Dig­i­tal well-be­ing is the new fit­ness craze

Weekend Herald - - Science & Tech -

Many of us rely on smart­phones to help with daily ac­tiv­i­ties such as wak­ing up in the morn­ing, read­ing the news and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with friends and fam­ily.

How­ever, with a grow­ing rise in men­tal health is­sues re­lated to in­creased smart­phone use, could new dig­i­tal well-be­ing apps be the solution to our overuse of de­vices?

There is no doubt that in­ter­net­con­nected smart­phones have made parts of our lives eas­ier and more con­nected. But as we re­place more man­ual tasks with dig­i­tal apps, are they achiev­ing greater ef­fi­ciency or just nur­tur­ing a de­vice ad­dic­tion?

A Deloitte sur­vey in Bri­tain found 79 per cent of peo­ple checked apps on their phone in the hour be­fore go­ing to sleep and 55 per cent checked their phones within 15 min­utes of wak­ing up. This in­creas­ing de­pen­dency on our smart­phones is partly caused by apps be­ing en­gi­neered to specif­i­cally feed our needy de­sires to in­ter­act with them.

Re­search shows that ex­ces­sive smart­phone use can neg­a­tively af­fect our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, dis­rupt our sleep pat­terns, change our so­cial in­ter­ac­tions and re­duce the qual­ity of our en­gage­ment at work.

The younger we are, the more se­ri­ous the topic of smart­phone ad­dic­tion gets. A study in the jour­nal Clin­i­cal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Science found that 48 per cent of teenagers who spent five or more hours a day on their phones had thought about sui­cide or made plans for it com­pared to only 28 per cent of those who used their phones for less than one hour a day.

The study also found that teenagers who spent more time so­cial­is­ing with friends in real life or par­tic­i­pat­ing in team sports had a much lower risk for de­pres­sion and sui­cide.

Al­though the rise in men­tal health is­sues in teenagers over re­cent years can­not be fully blamed on the grow­ing use of smart­phones, it is the strong­est cor­re­la­tion that re­searchers have found so far.

To un­der­stand this fur­ther, a study by re­searchers at Korea Univer­sity used mag­netic res­o­nance spec­troscopy to scan the brains of teenagers that had been di­ag­nosed with in­ter­net or smart­phone ad­dic­tion.

They found that the ra­tio of the neu­ro­trans­mit­ter GABA, which is re­lated to re­ward cir­cuits in the brain, was dif­fer­ent when com­pared to nor­mal teenage brains. Re­as­sur­ingly, when the teenagers went through cog­ni­tive be­hav­iour ther­apy to help them with their ad­dic­tion, their brain chem­istry rewired back to look more like those of the non-ad­dicted teenagers.

This hope that dig­i­tal ad­dic­tion is cur­able has re­sulted in the spread­ing of a new move­ment around dig­i­tal well­ness.

Soft­ware gi­ants, in­clud­ing Ap­ple and Google, have an­nounced the re­lease of new tools to help peo­ple to un­der­stand the ex­tent of their smart­phone ad­dic­tion.

These dash­boards of­fer a de­tailed break­down of the time spent on smart­phones each day and act as a fit­ness tracker.

Count­ing the num­ber of times you un­lock your phone, the num­ber of no­ti­fi­ca­tions you re­ceive and the amount of time you spend in each app, they help peo­ple see how small, daily dig­i­tal snacks can re­sult in large amounts of time wasted over a week.

Built-in-timer op­tions are avail­able to throw you out of cer­tain apps pre­vent­ing you from binge-watch­ing cat videos on YouTube or mind­lessly scrolling through In­sta­gram food photos.

So will dig­i­tal well-be­ing be the new health kick that we need to rest our over­stim­u­lated brains, or are we just build­ing an­other app al­low­ing the dig­i­tal gi­ants to col­lect data on how we use technology?

Only time will tell, but for now, I chal­lenge you to try and go back to that pow­er­ful feel­ing of be­ing truly bored. Who knows, you might even like it there and find your­self re­fin­ing old-school skills such as the abil­ity to day­dream.

Dr Michelle Dick­in­son, cre­ator of Nanogirl, is a nan­otech­nol­o­gist who is pas­sion­ate about get­ting Ki­wis hooked on science and engineering. Tweet her your science ques­tions @medick­in­son

Ap­ple and Google have re­leased new tools to help peo­ple un­der­stand the ex­tent of their smart­phone ad­dic­tion.

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