The greatest gift you can give to someone…is your attention

Keen to ‘rediscover’ yourself by ‘reconnecting’ with the real world. Time for a ‘digital detox’.

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 16 min read

The greatest gift you can give to someone…is your attention

Have you ever felt that you are drowning under an electronic avalanche of emails, texts, and posts? Are you often left wondering if the digital overload is fuelling more anxiety in you? You need a detox, a digital detox – for the betterment of self and your connections with the world, most importantly your family.Who better to guide you through the detox process than one of the most respected digital detox experts in the world? Meet Orianna Fielding, the founder of the Digital Detox Company and the author of 'UNPLUGGED: How to Live Mindfully in a Digital World'. 

Orianna specialises in creating digital wellness programmes that offer a combination of psychology, neuroscience, mindfulness, yoga, and creativity, to address the physical, mental, and emotional stresses caused by digital overload.

As you read along, she will empower you with effective ways to adopt a life of balance, wellness, and productivity. Excerpts from an interesting conversation:

Thank you Orianna for joining us from New York. You are now a key driver of an important ‘Digital Wellness’ movement. Why is such a movement required in today’s times?
Taking a pause from our digital devices helps us understand how we manage our technology or, more often than not, how it manages us. Studies show that digital over-connectivity can be responsible for causing symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety, due to the lack of real human connection.
Digital dependence is like eating fast food, it temporarily makes us feel full but ultimately does not deliver any real nutrition. While our digital life celebrates connectivity, we must remember that without real meaning and connection, our actual lives have no anchor, no core to sustain us.
Technology as a tool is an extraordinary enabler, if we use it for the purpose it was designed for. It enables us to carry our world with us in the palm of our hand. However, we seem to be using technology for everything it wasn’t designed for. We use it to feel busy, needed, in demand, popular and connected. It seems to be the perfect way for us to keep living in digital white noise that prevents us from being with ourselves, feeling our loneliness, or really looking at our disconnection with each other and the world around us. Digital Detoxing and the wider Digital Wellness movement is designed to restore balance by reframing our relationship to digital as an enabler - the tool (that we created) and not the driver of our lives.

Enabler and not a driver. That’s a very interesting thought. Is this why parents of teens need to be more mindful, given that we live in an era of 24/7 connectivity?
For adolescents, the social network and contact with friends is their world. When you remove your teen’s lifeline to his friends, there will be a major emotional backlash, a breakdown of the parent-child relationship.
Parents need to provide incentivised unplugged alternatives such as tech-free meals, going out together, rewards for micro unplugging etc.
Allowing online communication to be a dominant force in a teen’s life could set them up for facing difficulty in interacting with others, one-on-one, in person. Teenage brains are still developing, making it critical to nourish their cognitive growth with healthy social skills sets.
The bottom line is when children are given a mobile device, they are vulnerable to abusing them. Parents are responsible for setting appropriate limits over how much online time is appropriate. We as parents must lead by example- if we are high-tech parents, we can’t expect lo-tech behaviour from our kids.
The way children negotiate and read the world around them is in their early formative years is informed by the way their parents respond to the world. If they see their parents/ guardians/ carers permanently attached to their digital devices, that is the example they will follow that validates their dependent behaviours. Parents, in this overload, time-poor world, may often resort to using their digital devices as iNannies.

Has this vulnerability widened the gap between parents and children today?
I think one of the most disturbing images that represents our disconnection with our children is a toddler in a buggy scrolling on an iPhone. To avoid (for whatever reason) actually spending time engaging with them on a one-to-one human level, we actively encourage their over-connection with digital devices by keeping them busy, occupied, quiet, and distracted with screens. That is the true symbol of how far digital dependence and disconnection has changed the human behaviours we have had for thousands of years and how we’ve replaced them with digitally dependent behaviours.

How can parents convince their teens to participate in a digital detox, given their fear of missing out (FOMO)?
A whole generation of digital natives see texting as their primary means of communication. We undervalue the power of human contact. The beating heart of human connection is conversation, yet we are becoming conversation averse’ by choosing to text someone sitting next to us or in the next room instead of talking to them. Here are some ways heavy usage impacts teens:
Extensive research has established a strong link between heavy Internet use and depression, with heavy users five times more likely to suffer from depression than non-heavy users.
A study by NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) has found a strong and significant association between social media use and depression.
Then, there are studies that have shown that as mobile phone use increases, so does anxiety.
Making matters worse is a recent study indicating 40% of teens do not complete their homework because of time spent with digital devices.

In one important study, 44% of teens admitted that they do not get enough sleep because of digital devices. Teenagers with screen time of more than four hours per day were three times more likely to get poor sleep.

A US survey found that more than 73% of young adults (under 30) suffered from symptoms of digital eye strain. This occurs due to screen overuse. Conditions resulting include dry, irritated eyes, blurred vision, neck and back pain, and headaches.

Overuse doesn’t spare the brain either. Neuroimaging research has shown that excessive screen time damages the brain (Structural and functional changes have been found in brain regions involving emotional processes, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control).
EMF emissions of excessive phone use causes physical damage equivalent to sticking your head in a microwave. Younger brains absorb the rays faster.

