Seize the moment and live in the real world
- Credit: PA
Should we all follow Suffolk superstar Ed Sheeran’s example and go offline to escape tech-induced stress and experience the world for real, rather than through the prism of a screen? Sheena Grant reports and tries a bit of a digital detox herself
Have you noticed how wherever you go and whatever you do nowadys seems to involve the presence - even the dominance - of a mobile phone or other electronic device?
To be honest, I’m tempted to think anyone who hasn’t spotted this growing phenomenon must have been living on another planet. In restaurants, people are constantly looking at emails, texting, uploading pictures to social media accounts and checking their Twitter feeds, rather than paying attention to their companions, while children are induced to zombie-like torpor as they silently game their way through the minutes before their meal arrives.
At any sort of concert or event, most people are so busy taking pictures or filming they’re failing to actually experience the moment and in millions of homes across the country adults and children alike seem to exist in a sort of bubble that involves them and a screen but excludes everyone else around them.
But there are signs of a growing backlash against virtual living.
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At the end of his world tour, just before Christmas, Framlingham-raised superstar Ed Sheeran announced to his 21 million Twitter and Instagram followers that he was ditching his phone, emails and social media accounts until next autumn.
“I find myself seeing the world through a screen and not my eyes,” the singer wrote, in a statement that many of us can empathise with.
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Just over a year earlier, in the run-up to her first concert since 1979, singer Kate Bush, released a statement asking fans not to watch the show through the screen of a mobile phone. “I want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras,” she said. “It would allow us to all share in the experience together.”
Other musicians have expressed similar frustrations with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey describing it as “weird” that people were concentrating on staring at a screen rather than the artist on stage when they went to a performance.
“I feel sorry for them,” he said. “Looking at life through a screen and not being in the moment totally – if you’re doing that, you’re 50% there, right? I find it weird.”
Beyonce once got more direct with her fans, telling one at a gig in 2013: “I’m right in your face, baby. You gotta seize this moment. Put that damn camera down!”
It’s not just at concerts that this virtual living is going on. During a weekend at Center Parcs, Elveden, recently I was astonished by the number of people who went into the ‘Subtropical swimming paradise’ with mini-video cameras strapped to their wrists. It was almost comical to watch them careering down the rapids, so intent on keeping the camera above water or trained on the faces of their children that they were barely experiencing the moment at all.
This obsession with recording everything even extends to pub menus, I discovered during a recent visit to the fine Eel’s Foot at Eastbridge. I couldn’t help noticing a succession of diners photographing the menu boards around the fireplace. Rather naively, I assumed, they must have poor memories and were worried they’d forget the choices on offer by the time they got back to their seats.
But no, the pictures were almost certainly for uploading to social media. “People do it all the time,” my husband informed me in a tone that suggested I was behind the times. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m glad I am. And maybe more people secretly wish they were too rather than slavishly buying into the idea that living is not living unless it’s validated by a flickering screen, a ‘like’ or a retweet from someone you barely know.
There’s evidence that all this time spent onscreen and online is having a negative effect on our stress levels and attention spans, not to mention relationships with our nearest and dearest and our experience of life in the here and now.
A survey of 1,000 adults by tech mapping firm Esri UK has found that 61% of the those questioned said the need to keep on top of the deluge of data that lands in their inboxes every day is a ‘major concern’. Nearly half (45%) admit digital overload has affected their relationships or sleep patterns, while 35% said it makes them feel anxious and unable to relax. A similar number said that even if they get round to glancing at the mountains of content that heads their way, they struggle to absorb it.
“Paying attention to a vast amount of data requires multi-tasking, rapidly switching attention from one source to another, which has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol,” explains Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer and business psychologist at University College London.
If that sounds like you it’s probably time to do something about it. And while a 10-month Ed Sheeran-style moratorium may not be realistic - unless you also happen to be a multimillionaire award-winning performer with the resources to make it happen - there are steps you can take to regain control of your cortisol levels.
But, says Dr Tsivtrikos, going cold turkey isn’t necessarily the answer.
“Rather than ‘detox’ and then reverting back to being device-dependent, it is more beneficial to permanently change the way devices are incorporated into our daily lives,” he says, advising that turning off notifications is the first step to reducing that frazzled feeling every time you hear a ‘ping’ or buzz from your mobile.
“Allocate a small amount of time for internet browsing or checking your phone and stick to it. This eliminates constant interruptions and allows you to fully concentrate the rest of the time.”
And for those moments when you habitually resort to surfing social media out of boredom, try reading a book or listening to music - anything that doesn’t involve a screen.
In fact, another survey, from Greenlight, suggests a quarter of Brits are planning to spend less time using social media or digital devices in 2016 because of this information overload and rising stress levels.
Some 7% plan to watch less TV, 6% intend to use apps less, and 5% will reduce the size of their social media networks. Meanwhile, 3% of Brits are thinking about taking a ‘digital detox’ holiday where the use of technology is banned.
Digital detox holidays have, apparently, been around in America for some time and they are now, inevitably, making their way over here. You can even go on a digital detox, involving no phones, tablets or laptops but involving plenty of yoga, quiet walks and learning mindfulness techniques, in south Suffolk.
But such a break will set you back a few hundred pounds, at least. Surely, I thought, it’s possible to reset your digital life in a more DIY fashion.
So I tried it for a weekend.
First off, I have to admit I’m not really a digital junkie. I did do Twitter very briefly but got so annoyed by the mountains of meaningless information coming my way that I soon decided to ditch it. But I do have a smart phone (for work), use email, the internet and TV. How would I get on without any of them for 48 hours. And more to the point, how would my son (forever asking to watch YouTube videos on my phone) and my husband (an avid Twitter user) cope?
I kicked off with preparing for the detox days and life afterwards by going through my email account and unsubscribing from every piece of marketing email I get. It took a while.
I then shared my digital-free weekend plans with my family. My son, whose time in the digital world is controlled anyway, refused to give up his weekend TV and my husband didn’t even look up from his phone to listen to what I was saying.
I’d have to be a bit smarter about it then. This was to be digital detox by subterfuge.
So instead, I planned a weekend so full of activities there was little time for screens. There was tennis, swimming and trampolining and a few hours in the countryside, walking across fallen logs and building ‘bridges’ over bogs. I even included a little yoga into the two days to make my detox feel as authentic as one I’d be paying for.
As a result I didn’t check my emails for the best part of 48 hours and TV watching was down to an hour or two over both days. I felt better as a result and when I finally got round to checking my personal emails again on Monday morning there was nothing so urgent it couldn’t have waited a bit longer. And if someone had wanted a quick response, I reasoned, they could have done something quaint and old fashioned, like picking up the phone and speaking to me.