I meet very few people who feel they have healthy digital habits locked down. I certainly don’t. There have been days when my screentime tipped the six-hour mark.
When I couldn’t focus on friends, family or the work task in front of me, because I was on high alert for the whooshing sound of a WhatsApp message, the ding of an iMessage, the tinkle of a notification on Facebook Messenger, the thud of an email.
Last year, I felt like I should constantly be “checking” something, like I might be missing something – but the more time I spent on my phone, the more anxious I became. Scrolling mindlessly through Instagram, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger was the last thing I did at night and the first thing I did after waking up.
The average British smartphone user spends three hours and 23 minutes on their phone every day, rising to four hours in the 16-24 age group, according to a recent poll. One in six smartphone users spends more than six hours a day staring at their mobile, like me.
The impact on our health and happiness is profound. An October 2019 study by psychologists at Kings College London suggested that one in four young people has a “dysfunctional relationship with their smartphone”, and that people with problematic smartphone use are three times more likely to suffer from depression, as well as anxiety, stress and poor sleep, plus poorer educational attainment.
“It’s important to note that this is not our fault,” says Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Phone and founder of screenlifebalance.com.
“Phones are designed to be habit-forming by offering rapid and repeated stimulation. Yes, I believe it’s possible to reap the benefits of this technology, but it’s very, very difficult for individual users to benefit from the positives of social media without risking behaviour change and addiction.”
In his book, The Hacking Of The American Mind, Robert Lustig compares the addictive properties of technology to sugar and drugs. Lustig points out that dopamine (the “reward neurotransmitter”) has evolved to overwhelm serotonin (the “contentment neurotransmitter”) – because our ancestors were more likely to survive if they were constantly motivated.
“In the past 40 years, large corporations have promoted ever-available temptation (sugar, drugs, social media, porn), which, combined with constant stress (work, home, money, internet), has the end result of an unprecedented epidemic of addiction, anxiety, depression, and chronic disease,” says Lustig. “The [mobile] phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, is in store for the user – the ultimate dopamine rush.”
It’s no longer a secret that smartphones, and their apps, were specifically engineered to be addictive, to keep users coming back for more and generate more revenue through the advertising-based business model. Tristan Harris is a former Google employee, and one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent whistle-blowers.
“Never before has a handful of people working at a handful of tech companies been able to steer the thoughts and feelings of a billion people,” he said in a talk at Stanford University. “There are more users on Facebook than followers of Christianity. There are more people on YouTube than followers of Islam. I don’t know a more urgent problem than this.”
So far, so terrifying, but at least we’ve recognised that smartphone addiction or overuse is a problem. Half of the UK’s smartphone users are hoping to reduce their screen time – and I’m one of them. But, rather than a complete digital detox, maybe Lent is the perfect time to try a digital diet.
I road-tested four of the best.
The net-free digital diet
The Regime: This involves exchanging your smartphone for a simpler gadget with no online access – meaning no social media, no emails, no apps.
Among Silicon Valleyites, net-free phones are now a badge of honour, up there with Wim Hof-inspired cold showers and Bulletproof coffee.
One high-achiever who swears by his low-achieving phone is entrepreneur Nick Boulos. “After a prolonged period of anxiety and depression, I realised I needed a break not only from my everyday life, but also the white noise of social media and WhatsApp,” he says. “I decamped to Mexico with no plan and, more crucially, no phone. Armed with an antiquated handset, minus the SIM and all apps (I only kept Maps and Spotify), for the first two weeks I experienced moments of blind panic when I instinctively tapped my pockets and didn’t feel my phone.”
But he also felt more engaged, more creative, and more inspired. He set to work plotting and planning his new business, a citybreak planning platform called MakeMyDay.
Some net-free dieters proudly brandish their Nokia 3310s, but in US and European capitals, all the buzz is about the Light Phone.
It’s the Light Phone II that I trial for a week, a sleek grey handset, reminiscent of a Eighties credit-card sized calculator – albeit with a pricetag of $350 (£270). This is one in-demand pricey little phone; the company more than doubled its $200,000 crowdfunding goal for the original version, with a waiting list of 50,000.
Like the original Lightphone, the Lightphone II has no access to emails, no social media, no browser, but in a few months they’ll be enabled with Maps and a rideshare app like Uber. This is an interesting concession, because going cold turkey “dumb phone” is a mixed bag. Within a few hours, I feel less “twitchy” and as the working week progresses, I’m able to focus more on the work in front of me. I have a lovely evening at the pub with friends, without the temptation to get my phone out. By Friday, I concede I’ve had one of the most engaged, switched-on, productive and pleasurable weeks I’ve had in weeks. But I did have to ask my friend to call me an Uber and give her a tenner to pay for it. I had to duck repeatedly into shops and bars to find my way to the theatre.
