How We Spend Our Days
The impact of digital technology on our wellbeing
This article was originally published in Dec 2019 in the Technology edition of the Young Jains UK quarterly magazine. Many of the references for this article come from Menka’s work with Mind Over Tech.
I still remember the curious status update by a friend on Facebook that intrigued me to attend a Young Jains conference years ago. That one little notification on my phone, and all the many actions that it inspired, played a large role in my eventually finding a dharma teacher, learning to meditate and deepening my understanding of spirituality.
There are many such instances when using digital technology has made me a happier, more connected, and better-informed person. We are so fortunate to have access to more wisdom and inspiration than any generation before us. It has also never been easier to be there for our family and friends, and to offer kindness to strangers all around the world.
Over the years, however, as I spend more and more of my waking hours looking at a screen, I’ve noticed that it’s not all positive. I have started to feel some negative impacts from my behaviours, particularly from how I use my mobile phone and social media. This realisation has sparked a journey of exploration and reflection for me.
Wellbeing is a product of what we pay attention to
The media is filled with worrisome stories about how technology is “hijacking the mind” and leading us to all kinds of mental health problems such as anxiety, loneliness, sleep deprivation and depression. “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?” asked the Atlantic magazine in a provocative and widely read cover story two years ago.
The crux of the problem is that our time and attention is frequently being directed in ways that do not support our wellbeing. In the UK the average person spends 24 hours every week online, and for the majority of us reading this it would be even more time than that. This time comes with an opportunity cost in terms of offline activities. And it is not just about time spent, it is also the content consumed. It is common to experience low self-esteem due to social comparisons on sites like Instagram, anxiety due to an information overload while browsing new sites, or sleep deprivation thanks to the Auto-Play feature on YouTube and Netflix.
Everything we do, feel and think leaves an imprint on the brain. The brain has a remarkable capacity to change throughout our lives which is known as neuroplasticity. The problem is that the brain doesn’t differentiate between good or bad – every action influences our neural wiring.
There was a study done back in 1995 in which adults with no experience playing a piano were taught how to play a melody which they practiced for two hours daily for the next five days. One half of the group was asked to physically play the melody, whereas the other was asked to simply sit and imagine playing the notes without touching a keyboard. Within just these few days scans showed that the brains of all the individuals had altered to accommodate their new musical skills. What was even more surprising is that both groups had the same level of change in their brain, even those that just imagined playing the piano. Neurologically, we are what we think, and so we must be careful about what we pay attention to.
None of us is immune from forming sticky habits
Some argue that technology itself is harmless, as it’s all about exercising choices. This is known as an instrumentalist philosophy, which I too subscribe too in general. We can choose to increase or reduce the time and attention we give to anything, such that our relationship with it remains healthy and beneficial. We can always, for example, choose to put the phone down, or take a digital detox when we need it. We are empowered by our self-awareness and self-discipline.
The problem with this alluring argument is that it makes behavioural change sound easier than it is. From a neuroscience perspective, we now know that the human brain is prone to developing habits. Most of the time, most of us are not even aware of what we’re doing, going through large parts of our day mindlessly on a default auto-pilot mode. By performing and repeating any thought process or action, new neural pathways are created in the brain, and once habits are embedded neurologically, they are hard to break.
A leading behavioural science company that helps build apps has the strapline “The brain is programmable. You just need to know the code.” App designers such as these use habit-formation strategies to get us hooked to their products as quickly as possible. One way this is done is by creating triggers (such as a notification) that will encourage us to take small actions (such as clicking or swiping) that lead to a variable reward (new messages, likes or comments) and an emotional investment in that product. This then creates a desire which is an internal trigger, unprompted by any anyone else, to continue repeating that same action.
Once our brains are trained to do something new, there is an inner momentum to keep using the new neural pathways. This makes it hard to stop certain behaviours, even if we realise it isn’t making us happy and want to stop. Nobody is immune from forming these sticky habits – even the prime minister of Norway was caught playing Pokémon Go in parliament a few years ago! It is this addictive quality that is at the root of many of the mental health problems observed.
As tech gets smarter by using machine learning and AI to identify our personal triggers and programme our habits ever more efficiently, perhaps the biggest thing at stake is our freedom to make choices and live life intentionally.
Taking back control and setting intentions
To take back control of any relationship, an essential starting point is to develop awareness about the nature of the relationship. For example, how long after waking up do we check our phones? How anxious do we feel when we are offline for a few hours? What are the external triggers (for example a notification appearing on our screen, or sitting on a train) or internal triggers (for example, a particular emotion or thought like “I am bored”) that prompt us to reach for the phone or to open a certain app? Identifying these triggers gives us the space to make better – more intentional – choices about how to respond.
A friend of mine noticed that he had a habit of frequently asking questions that popped up in his head in Google search, and then clicking from site to site, often not remembering what his original purpose to get online was. To break this habit he decided to keep a physical notebook with him and write down every search question he had in there, and then do all the searches online together later in the day. When he sat down to do these searches he would often laugh at how unimportant many of his questions seemed in retrospect. Many searches were abandoned and a lot of time was saved!
Intention is a beautiful characteristic of the human mind. As we have evolved, we have learnt to override instinctual, habitual actions using higher-level executive functions in the brain. We are able to plan, problem solve and make complex decisions. We are able to set our own goals and pursue what we believe is meaningful to us in our lives. But like any muscle, if we stop exercising our ability to override habits and act intentionally, we will lose our ability to do it.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: how to make habit-forming products, advocates the need for more “traction” which he describes as the opposite of distraction. These are the actions that draw us towards what we want in life. There are even apps like SelfControl and Freedom that can help by blocking the internet or certain websites for us for predetermined periods of time. This is useful but I believe that to make stronger progress we can’t just rely on technology to beat technology. What is needed is the internal willpower to master the triggers that distract us, and practices like meditation are designed to develop this capacity.
The question I’d like to leave you with is: “Does your use of technology interfere with your ability to identify and pursue the goals that make your life meaningful?” As spiritual seekers, we may have certain daily rituals, practices and readings that we wish to dedicate time to, or we may want to be in service to our families, communities and those in need – and digital technology can help or hinder us with all of these pursuits. We need to be clear about our intentions and align our actions to them. After all, as the poet Annie Dillard observed, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. By Nir Eyal
The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. By Nicholas Carr
Mind over Tech (https://mindovertech.com)
Centre for Humane Technology (https://humanetech.com/)