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Not all Doom & Zoom (Law Society Journal)

We are regularly encouraged to reduce our screen time and wait for the wellbeing benefits to flow. But as digital platforms make it easier for people to stay connected and informed during COVID lockdowns and border closures, how can we find a healthy balance between Zoom chats and late-night doom scrolling? Amy Dale writes


Sunday is judgment day for iPhone owners: our smart devices ping at 9am to alert us to exactly how many hours we spent scrolling in the past week. Parents, too, must stare down concerns as to how much time they allow their children in front of devices, before considering the potential effects of their own scrolling.

So much of our lives – including apps we use for wellbeing, health and fitness – are digitally based. For the more than 90 per cent of Australians who own a smartphone, that isn’t always a bad thing. During COVID-19 lockdowns, FaceTime and video calls became a way to safely stay in touch with loved ones. The past year has seen large chunks of our social and pro- fessional lives move behind the screen: video meetings with colleagues are replacing coffee catchups, virtual drinks over evenings at the pub and birthday celebrations are safely toasted on FaceTime. Fitness apps fill the void when gyms close and digital news outlets provide up-to-the-minute up- dates on pandemic developments and law changes across the state, country and globe.

Smart(er) phone use Perhaps it’s not about counting the minutes but making the minutes count (it sounds like a mantra notification from a wellbeing app). There is some merit to making the most of our inevitable daily device time. Experts us to focus only on the hours and minutes clocked up in front of the device, and the judgmental notification as to a weekly percentage increase in screen time, is the wrong approach. Reducing screen time to minimal levels (less than an hour or two a day) in 2021 frankly feels unrealistic.

Karl Sebire, a technology and education researcher from the University of New England, and author in the field of “digital dependence”, recommends considering screen time like calories. Meaning, there’s a difference between a healthy digital appetite and junk food doom scrolling. “This unit of energy provides nutri- tional information relating to the contents of a food item, such as chocolate bar, or a carrot,” Sebire writes in The Conversation. “Whereas both foods contain calories, we know the carrot is a healthier source. While professionals might offer advice about which provides the most beneficial nutrition, the individual should still have agency over what they consume.

“Similarly, people should be able to choose to partake in online activities not normally deemed “productive” – but which may help them through their day. Like calories, screen time is about moderation, making responsible choices and exercising self-control.”

A healthier approach: when less is more It is difficult to ignore the perils of screen time. The link between mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety and self-harm, and computer and internet de- vice use have been studied for almost 25 years. A study in 1998 determined that 38 hours of online activity unconnected to work or study could be associated with “significant social, psychological and occu- pational impairments”.

A further US study conducted in 2018 2018 found students who reduced their time on social media to 30 minutes a day noted marked improvements to their feel- ings of wellbeing compared with a control group who continued to use the platforms as normal. In a post-lockdown world, the benefits of connecting on social media might be more apparent. “An hour on social media chatting with friends is productive if it allows you to socialise at a time when important social interactions can’t otherwise take place. In this way, the current pandem- ic is not only helping shift our views on screen time – but has subtly rewritten them, too,” Sebire wrote.

Cal Newport, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, says users “want the feeling that your technology is improving your life, not de- tracting from its quality”.

Like food elimination diets, Newport suggests a technology detox process if you fear you’re overdoing the device. Start by ditching any technology not related to work or study for 30 days and then slowly reintroduce the apps you find the most beneficial back into your life. It will assist with stronger “intentionality” whenever you use your device. “Most people are really surprised by the amount of free time they have when they cut out all the technology and TV,” Newport says. One US marketing company, reviews. org, is currently staging a digital detox challenge: a US$2,400 prize for any successful participant who lasts 24 hours without checking their phone. No word yet on take-up. LSJ

Doom and Zoom
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