Such sufferers need medical treatment from professionals, not self-appointed gurus or coaches. In Singapore, help is available.
Fortunately, for many of us who say we are “addicted” to our gadgets, the weaning off is probably less difficult. It is not some Herculean effort but does involve a bit more discipline.
Consider the phone, for example. Is it possible to start by minimising its use at dinner time, so that everyone at the table actually spends time talking to one another?
It is truly sad to see a large family at a restaurant, each member young and old staring at a small screen instead of having a proper gathering. That’s all too common a sight in Singapore.
So, it’s not hard to start small and cut down the screen time bit by bit. What about going for a jog after a long day at work, instead of spending more time on the phone? Or making the effort to eat at a hawker centre instead of dabao or packing the food back to your work desk during lunch?
Like trying to get off the couch to exercise, the small victories are easier to achieve and will ultimately help you to reduce screen time. That’s better than aiming for a digital detox, only to rebound.
And while we are at this, let’s not forget all the benefits that the digital life has brought. Conveniences like on-demand movies, groceries and taxi rides have made life a lot more bearable, especially in a crowded urban place like Singapore.
I’ll admit I’m hardly the best advisor since I do have to cut down screen time myself. When I eat alone, which is most lunches of the week given my work routine, I often turn to the phone to pass time. When I unwind at the end of the day, I fire up Netflix.
But I’ve been making myself turn up at the park next door to get back to jogging frequently. I’ve been trying to get the kids to go to the playground more often – they already spend too much time on the TV.
I guess it’s all about balance. Is your digital diet making you feel unhealthy? The answer is probably yes for most folks in Singapore. But going cold turkey isn’t going to cut it because we do need our digital lives to function.
Digital experiences have made life richer, just like eating is a joy, not just an exercise in putting calories into our bodies. Going on a dramatic digital detox is like going on a crash diet – we know the weight is going to come back.
This is a matter of balance. Better to find a way that is sustainable in the long term than a big effort that falls short once the enthusiasm wears off, like with most new year resolutions.