Digital well-being is the new fitness craze
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.