The four signs you need to go on a digital diet – for the sake of your health

WHEN it comes to our wellbeing, we all know to focus on the key pillars: diet, sleep, exercise, work and personal relationships.

Simple changes – a few extra hours’ kip, moving a bit more and eating a balanced diet – can reap huge rewards.

But in our quest to improve our physical and mental health, experts warn we’ve been neglecting our “digital nutrition”.

The term was coined by Professor Hans Ringertz of Stanford University and Michael Phillips Moskowitz, CEO of behavioural health app Moodrise in 2018.

They believe that our daily digi diet needs careful monitoring, or else we’re at risk of becoming “digitally obese”.

They suggest the increasing hours of digital consumption is contributing to rising rates of depression, and is as dangerous to our health as years of gorging on junk food. And it’s only getting worse.

“Before Covid, people spent an average of 11-12 hours consuming content daily,” Michael tells Fabulous.

“The number has risen over the past year, meaning we devote more time to consuming digital information than eating, drinking and sleeping combined. It’s not an addiction, it’s now a biological imperative.”

Digital nutrition recognises the need for screen time, while focusing on healthier consumption and smarter decision-making, rather than quitting. Read on to find out how to press restart on your digi diet.

Can’t switch off?

IF you’ve ever glanced at the weekly screen time report on your phone and swiped it away in shame, you might already know you’ve got a problem.

Data from media watchdog Ofcom reveals you’re not alone.

Of the 50 million internet users in the UK, the average person spends more than one day a week online, while 59% admit to being “hooked” on their phone, and 34% say disconnecting is tough.

“We won’t die without digital,” Michael says. “It’s just difficult to show the self-discipline to restrict ourselves and even to attempt to be more mindful of our digital diet.”

Why you should cut down

While the negative impacts of too much screen time are well documented, there’s no denying that FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp and the like have been a saving grace during this time of restricted human interaction.

Yet, the fact that our time looking at our devices has doubled to 45 hours a week in lockdown may have made these tough times worse.*

“My research has identified a dramatic rise in screen time and stress this past year,” says Dr Rachael Kent, a lecturer in digital economy and society education at King’s College London.

“People are struggling with managing multiple digital platforms for sociality, communication, health guidance, food delivery, entertainment, personal and professional commitments.

Increased digital use blurs the divide between work and leisure, leading to technology compulsions, digital saturation and an inability to detach from the online world.”

The dark side

Like anything that can be bad for us, when it comes to our digital diets, moderation is key.

From the rise of “tech neck” to anxiety, depression and constantly comparing ourselves to others’ Insta-perfect lives, the physical and mental consequences of our digital dependency are huge.

In fact, researchers have found that limiting daily social media use to 30 minutes helps reduce loneliness and depression.** “Increasingly compulsive use of social networking sites is a cause for concern,”

Michael warns. “They advertise connectedness, but that over-reliance on such technologies has led to a lack of social skills offline.

Obsessive compulsions towards the digital world result in short-term attention span and decreased ability to retain information and concentrate.

This phenomenon is often described as being “alone together” – constantly connected via technology, but in fact feeling isolated.

Significant volumes of research are linking rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal feelings in young teens with greater time spent on social media sites.

Some research has even gone so far as to link these hours spent on social media sites as comparative to drug/alcohol dependency in addicts.”

Rachael agrees, adding that her research indicates physical and mental “stagnation” when our digital diets go unchecked – especially during the pandemic.

“There’s been a pressure to make the best use of your time in lockdown, which has led to people showing off new skills and how productive they are on social media – and it can put pressure on others to do the same,” she adds.

Control the urge

Just as when we binge on sugar or booze, our digital come-down is rarely worth the excess tech use.

But Michael is quick to point out that there are plenty of positive takeaways from our habitual use, if we learn to control our urges. “Not all digital experiences are toxic,” he explains.

“Not all content is equal. Music can enhance focus, not distract, and some videos elevate mood rather than erode emotional resilience. It has less to do with sheer volume than the nature of the materials we consume, and when.” While we’ve come to expect labels on the food we buy and the medication we use, should there be a measured system to help us to track our digital diet?

Michael says we deserve to know how a piece of content on Instagram might impact our mood and state of mind. “A letter rating isn’t enough,” he says.

“Nor is an age rating. Show us and tell us: ‘How will this make me feel?’” Until this is a reality, perhaps we all need to learn to improve our digital diet and satisfy our appetite with healthier alternatives – check out our tips (left).

  • Sources: *Ofcom **Journal Of Social And Clinical Psychology

5 steps to a healthier digital diet

  1. Talk, don’t text – Maintaining personal connections is crucial, and talking doesn’t disrupt our sleep-wake cycle like texts do.
  2. Wind down – Relinquish screens in the final 90 minutes before bed. Satisfy your craving by placing the screen face-down and listening to a podcast, quiet music or sounds of nature.
  3. Take control – Choose content based on how you want to feel. The Moodrise 1000 Award celebrates the most nutritious digital content, cataloguing it by mood (Moodrise.co).
  4. Plan your time – Psychologist Andre Radmall champions the 2/4/8 method – two hours’ screen time, four hours for relationships and eight hours’ sleep. Setting time restrictions for children teaches them about boundaries and self-care.
  5. Get into nature – Stepping away from your devices helps you to reset any habitual digital behaviours, boosts mental and physical health. Go for a family walk, and if you must take your phone with you, turn off notifications.

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