A closer look at health apps: the rise of digital detox tourism means we need to power down more frequently
In an increasingly digitalized world, we’ve got devices that monitor our pulse, track our blood oxygen levels, the number of steps we take, the number of hours we sleep, our pulse, the calories we consume, etc. Physicians can get a very clear understanding of what we do when we are not in their offices. But, what does it do to us to have these facts and figures at our fingertips?
How healthy is digital health?
While mindfulness and accountability are necessary components of lasting behavior change, fitness and nutrition apps that keep us constantly checking our progress and updating journals may keep us more attached to our digital devices.
Source: Matthew G (Flickr: CC)
From my own use of wellness apps, I’ve learned that the process of inputting my food consumption into a log on a smartphone app means that the smartphone is an essential tool throughout the entire day—not just my workday.
Already impulsive (or I wouldn’t be tracking my food intake), I cannot overlook the alerts on my phone once I’m there. I check my email. I check for new stories on Twitter. I check the weather forecast and my Facebook feed.
It’s the first thing I do when I wake up, and the last thing I do before I go to bed. It is as if I have replaced an addiction to food with an addiction to counting calories.
Other digital device users must display a similar impulsiveness when it comes to checking their phones, as digital detox retreats are being organized across the globe. Digital addiction—the impulse to continue using our devices despite the negative impacts they can have on our lives—is rampant: people cannot eat meals, walk their dogs, play with their kids, or use the restroom without their devices.
iParadox: The Dumbing and Numbing Effects of Smartphones
In her latest book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington states: “ours is a generation bloated with information and starved for wisdom” (p15). Making a case for regular unplugging from devices, for spending time in the outdoors, for meditation, and for naps, Huffington relates her personal story of over-connectedness, over-involvement, and sleep deprivation caused—at least in part—by her relationship with technology.
One U.S. study revealed that smartphone users check their phones 150 times per day on average. Scientists at Swansea and Milan Universities have found that young people who use the Internet for excessive periods can suffer similar withdrawal symptoms to substance abusers.
Digital Detox Tourism
Source: Mitchell Joyce (Flickr: CC)
In a Japanese spa at Kushunada, participants surrender their smartphones and other devices at check-in, and then spend 1 night and 2 days in meditation. Spa owners refer to this as digital detox: a period during which individuals refrain from using electronic devices for stress reduction or to increase real social interaction.
Moderation: There’s an App for That
While retreating to exotic locations is one way to enjoy a break from the bustle of the digital world, it’s certainly not the only way. Digital detox can be as simple as powering down your smartphone, or designating device-free times in your home—perhaps by mandating the docking (and charging) of devices during meals.
There are apps to aid in digital detox as well.
For those who feel pressured to respond to text messages instantaneously, Siesta Text (Android) and BRB (iPhone) will send responses automatically. Users can program the app to send a variety of different messages, from “Can’t text now, driving” to “Sorry, it’s date night.” By tailoring responses to the situation, smartphone users may be able to disengage for a while without feeling guilty.
Apple offers Dejal Time Out, a free application for its laptop computers that reminds users to take breaks at pre-set intervals. The program offers two different types of breaks. The first is a quick fix: a 10-second break for every 10 minutes at work. This micro-break might be long enough for users to stretch their necks, or close their eyes for a minute to take a deep breath. The second reminds people to take 10-minute breaks for every 50 minutes of computer work. Users might opt to return phone calls, walk to the water cooler, stretch their legs, or organize paperwork during this time.
The goal of a Dejal Time Out is not to find a way to automate slacking off at work, but rather to protect eyes from digital strain. One user said: “My chiropractor suggested I stretch every hour because of a pinched nerve in my back ... I downloaded Time Out and began taking time outs for 2 minutes every half hour. I'm am now pain free…”
Power Down for Wellness
As we set out toward achieving our health goals for 2015, many of us will begin or resume using fitness and nutrition tracking apps and wearable devices. These apps may increase our successes. They may also keep us online, using our digital devices in ways that may strain our eyes, cause our muscles to tense up, and inhibit our ability to sleep.
Whether it is through a structured digital detox program or taking more frequent breaks, moderation will be key to achieving long-term holistic health.
Jenn Lonzer has a B.A. in English from Cleveland State University and an M.A. in Health Communication from Johns Hopkins University. Passionate about access to care and social justice issues, Jenn writes on global digital health developments, research, and trends. Follow Jenn on Twitter @jnnprater3.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.