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Tech your time: 12 top tips for a digital detox

Over the last few years there has been increasing use of the term ‘digital detox’. According to the Oxford Dictionary, digital detox is a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world”. I have to admit that I often find it hard to switch off from work (mainly because I love my job). Given that my job relies on technology, by implication it also means I find it hard to switch off from technology. Today’s blog is as much for me as anyone reading this and provides some tips on how to cut down on technology use, even if it’s just for the weekend or a holiday. I have compiled these tips from many different online articles as well as some of my own personal strategies. 

Digitally detox in increments: For some people, going a few minutes without checking their smartphone or emails is difficult. For many, the urge is reflexive and habitual. If you are one of those people, then ‘baby steps’ are needed. Such individuals need to learn to digitally detox in small increments (i.e., go on a ‘digital diet’). Start by proving to yourself that you can go 15 minutes without technology. Over time, increase the length of time without checking (say) Twitter, Facebook and emails (e.g., 30 minutes, 60 minutes, a couple of hours) until you get into a daily habit of being able to spend a few hours without the need to be online. Another simple trick is to only keep mobile devices partially topped up. This means users have to be sparing when checking their mobile devices.

Set aside daily periods of self-imposed non-screen time: One of the secrets to cutting down technology use to acceptable levels is to keep aside certain times of the day technology-free (meal times and bedtime are a good starting place – in fact, these rooms should be made technology-free). For instance, I rarely look at any emails between 6pm and 8pm as this is reserved for family time (e.g., cooking and eating dinner with the family). Another strategy to try is having a technology-free day at the weekends (e.g., not accessing the internet at all for 24 hours). However, watching television or using an e-reader is fine. Another simple strategy is to have technology-free meal times (at both home and work). Don’t bring your smartphone or tablet to the table.

Only respond to emails and texts at specific times of the day: Only a few individuals are ‘on call’ and have to assume that the message they receive will be an emergency. Looking at emails (say) just three times a day (9am, 1pm, 4pm) will save lots of time in the long run. Turning off email and social media, disabling push notifications, or simply turning the volume setting to silent on electronic devices will also reduce the urge to constantly check mobile devices.

Don’t use your smartphone or tablet as an alarm clock: By using a standard alarm clock to wake you in the morning, you will avoid the temptation to look at emails and texts just as you are about to go to sleep or just wake up (or in the middle of the night if you are a workaholic!).

Engage in out-of-work activities where it is impossible (or frowned upon) to use technology: Nowadays, leisure activities such as going to the pub, having a meal, or going to the cinema, don’t stop people using wireless technology. By engaging in digitally incompatible activities where it is impossible to access technology simultaneously (e.g., jogging, swimming, meditation, outdoor walks in wi-fi free areas) or go to places where technology is frowned upon (e.g., places of worship, yoga classes, etc.) and individual will automatically decrease the amount of screen time. In social situations, you can turn people’s need to check their phones into a game. For instance, in the pub, you could have a game where the first one to check their phone has to buy a round of drinks for everyone else.

Tell your work colleagues and friends you are going on a digital detox: Checking emails and texts can become an almost compulsive behaviour because of what psychologists have termed ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) that refers to the anxiety that an interesting or exciting event may be happening elsewhere online. By telling everyone you know that you will not be online for a few hours, they will be less likely to contact you in the first place and you will be less likely check for online messages in the first place. Alternatively, Put your ‘out-of-office’ notification on for a few hours and do something more productive with your time.

Reduce your contact lists: One way to spend less time online is to reduce the number of friends on social networking sites, stop following blogs (but not mine, of course!), delete unused apps, and unsubscribe from online groups that have few benefits. Also, delete game apps that can be time-consuming (e.g., Angry Birds, Candy Crush Saga, etc.).

Get a wristwatch: One of the most common reasons for looking at a smartphone or a tablet is to check the time. If checking the time also leads to individuals noticing they have a text, email or tweet, they will end up reading what has been sent. By using an old fashioned wristwatch (as opposed to new smart watches like the Apple Watch), the urge to reply to messages will decrease.

Think about the benefits of not constantly being online: If you are the kind of person that responds to emails, texts and tweets as they come in, you will write longer responses than if you look at them all in a block. The bottom line is that you can save loads of time to spend on other things if you didn’t spend so long constantly reacting to what is going on in the online world.

