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There’s a Better Way to Treat Your Tech Addiction Than Hiding Your Phone and Laptop

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Most people believe the best way to restore balance in our relationship with technology is to completely disconnect from it. But we shouldn’t have to switch off our devices to feel inner peace. Instead of unplugging from technology entirely, we should learn to design and engage with it in ways that support our emotional well-being.

As a digital anthropologist, I spend my days listening to people tell me guilt-tinged stories about their tech use. While there’s still some debate as to whether internet addiction belongs in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, addiction is becoming our default way of explaining how we feel about technology.

Part of the reason our websites, apps and devices feel so addictive is because they are designed to be that way. With business success measured in time-on-site and numbers of clicks, the cognitive biases catalogued so diligently in the last decade have been mined for profit as what are called dark patterns. These are designs that trick people into spending more time interacting with a screen, from endless scrolling to auto-playing videos.

By using technology more consciously and developing a healthier relationship with our devices and apps, we can learn how to let them support our lives, rather than rule them. Even when we leave our devices behind, their shadow remains; we feel the relief of technology’s absence as much as the sensation of the sun on our face. In this way, our reality is always framed by technology, whether it is present or not. And a digital detox won’t change that.

To explore the concept of how to live healthily with tech, I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews to try and understand the habits and brains of people who manage to live well with technology. And I’m not the only one: Many other academic researchers are starting to parse out how technology can support well-being, rather than rely on the absence of it to restore peace.

As Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine notes, “You see a lot of reports in the media about the negative impact of technology use … but there have been expanded efforts in the past decade to study what’s become known as positive computing.”

The idea behind positive computing is to learn what aspects of technology discourage addictive behaviors, and which promote healthy habits. The antidote to constant engagement with screens is therefore not necessarily less screen time, but learning how to use technology in ways that increase happiness.

But the user is only half of the solution: Design also has the potential to cultivate well-being. In order to encourage a healthy relationship with users, we need to design technologies to give people more agency. Giving users the power to be more intentional is the first step to restoring balance between life online and offline—it’s about learning how to interact with tech with meaning.

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