There’s a better way to treat your tech addiction than hiding your phone and laptop

A modern epidemic.
A modern epidemic.
Image: AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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Most people believe the best way to restore balance in our relationship with technology is to completely disconnect from it. But we shouldn’t have to switch off our devices to feel inner peace. Instead of unplugging from technology entirely, we should learn to design and engage with it in ways that support our emotional well-being.

As a digital anthropologist, I spend my days listening to people tell me guilt-tinged stories about their tech use. While there’s still some debate as to whether internet addiction belongs in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), addiction is becoming our default way of explaining how we feel about technology.

Part of the reason our websites, apps, and devices feel so addictive is because they are designed to be that way. With business success measured in time-on-site and numbers of clicks, the cognitive biases that have been catalogued so diligently in the last decade have been mined for profit as what are called dark patterns. These are designs that trick people into spending more time interacting with a screen, from endless scrolling to auto-playing videos.

By using technology more consciously and developing a healthier relationship with our devices and apps, we can learn how to let them support our lives, rather than rule them. Even when we leave our devices behind, their shadow remains; we feel the relief of technology’s absence as much as the sensation of the sun on our face. In this way, our reality is always framed by technology, whether it is present or not. And a digital detox won’t change that.

To explore the concept of how to live healthily with tech, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews to try and understand the habits and brains of people who manage to live well with technology. And I’m not the only one: Many other academic researchers are starting to parse out how technology can support well-being, rather than rely on the absence of it to restore peace. As Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine notes, “You see a lot of reports in the media about the negative impact of technology use…but there have been expanded efforts in the past decade to study what’s become known as positive computing.”

The idea behind positive computing is to learn what aspects of technology discourage addictive behaviors, and which promote healthy habits. The antidote to constant engagement with screens is therefore not necessarily less screen time, but learning how to use technology in ways that increase happiness.

But the user is only half of the solution: Design also has the potential to cultivate well-being. In order to encourage a healthy relationship with users, we need to design technologies to give people more agency. Giving users the power to be more intentional is the first step to restoring balance between life online and offline—it’s about learning how to interact with tech with meaning.

We’ve found that what supports well-being offline works just as well online. Here are four ways we can develop a healthier relationship with technology without switching off entirely.

Prioritize direct communication over indirect

Connection is at the heart of well-being: The more effort we put into our communication, the better. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have found that it’s not the amount of Facebook activity but rather the quality of the activity that mattered most to users’ happiness levels. Pre-determined ways to express our views such as likes or emojis diminish that sense of connection and prompt us to spend more time consuming instead of considering and responding.

To solve this issue, users can put more effort into crafting individual responses instead of using pre-selected options, and designers can create ways for people to ditch autopilot communications. For example, Snapchat is a great example of a design that continually provides new ways to connect with friends in a conscious manner. Its variety counteracts how quickly we mindlessly adapt to new features, which means we are less likely to put relationships on auto-pilot.

Cultivate more creating, less consuming

Creativity buffers against negative emotions and brings us into a flow state while we are happily immersed in an activity. Instead of simply consuming information on the internet, we should put time into creating our own. Curating Pinterest boards or crafting poetic Amazon reviews instead of scrolling through friends’ feeds or playing app games provides a greater sense of balance with technology: You are giving as well as receiving.

Leave mental white space

Designers have consciously conned us into a repetitive trap of swiping and refreshing. One way to counteract that cycle is to factor in a pause. Only allowing pop-up notifications from friends and family instead of ones from other apps is one way to get a little space.

From a design perspective, balancing positive and negative space within a technology experience can also give the user brief moments of respite. Some tech builds in stopping points, like Twitter’s While You Were Away feature, which lets you catch up without endlessly scrolling, or the Quartz app, which lets you choose how much you want to learn about each story. Many websites, such as Medium, include reading time for each article, which gives a fair warning about the amount of attention required.

Minimize numbers

Nothing encourages an unhealthy relationship with social media or a Fitbit addiction like numbers: They program us to keep checking back on a post or device without ever feeling quite satisfied. To counter this constant reach for more steps, restore the missing context by balancing tallies with the act of journaling offline or on apps like Mood Notes. Social apps can also help us out by scaling back on the emphasis on numbers, too. For instance, Slack’s desktop app doesn’t quantify notifications..

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While it’s certainly not a bad idea to put down your device and take a walk outside, it’s not a successful strategy for balance in the long term. Switching off is no longer the right response to our unhealthy relationships with technologies. Instead, we have to actively design them to be emotionally healthy and learn how to have a better relationship with them.

As users, the daily decisions we make shape the technology we use. What we choose to do and not do often literally shapes how machines learn, and what we assign value to informs the people who design technology. So be conscious, and take control back—but do it by truly connecting with technology, not disconnecting.