Enjoy the silence: Too many people fail to appreciate being in the moment and allowing themselves to resist the urge to log onto their laptops, mobiles and tablets. It is at these times that some people might interpret as boredom that we can contemplate and be mindful. This could be made more formal by introducing meditation into a daily routine. There are also many places that run whole weekends and short breaks where technology is forbidden and much of the time can be spent in quiet contemplation. 

Fill the void: To undergo digital detox for any length of time, an individual has to replace the activity with something that is as equally rewarding (whether it is physically, psychologically or spiritually). When I’m on holiday, I catch up on all the novels that I’ve been meaning to read. In shorter spaces of time (such as sitting in boring meetings) I doodle, write ‘to do’ lists, generate ideas to write about, or simply do nothing (and be mindful, aware of the present moment). In short, I try to productive (or unproductive) without having to resort to my technology. 

Use technology to beat technology: One thing that can shock technology users is how much time they actually spend on their mobile devices. Working out how much time is actually spent online can be the first step in wanting to cut down. (For instance, someone I once worked with was shocked to find he had spent 72 [24-hour] days in one year playing World of Warcraft). Tech users can download apps that tell them how much time spending online, (e.g., Moment). Being made aware of a problem is often the first step in enabling behavioural change.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Goodnet (2013). 7 steps to planning your next digital detox. October 22. Located at: http://www.goodnet.org/articles/7-steps-to-planning-your-next-digital-detox

Hosseini, M.D. (2013). Top 10 tips to unplug this summer with a digital detox. Advertising Week Social Club, June 28. Located at: http://www.theawsc.com/2013/06/28/top-10-tips-to-unplug-this-summer-with-a-digital-detox/

Huffington Post (2013). 10 digital detox vacation hacks to help you truly unplug. July 31. Located at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/31/vacation-hacks-_n_3676474.html

Levy, P. (2015). 15 tips for a total digital detox. Mind Body Green, January 15. Located at: http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-17030/15-tips-for-a-total-digital-detox.html

Lipman, F. (2015). 12 tips for your next digital detox. March 2. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/shake-it-off-12-tips-for-your-next-digital-detox/

Lipman, F. (2014). 8 ways to disconnect from technology and get more done. November 5. Located at: http://www.drfranklipman.com/8-ways-to-disconnect-from-technology-and-get-more-done/

South China Morning Post (2015). Five tips for a digital detox. Located at: http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/technology/article/1673273/five-tips-digital-detox

Vozza, S. (2013). A realistic digital detox in 5 easy steps. Entrepreneur, November 12. Located: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/229783

Distraction plans: Excessive smartphone use and pain perception

In a previous blog I outlined many physical syndromes that had been reported in the 1980s medical literature, a number of which related to excessive video game playing. This included ‘Space Invader’s Wrist’ (published in the New England Journal of Medicine), ‘Pseudovideoma’ (Journal of Hand Surgery), ‘Pac-Man Phalanx’ (Arthritis and Rheumatism) and ‘Joystick Digit’ (Journal of the American Medical Association). More recently, other new medical complaints have been reported related to excessive mobile phone use including a report of ‘Blackberry thumb’ in a 2013 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. 

Earlier this month saw the publication of a case report involving a tendon rupture in a man excessively playing a video game on his smartphone. The report appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine by Dr. Andrew Doan and his colleagues (the same Dr. Doan that reported a case study of someone “addicted” to Google Glass that I examined in a previous blog). The authors of the latest report wrote:

“We describe a patient with rupture of the extensor pollicis longus tendon associated with excessive video game play on his smartphone. A 29-year-old, right hand–dominant man presented with chronic left thumb pain and loss of active motion. Before the onset of symptoms, he reported playing a video game on his smartphone all day for 6 to 8 weeks. He played with his left hand while using his right hand for other tasks, stating that ‘playing was a kind of secondary thing, but it was constantly on.’ When playing the video game, the patient reported that he felt no pain. He reported no injuries or prior operations to either hand. He denied a history of inflammatory arthritis, quinolone use, or other predisposing medical condition for ten-don rupture. On physical examination, the left extensor pollicis longus tendon was not palpable, and no tendon motion was noted with wrist tenodesis. The thumb metacarpophalangeal range of motion was 10° to 80°, and thumb interphalangeal range of motion was 30° to 70°. The findings on physical examination of the patient’s right hand were unremarkable. The clinical diagnosis was rupture of the left extensor pollicis longus tendon. A magnetic resonance imaging study of his left hand revealed tendon attenuation and rupture of the tendon. Radiographic studies of the wrist found no bone spurs or prior or current fractures. The patient subsequently underwent an extensor indicis proprius (1 of 2 tendons that extend the index finger) to extensor pollicis longus tendon transfer. During surgery, rupture of the extensor pollicis longus tendon was seen between the metacarpophalangeal and wrist joints”

