No one on their deathbed ever wished they spent more time at work. And no one on their deathbed ever wished they spent more time online. “Do you know what? I just don’t think I quite dedicated myself to getting my Insta just right.” I have thought about this a lot recently. When I am not gazing at a screen. (So not very often, then.)
Adam Alter’s new book Irresistible: Why We Can’t Stop Checking, Scrolling, Clicking And Watching is a fantastic antidote to digital over-use. Seriously. Since reading it, I use all my devices less, I breathe more deeply and I take regular breaks from work. Something about this book really got to me. The most significant consequence? The six-year-old in our house has had his iPad use drastically (forcibly) reduced and has discovered – without any prompting – Roald Dahl and George’s Marvellous Medicine.
Alter paints a vision of a world where we are no longer in control of the screen, it’s in control of us. His data suggests 88 per cent of people are defined as “over-users.” (“Over-use” is categorised as more than an hour a day.) “They were spending an average of a quarter of their waking lives on their phones – more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping.” Hours lost to email, texting, games, web-surfing, reading online, checking bank balances. “Over the average lifetime, that amounts to a staggering eleven years.”
Some people are getting so desperate they’re using a $500 device called Pavlok that administers an electric shock when you go online. (The shock is so strong that Richard Branson punched the inventor in the stomach when he trialled it.) I can’t be a part of this insanity anymore. So what to do?
Many senior tech executives categorically do not let their children use devices. This is because they know the truth. This kind of screen use fosters obsession and addiction, especially for children
“Never get high on your own supply”
Even if you work in and/or with tech, it doesn’t mean you have to use it all the time. What really, really freaked me out (almost in a conspiracy theory kind of way) was Alter’s introduction on Apple: “Steve Jobs believed everyone should own an iPad. But he refused to let his kids use the device.” Alter reports that many senior tech executives categorically do not let their children use devices. This is because they know the truth. This kind of screen use fosters obsession and addiction, especially for children. If you have children in your life, make sure they interact with people more than with screens.
Watch your language
Saying, “I can’t use Facebook” will only make you want to check it more often. Saying, “I don’t use Facebook” is more helpful. (I am trialling “I only use Facebook on Fridays” with moderate success.) If you are “hooked” on something, try to find out what is feeding your use. Are you lonely? Bored? Not-so-secretly wanting to make yourself feel a teeny bit bad by seeing photographs of other people’s amazing holidays? Be honest about the reasons for checking sites and find substitutes for that behaviour. Phone a friend. Go for a walk. If you need to use social media and the internet for work, be strict about why you’re using it and how long you will spend on it. Set work-times for internet use.
Unhook from the cliffhangers on Netflix
Alter’s book has a five-page guide on how to avoid binge-watching. It is invaluable. (Said the person who watched 52 hours of House of Cards in 10 days and has categorically banned herself from ever watching The Wire or Breaking Bad.) The key? Watch the next episode until you’re five minutes in and then switch off. That way you’ve seen the cliffhanger and you know what happens next. When you come back, you start that episode from five minutes in.
Be aware of being pointlessly number-hungry
So many things we consume are designed to give us dopamine hits in the form of “Likes”. Sometimes this is useful: you can use a Fitbit to measure your fitness and see concrete results. Other times it’s illusory. The human brain loves metrics. “Is the number going up or down?” “How many Likes can I get?” Alter recommends a new web browser extension called Facebook Demetricator that removes all the numbers. Your Friend count disappears. Instead of “16 people Like this”, it says, “People like this.” It invites us to consider quality over quantity, to concentrate not on how many friends or how much they like your status but on who they are and what they said. Genius. Almost as good as George’s Marvellous Medicine. Almost but not quite.