Achieving a digital balance in a technology-driven world: At what cost?


Exactly 2 years ago, I wrote about something that I felt was shameful for an academic like me to write about. It was how I suffered from a triple dose of anxiety, depression and loneliness and how my constant social media use was found to be a contributing factor to my mental health plummeting. The external impact created by my article surprised me. Apart from the print publications, I accepted a few radio interviews, was contacted by a local Anglican church in Cape Town asking for permission to reprint the article in their church magazine and received messages from people asking for advice on how to deal with what they called social media addiction. It was a clear indication that I was not alone.

Besides the fact that I have since started a monthly social media break which involves using the last one or two weeks of every month to unplug and detox from all social media, I have equally come up with other nuanced, mindful and sophisticated means of managing and achieving a digital balance in my life.

My monthly digital cleanse involves deleting all social media apps from my phone and limiting the use of my mobile phone throughout the period. Although, as an academic, I maintain a regular touch with my email using my laptop. During this period also, I cheat on social media with other personal interests such as writing, reading the books I had long postponed reading, deepening my meditation and prayer time, and engaging in more outdoor activities such as making trips to places I had always wished to visit. When I complete the break, I re-install the apps; and each time, it felt like my humanity had been restored.

A digital cleanse is a deliberate, conscious and self-managed effort to regularly step away from technology and social media in order to find ourselves again. With regular, uncontrolled social media use, it becomes very easy to sometimes lose ourselves in the moment, to become blind to some of the important aspects of our everyday life. To lose sight of the beauty in our physical present world. A preponderance to make our everyday life mostly about our online engagements robs us of the privilege to invest as much time and positive energy necessary to navigate and negotiate the real-world and have deeper connections with others.

In taking my digital cleanse practices further in a bid to achieve a digital balance, I made a few more changes. It started from simple things such as keeping my mobile constantly in vibration mode, to muting all notifications on my phone. This means that notifications from social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and instant messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram do not pop up on my phone screen. The only notifications allowed to pop up are my emails, alarms, and text messages. Beyond the notifications control, I also have devised a strict and scheduled use of social media and my mobiles, by resolving to check messages at particular intervals throughout the day, usually every three hours, and never to be pressured into fiddling with my phone every second and minute.

One of my best digital balance strategies has been my most recent addition which is the discovery of a feature in my smartphone. With this feature, I can set the number of hours in a day that my phone can function normally. Once this time elapses, usually at my pre-set bedtime, my phone turns grey and all apps shut off and shut down until about 8 in the morning, with warning on the screen that I’ve reached my ‘screen time management goal’.

This sort of active, mindful practice can be referred to as silent technology. The idea of silent technology is one which advocates for a maintenance of calmness to the body, thereby reducing the constant vibrating motions of our bodies and brains each time we are alerted by notifications on our digital devices. The reverse of silent technology is perhaps noisy technology where we constantly are stressed out by the barrage of notification alerts and messages from our digital possessions, filtering into and interrupting our daily life, thoughts, and ability to be present.

It’s important to remember that while the noisy technology can often be automatic and default, to achieve a silent one requires effort and a deliberate controlling, scheduling and even muting of social media and technological gadgets such as I have begun to do. The tech companies and creators won’t deliberately educate us on these tips, because it will be bad for business. It is the users themselves who must take back their power of control.

And it’s okay to take back our power, for technology has become so pervasive, invasive, ubiquitous and powerful that we seem to have relinquished our power of control and autonomy to these devices and artefacts. We cannot allow technology to become the master while we become the pawns and tools for its use; it should be the other way around.

While I’m not advocating for anti-sociality here, my whole point is tantamount to having a healthy digital and social media diet system that works for each of us. As with diet related to food, we cannot consume or allow everything that passes us by to enter into our bodies, nor at any time they like, just because they seem cool and delicious like the media contents we consume.

Digital detox, digital cleanse or digital balance are all very much needed in a world in which we are constantly harassed by information overload and toxic social media influences which we have little control over, and which threatens to sap our emotional, physical and spiritual energies. This is a part of our developing the critical digital media literacy and coping mechanism necessary for navigating a technology-driven and sometimes, technology-crazy world. It is both a moral and human imperative.

Chikezie Uzuegbunam holds a PhD in Media Studies from the University of Cape Town, South Africa. He was named one of 100 Brightest Young Minds in Africa in 2017 and was a 2019 fellow of Oxford Media Policy Institute at Oxford University, United Kingdom.