Today, the need to play out our lives on a public platform is the ‘new normal’.
In the pre- digital age, teenagers used to make mistakes in private and shared with a few trusted friends. Now, mistakes are lived in a public arena consigned to a digital loop playing out in cyberspace forever, available to come back and haunt them for the rest of their lives and make them a target for bullying.

One alternative to mindless connectivity and low value surfing is to find ways to make technology habits productive. A technology obsessed teen might look to find a passion or new subject matter that engages them. This is something that can be turned into a productive way to be online. Perhaps they could be enrolled in a programming course or an App design class.
When you limit media use, you’ll need to be okay with the backlash that comes with setting parental limits. This is one of those simple and timeless parenting principles. Find which rules work for you and your family and stick to them under the pressure of slammed doors and expected rebellious responses.
Find analogue activities and be creative about it. Include your teenagers in the decision-making process whether it is to go for a walk together, have unplugged meal times, go and see a film together at the Cinema or do something creative together.

Is banning screens really an answer? How is responsible use of gadgets more important than no use at all?
Yes, I am a great believer in the effectiveness of ‘micro moments of change’. Creating change in small steps.
Regular ‘unplugging’ whether it’s leaving the phone outside the bathroom, putting it in a drawer for an hour at lunchtime, on the journey to and from work or school at home in the evenings or during the weekend restores balance to your digitally overloaded world. It enables us to spend time in the ‘present’ and live mindfully by focusing on one thing, one person, one moment at a time. It gives us a chance to pause, to reconnect with ourselves, with the people around us, and our planet.
Finding regular time for a meditative practice such as mindfulness (my preferred choice), transcendental meditation or any other form of meditation that works for you will help you clear the mind, focus on the present moment, and let go of all the mental clutter. With meditation, there is no right or wrong way; it is about finding the place in you that ‘is’, and from there reconnecting with yourself.

How should a family go about establishing tech boundaries?
Here are some unplugging guidelines that are manageable and have been proven to work:

  • Charge your phone outside the bedroom
  • Get an alarm clock
  • Don’t start your day grabbing your smartphone to see what you’ve missed. Instead, as you wake up, take some moments to set your intentions for the day
  • Mealtimes should be tech and screen free whether at home or outside
  • A 10-minute trip to the bathroom doesn’t require a digital device

When with someone- the greatest gift we can give anyone is our attention. Our digital device is a 5” piece of hardware that doesn’t breathe, feel or have a pulse and yet we give it more attention than the people we are with (another good one-liner to use as a quote). This must be flawed. We need to prioritise our human connections and keep our phones switched off and out of sight when with someone.

ParentCircle is hosting the world’s first ever #GadgetFreeHour campaign to help families connect better. The idea is to rediscover the magic of spending time with your child. What do you think of this initiative?
I think this is a highly valuable and much needed initiative.
Putting our digital connectivity on ‘pause’ is like switching ourselves onto airplane mode to allow ourselves the space to maximise our human potential. We can view unplugging as a daily opportunity to recharge the mind and reboot the body by factoring regular, structured, digital downtime into our lives.
This enables us to focus on what really matters and gives us the opportunity to connect with the things that mean the most to us. Practice mindfulness. Be fully present. Live in the moment.
We must allow ourselves the space to legitimately unplug by creating a culture where tech-free time is seen as fundamental to our well-being.
When we finally decide to unplug, for however long or short period of time that works for us and our lives, the benefits become apparent almost immediately, because we gain so much more than we think we are going to lose.
During a digital detox, we will almost immediately begin to feel less stressed and more relaxed. We feel less rushed as time slows down and we find ourselves able to think clearly, without splitting our attention between our digital and analogue lives. Sleep becomes more peaceful, less interrupted, and more replenishing. We feel less overloaded and have more space for quality moments. Disconnecting from the digital world, however briefly, helps us to reconnect with our wisdom, intuition, and creativity.

Ultimately it is about enhancing our ‘offline’ life by reshaping our ‘online’ life.

In a Nutshell

  • Taking a pause from our digital devices helps us understand how we manage our technology or, more often than not, how it manages us
  • We as parents must lead by example- if we are high-tech parents, we can’t expect lo-tech behaviour from our children
  • Regular unplugging restores balance to your digitally overloaded world. It enables you to spend time being ‘present’ and live mindfully focusing on one thing, one person, one moment at a time
  • The greatest gift we can give to someone is our attention. We need to prioritise our human connections and keep our phones switched off and out of sight when with someone
  • Our digital device is a 5” piece of hardware that doesn’t breathe, feel or have a pulse and yet we give it more attention than the people we are with

What you can do right away

  • Take your family out for a meal on the condition that everyone leaves their phones behind
  • Unplug for a few minutes to a few hours every day—leave your phone outside the bathroom, put it in a drawer for an hour at lunchtime, on the journey to and from work or school, at home in the evenings, or during the weekend
  • Practice mindfulness to be fully present in the present moment

About Orianna Fielding

  • A designer, curator, broadcaster and author
  • Founded the Digital Detox Company to provide unique, life-changing Digital Detox Courses for companies and individuals

About the author:
Interviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 4 November 2019. Reviewed on 15 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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