There’s no denying it: Technology has changed the way we live, work, and even think. Electronic devices allow us to stay constantly connected to our jobs, the news, and our numerous social networks—no matter where we are or what we’re doing. This easy access may be convenient and sometimes fun, but it’s also addictive and distracting, with the average American adult spending an astonishing 11 hours or more each day using electronic media.
When we spend all our free time focused on (or distracted by) technology, we don’t spend enough time interacting with the people and places right in front of us. Of course, the vast majority of us can’t realistically ditch our devices for good. That’s why, for this Cup of Calm, we went straight to the source and asked the experts how to take a break and disconnect in our technology-obsessed world—and why it’s so important for our mental health. Here’s what they had to say:
- Start with Your Smartphone
The number one source of technology overload? Smartphones. The average person checks their phone every 12 minutes and receives around 80 alerts a day. According to a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association, this constant phone-checking boosts stress, decreases focus, and makes it harder to remember what we’ve seen.
Here’s how: As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” The simplest way to start a digital detox is to put your phone away whenever possible. If you have to keep it in your line of vision, minimize its pull by closing all of your apps, turning off your notifications, and putting your phone on silent.
- Reclaim Your Brain
“The more time you spend toggling rapidly among multiple digital tasks, the more you will tend to think in a distracted way,” says William Powers, author of Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. “If you spend a lot of time texting, answering emails, and watching online videos, rewiring occurs to enable that kind of thinking, which tends to be of the short-attention-span variety.”
Here’s how: Stop what you’re doing now and look around your space. How many gadgets do you have around you right now? How many are you actively engaged with? Try turning off as many as you can for 30 minutes. Spend that time on an activity that strengthens your attention span, such as reading a book, meditating, or working on a puzzle.
- Take Your Time
You don’t have to give up screen time cold turkey to make an impact. Powers and his family unplugged on weekends for years when his son was a teenager. “By going off-line on a regular basis, we were able to connect in the best sense of the word,” he says. It also helped them carve out time for rewarding hobbies and activities such as playing musical instruments, drawing, and taking walks.
Here’s how: First, try banning all smartphones (and other devices) at meals. Then, consider giving up screen time—or even just social media—one or two days per week, or try reserving an hour every weeknight before bed for “quiet time” to work on a project or a hobby that does not rely on a device.
- Create “Walden Zones”
Clear boundaries around where and when electronic devices can be used will help you (and those around you) cultivate a reflective environment that encourages more patient states of awareness and thinking.
Here’s how: Powers recommends designating certain rooms in the home—particularly the bedroom—as device-free sanctuaries. “I call these ‘Walden Zones’,” says Powers, referring to Henry David Thoreau’s famous experiment and subsequent book documenting his time living simply and surrounded by nature at Walden Pond.
- Bonus Tip for Parents: Practice What You Preach
Today’s youth are rarely seen without a smartphone in hand—and it’s affecting their mental health. Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, studied the ways technology affects child development and found that teens who spend more time than average on online activities are more likely to be unhappy and report symptoms of depression.
Here’s how: To get your kids on board with some tech-free time, be up-front with them about why it’s important. “Bring them on board philosophically so they understand in a personal way what they’ll gain by doing this radical thing,” says Powers. Then, it’s crucial that you commit to modeling the behavior you want to see from your children, says Yalda T. Uhls, Ph.D., senior researcher at UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center. For instance, when you pick up your kids from school, leave your smartphone at home, and ask your kids to put their phones away, too.
Hannah Wallace is a Portland-based journalist and editor who writes about integrative medicine, sustainable agriculture, and wine for Food & Wine, Vogue, Fast Company, and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @Hannahmw23.