Do you need a digital detox?

A well-being retreat could foster good digital hygiene habits – like spending time away from the phone

A woman uses a phone on a selfie stick to take a photo outside the Catholic Co-Cathedral of the Holy Family in Kuwait City on Christmas. AFP
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We spend more time on our phones than ever. According to a report by data analytics company Statistica, we spent an average of about 90 minutes every day on social media in 2012. By January 2022, we were averaging 147 minutes every day. Add messaging apps, email, games, streaming services and the occasional SMS text message into the mix, and that's a fair amount of screen time.

For some people, being glued to the small screen is not an issue. Others, though, wish for greater digital balance. With this latter group in mind, we developed a digital well-being retreat, the first of its kind in the region.

We piloted our mindfulness-based digital well-being programme last month in Muscat, Oman. The participants, 20 young adults from Saudi Arabia, had signed up for a five-day retreat designed to " …recalibrate their relationships with technology".

The retreat was developed in conjunction with Sync, a flagship programme launched by King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (Ithra), based in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Sync was explicitly established to support the development of digital well-being globally. Therefore, designing evidence-based digital well-being interventions is high on their to-do list.

Participants experimented with leaving their phones behind

Our idea was to host these retreats in locations of spectacular natural beauty, leveraging the power of nature to help participants shift focus from short-lived timelines to timeless landscapes. Numerous research studies confirm that connecting with nature improves well-being. Similarly, the "attention restoration hypothesis" suggests that connecting with nature enhances creativity and concentration. Furthermore, one sure way to reduce screen time is to increase sky time. Therefore, our retreat included a full itinerary of outdoor activities, from star-gazing and beach yoga to mountain hikes and swims in the wadi.

As picturesque as the Omani backdrop was, we had to go beyond a change of scenery (external environment) if we wanted participants to achieve any lasting impact. This was accomplished through daily workshops focused on the inner environment – individual psychology – examining concepts such as experiential avoidance, behavioural addiction and stress reactivity.

Experiential avoidance is our desire to prevent or escape from unpleasant thoughts, sensations or emotions, for example, anxiety or boredom. Smartphones are excellent for this. Feeling a little bored? Whip out the phone and chase it away. Feeling socially awkward or lonely? Out comes the phone again. For this reason, the smartphone has been called the "adult pacifier". These digital devices temporarily distract us from our inner discomfort and soothe our momentary angst, just like the pacifier's rubber teat magically restores a troubled infant's equilibrium.

Not all experiential avoidance is harmful; occasionally, and in small doses, it can be helpful. However, it has negative long-term consequences when it becomes chronic and maladaptive, interfering with valued relationships or occupational duties. For one, it impedes the personal growth and development that arise from experiential learning. It is also strongly associated with the development of mood disorders, anxiety disorders and behavioural addictions. Experiential avoidance is considered a "transdiagnostic process"; in other words, it shows up in many mental health problems. Reducing experiential avoidance helps promote general well-being.

Ultimately, the antidote to experiential avoidance is acceptance, being OK with not being OK, at least for a while. Increased acceptance, coupled with distress tolerance, is one of the most beneficial outcomes of mindfulness-based interventions. The ability to tolerate distress lessens our tendency to react rapidly, automatically and habitually, doing what we always do. Acceptance is not "doing nothing". Instead, it is about allowing distress to pass without reacting unnecessarily. Thereby creating a space for more creative and mindful responses. Choosing not to act isn't the same as doing nothing; acceptance is not the same as resignation.

Our digital well-being retreat included mindfulness practices. Beyond seated meditation, however, we also had mindful eating, mindful walking, and even mindful mobile phone use.

For example, using the phone with an explicit intention, sending mindful messages and taking mindful pictures. This retreat was not a detox; participants were encouraged to use their phones as much as they liked – technology can help promote well-being. However, the invitation/challenge was to experiment with technology use and reflect on those experiences.

Several participants experimented with leaving their phones behind during daily activities. Without their usual digital escape routes (phones), some participants reported experiencing socially awkward conversations. Although minor, these uncomfortable situations highlight our technology dependence and also our ability to get by, perhaps even grow, without it.

Similarly, some participants witnessed amazing scenes and landscapes. Without phones in hand, they reported noticing how the urge to snap and share (point, click and post it on social media) rises, falls and eventually fades away. Simply becoming more aware of our emotional connection to technology is empowering. Awareness is the mother of choice.

The attendees at the retreat left on a high. They were restored by their connection to nature and filled with ideas for crafting a more balanced and enriching relationship with technology. The plan is to follow up and explore the longer-term impact of the retreat.

Our lives are increasingly intertwined with digital technology. Improving our understanding of this relationship is critical to preventing mental health problems and promoting overall well-being.

Published: December 26, 2022, 9:00 AM