A story carried last week by the venerable British broadcaster, BBC on its online platform implied that ‘digital detoxification’, where a person voluntarily refrains from using digital devices such as smartphones and computers for a period of time, was impossible in this age of digital dominance of our lives.

The story begins by noting that: A digital detox requires shelving technology almost entirely: taking a break from screens, social media and video conferences for multiple days. The goals – reducing stress or anxiety, and reconnecting with the physical world – are well-intentioned. And although there aren’t scientifically proven benefits from periods of tech abstinence, that hasn’t stopped the digital detox from becoming a coveted challenge.

However, the story builds on the wrong premise that ‘digital detoxification’ applies to everyone who uses digital devices today. Detoxification as the term implies applies to removing the effect of toxins from a person acutely intoxicated to a substance. What the article does not clarify is that digital detoxification is prescribed for people who are addicted to spending an inordinate amount of time daily on their digital screens.

The story does not distinguish between people who use their digital devices normally for work or study and those who are addicted to their digital devices. Detoxification is aimed at people who spend the larger part of the day scrolling through digital screens while going through the multiple wormholes of online content in search of ‘digital gratification’. As one doctor put it, staring at digital screens may be momentarily pleasurable, but pleasurable behaviors usually end up becoming addictive.

Specialists point out that excessive time spent checking our devices activates the reward circuitry in the brain, which triggers the body to release the ‘pleasure hormone’ dopamine. This is also exactly what happens when we become addicted to a toxic substance, whether alcohol, tobacco or drugs.

Digital detoxification —  a term reportedly first coined in 2012 when digital screens were beginning to intrude into people’s lives and luring them away from direct social interactions — is recommended for those addicted to their digital screens. It requires weaning the affected person from all digital devices, social media interactions and other digital crutches for multiple days at a stretch, while encouraging them to engage in outdoor activities and physical social interactions.

Signs that you need a digital detox include anxiety, depression, irritability, frustration or anger, feeling insecure, loss of sleep, and an inexplicable urge to consume, respond, or check in on our digital devices  throughout the day. Other indications are ignoring chores and responsibilities at home or work and instead spending time online, as well as losing interest in personal interactions and preferring to connect with people only online.

Having made that distinction on who needs digital detoxification, there is no denying the suggestion in the BBC story that today, more than ever, people are spending a whole lot of time in front of digital screens. This extended period of sitting with our digital devices is undoubtedly harmful to our physical health and mental wellbeing. Other than digital addicts, even normal people could benefit from reducing the time they spend with their digital devices.

This is especially pertinent in Kuwait, a country where the rate of internet penetration and mobile connectivity are among the highest in the world. A new report on digital consumption shows that by the end of 2022, the internet penetration rate in the country was around 99 percent, the number of social media users was over 3.6 million, and there were more than 7.6 million cellular mobile connections.

These cellular connections, it should be remembered, were for a population of less than 4.8 million people, or equivalent to around 162 percent of the total population. A digital detoxification certainly appears to be a necessity, rather than a matter of choice, for many people in Kuwait who remain welded to their digital devices throughout the day.

The surge of digital screens into our lives definitely needs to be moderated. But attempting a digital detox in 2012 would have been a cake walk compared to now, when our lives have become almost inextricably linked to technology. We now use our digital devices to work, to play, to socialize, to seek immediate information, make payments and online purchases.

The digital detox of 2012 may be outdated, but that does not mean we are doomed to mindlessly scroll through our screens the rest of our lives. Instead of causing ourselves more anxiety by attempting to live without our phones for a week or  more through ‘digital detoxification’ programs, we can approach screen time in a more responsible way that feels right for our individual lives.

Here are some ways that experts recommend to reduce daily screen time.

Rather than cutting out technology altogether, practice digital mindfulness. Digital mindfulness may be more practical for some people, in lieu of a full detox: as it involves less worry about cutting tech out entirely, and more focus on being intentional with its use. Mindfully reducing digital time is also a great way to find out if technology is holding you back from living your life to the fullest.

Experts say that even if people cannot walk away from their screens entirely, paying attention to specific tech-use patterns by using various apps available online can help them use technology more intentionally. For instance, One Sec, a plugin that makes users take a deep breath before they can open and access the apps on their phone. It forces the user to take a moment before they log on and helps pull them out of autopilot mode.

Other apps that help reduce online interruptions and lets you focus while working online include the Freedom app that allows you to block whatever sites distract you on your mobile device or computer; and Off-Time, available for Android users, lets you selectively block calls, texts, and notifications. On an iPhone, the ‘Do Not Disturb’ setting offers a similar service.

Ultimately, say experts, the goal should not be to cut off technology completely, or internalize the pressure to do so. People still need to send an email or dash off a text, but they should do so without getting distracted by the multiple ‘fatal attractions’ of online content.

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