One of the things that I found interesting was that despite the tendon rupture, when the man was actually playing the game, he felt no pain. This is something I know only too well from personal experience. Unfortunately, I have a chronic and degenerative spinal complaint (herniated discs in my neck) but I feel no pain whatsoever when I am cognitively distracted. I find that work is a much better analgesic than dihydrocodeine (i.e., when I am working I feel no pain whatsoever). However, playing video games come a close second as when I am engaged in video game playing (even on simple casual games), the fact that it takes up all my cognitive resources means that I don’t feel any pain. This is nothing new and many medics are aware of the therapeutic benefits of gaming. There are now many studies showing that children undergoing chemotherapy need much less pain relief if they play video games after their treatment compared to children that don’t play video games. (In fact I’ve written a number of papers and book chapters on ‘video game therapy’ – see ‘Further reading’ below). This case report then went on to say:

“Video games suppress pain perception in pediatric patients and during burn treatments. Visual distraction and neuroendocrine hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal arousal provide a plausible explanation for why the patient did not feel pain from his injury. Without the expected physiologic negative pain feedback, excessive gaming may have led to tendon attenuation and subsequent attritional rupture of the tendon. Attritional rupture at the midtendon differs from high- energy ruptures that occur where the tendon is thinnest or be- tween tendon and bone. Although this is only a single case report, research might consider whether video games have a role in clinical pain management and as nonpharmacologic alternatives during uncomfortable or painful medical procedures. They may also have a role in reducing stress. It may be interesting to ascertain whether various games differ in their ability to reduce the perception of pain…Research might also consider whether pain reduction is a reason some individuals play video games excessively, manifest addiction, or sustain injuries associated with video gaming”.

This conclusion does appear to suggest that the authors are unaware of the many hundreds of studies that have examined the therapeutic benefits of gaming (in fact there’s even an academic journal dedicated to such studies appropriately called the Games For Health Journal). As I have noted in a number of my writings about video gaming as a medical intervention for children:

  • Videogames are likely to engage much of a person’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity required.
  • Videogames allow the possibility to achieve sustained achievement because of the level of difficulty (i.e., challenge) of most games during extended play.
  • Videogames appear to appeal most to adolescents.

Consequently, videogames have also been used in a number of studies as ‘distractor tasks’. This latest case report highlights the simultaneous potential positive and negatives of gaming within a single individual but also highlights the fact that video gaming is both mobile and spreading to many more types of hardware. I’m now wondering which medical team will be the first to write about a new medical syndrome relating to the new Apple Watch.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Behr, J.T. (1984). Pseudovideoma. Journal of Hand Surgery, 9(4), 613.

Gibofsky, A. (1983). Pac‐Man phalanx. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 26(1), 120.

Gilman, L., Cage, D.N., Horn, A. Bishop, F., Klam, W.P. & Doan, A.P. (2015). Tendon rupture associated with excessive smartphone gaming. JAMA Internal Medicine, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.0753

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

McCowan, T.C. (1981). Space Invader’s wrist. New England Journal of Medicine, 304,1368.

Osterman, A. L., Weinberg, P., & Miller, G. (1987). Joystick digit. Journal of the American Medical Association, 257(6), 782.

O’Sullivan, B. (2013). Beyond BlackBerry thumb. CMAJ, 185, 185-186.

Soe, G.B., Gersten, L. M., Wilkins, J., Patzakis, M. J., & Harvey, J.P. (1987). Infection associated with joystick mimicking a spider bite. Western Journal of Medicine, 146(6), 748.

Yung, K., Eickhoff, E., Davis, D. L., Klam, W. P., & Doan, A. P. (2014). Internet Addiction Disorder and problematic use of Google Glass™ in patient treated at a residential substance abuse treatment program. Addictive Behaviors, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.09.024.