The Verdict: The rewards of ditching social media, WhatsApp, emails and other distractions are abundant and immediately tangible, but going 100 per cent net-free takes real commitment and adjustment.
The weekend phone
The Regime: A similar strategy to the 5:2 diet, smartphones are a working week indulgence only; at weekends you switch your smartphone for a secondary “dumb-phone” without emails, social media apps.
This is where the Light Phone really comes into its own. As a secondary phone, it’s a dream. I was first introduced to the idea of a secondary, weekend phone by my friend Harriet Jordan-Wrench, founder of Secret Sessions, a live events company. S
he switched to a “Sunday phone” to try to take a break from relentless work emails in what was meant to be her precious downtime.
“Running events means that I couldn’t do a whole weekend without my phone, but my Sunday ‘dumb-phone’ really works for me,” she says. “Initially I felt quite bare, but eventually it felt really liberating, and I began to actively look forward to Sunday, because I knew I could switch off.”
In place of her iPhone, she uses an Alcatel one touch. “Only three people have my Sunday phone’s number: my mum, my sister and my wife,” she says.
Like my friend, I immediately find that the Light Phone gives me a good old-fashioned weekend where I take a proper break from work emails, don’t give a damn what’s happening on Instagram, and don’t suffer from FOMO after seeing what other people are planning on WhatsApp group chats. But the Light Phone requires one additional piece of kit: an understanding friend, family member or lover on your arm who won’t mind excusing you from all social organisational duties.
On Saturday, I went out with my friend Robbie, who dutifully fielded calls from friends we were meeting, googlemapped our way there, and called the Uber. “How are you finding the Light Phone?” a friend asked, when we were finally assembled at the pub. “Oh, it’s great…for me,” I said, chirpily. “For Robbie, I suspect, it’s working out less well.”
The Verdict: Weekend phones work brilliantly for the user. They are less brilliant for your friends.
The eight-hour digital diet
The Regime: Think of this as intermittent phone-fasting; you only use your smartphone for an eight-hour window every day.
A more moderate approach to switching devices entirely involved building digital “blackout hours” into your day. An editor I know swears by keeping her phone on flight mode until 11am, so she can clear her morning emails free from distractions, and turning it off again at 7pm as she arrives home so she can focus on her husband and two small children.
“I was in real danger of being one of those working mums answering emails on my iPhone while spoon-feeding my two-year-old,” she says. “So now I make sure that by the time I get home, my phone is offline.”
I start with the same 11am-7pm schedule, and after a couple of days, I’ve realised that not going online first thing has transformed my mornings. I go for a run and enjoy my breakfast in peace, listening to the radio. I go to the office, open up my laptop, and this is my first taste of the net all day.
But I’m able to plough through emails and finish straggly bits of work without being distracted by WhatsApp messages. A few procrastination-free days in, I’m sold on net-free mornings. But it’s a different matter in the evenings, when I’d normally catch up with friends and make plans, and I find the ban hard to stick to.
The Verdict: For those with a regular routine, this might work, but it’s tricky for those of us with fluctuating schedules.
Screen time minute counting
The Regime: A little like calorie counting, users set limits for the screentime for different apps. This means that nothing is off-limits, but mastering moderation is key.
After the feast-or-famine approach of the eight-hour diet, there’s something deliciously liberating about my next digital diet. I set a time limit of 120 minutes on my iPhone. My phone has the inbuilt Screen Time option, but there are a number of other apps – such as Digital Wellbeing, Off The Grid, App Detox and AntiSocial – for other smartphones.
Given that my screen time could hover around the four-hour mark, this is a major reduction in usage. I like the fact that it instils self-discipline – if I’m tempted to scroll through Instagram, I remember that I’ll need to use WhatsApp to arrange my night later on. So every time I go online on my phone, I go in, do what I need to do, and extract myself as quickly as possible.
It forced me to think for myself and assess my priorities. But on the flipside, because I could always go online on my phone, I never had that feeling of true digital escapism.
The Verdict: The flexibility makes it less arbitrary than blanket-bans during certain hours of the day. But this freedom also means I didn’t quite “switch off” and reap the benefits of a digital detox.
All four methods delivered the results I was after: a clearer mind, boosted productivity, increased creativity, reduced stress and more productive days. I’m now religious about net-free mornings.
The Light Phone is a stress-reducing revelation, and I’m counting the weeks until this model is enabled with Maps and Uber. Until then, I’m keeping my iPhone on hand, too, mostly SIM-free.
It might sound contrary to digitally detox by getting two phones, but I now use my iPhone more as a separate device, a tool to be used as a camera, for social apps when the time is right. But my phone has gone back to being just a phone. And that feels great.