Thursday, 13 May 2021

Digital Detox Bull**it

Following the pandemic, a monstrous number of Digital Detox self-help books are hitting the market. 

Personally, I think there is a place for these kinds of books provided they aren't attempting to dish out behavioural science based entirely on a few thoughts inside the author's head. 

Unfortunately, books promoting Digital Detoxes do exactly that and more. 

First, they assume that technology alone is the problem*.  

Technology may very well be the problem, but which bit? Many collective years have been spent studying the literature that attempts to understand links between between general technology use and harm.

Alongside several milestone studies, the idea that general technology use has any tangible impact on well-being is pretty much dead in the water. Turns out that's true for large swathes of psychology and behavioural science. Bit annoying, but better to know than not know.    

The whole argument can be turned on its head - a lack of access poses a greater risk to individuals and society. Engaging groups with new technology so they can better understand and manage risks (e.g., security, privacy or dealing with misinformation) is of far greater value than removing it from those who are already privileged enough to have that choice.   

Second, let's assume people do need to step back from the screen. Tart it up as you want, but it's a behaviour change intervention. So does it work? 

No. 

To date, there is no evidence that Digital Detox's provide short or long term benefits. The evidence base at  points to an increased risk of harm. Not hugely surprising because social withdrawal isn't the best thing psychologically speaking. This Stacey Dooley Episode is called Switching off from social. A somewhat oxymoronic title. 

Third, it feels even more puzzling to me that these books are appearing post pandemic. The vast majority of us have spent time using the very same technology to engage with track and trace and various health services. For many, it’s allows us to keep working and stay in touch with friends and family. 

And let's not forget that without people sitting for hours in front of computer screens there would be no vaccine. 

These books are unbelievably patronising. I used to think that the authors just weren't interested in technology, but I don't think they are really interested in people either. 

So yeh, turn off your notifications if they get annoying or keep you awake. Install or remove apps along the way. Go for walk instead instead of playing Call of Duty all day (although having the odd day like that is perfectly ok!). Maybe develop an app if you can't find what you need.

The affordances provided by modern technology are incredible. It can always be 'on', but it can be switched 'off' or sidelined. There are many more options than simply stepping away from a typewriter or watching Channel 4 vs BBC 1. Believe it or not you can use technology to do very different things!! Sort of like what Alan Turing was getting at....

When someone claims that the answer to feeling happier involves switching off your screen, they are selling a lie and an oversimplified view of how people live in the modern world. 

Even a basic appreciation of the complex and multi-faced way people use technology means that the argument for a digital detox remains a glorified piece of nonsensical marketing. 

Nothing more. 

Digging deeper into these systems and how people use them, I think, is far more interesting. While understanding individual and societal impacts remains a grand challenge, we do know quite a bit about how people use technology and why they keep going back for more. 

However, this evidence becomes rather inconvenient when attempting to sell a Digital Detox. 

Maybe these books should come with a similar warning that typically appears next to events promoting psychic mediums.

for entertainment purposes only


*All books are available in ebook format - breaking their argument from page 1.