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Is your phone telling you it might be time for a micro-detox?

Ninety-seven. The number that was displayed on my iPhone sent a wave of nausea through my body.

Monday was my first day back to work after a two-week break, which included a week detoxing at a Balinese retreat. While I was there, my usage plummeted to less than 30 minutes a day, something I was able to track with my iPhone's Screen Time feature.

If your screen time is troubling, it could be time to go on a micro-detox.Credit:Stocksy

But it didn't take long after my return for my old habits to return. As soon as the wheels touched the tarmac, I was scrambling for the seat pocket to turn off aeroplane mode. In the first day back, I think I clocked up more than three hours.

On Monday, while interviewing an academic for this feature, I swiped left to the Screen Time summary, my own private hell. I was beginning to understand how people trying to lose weight feel about the sight of scales.

By 5pm, by no means a long work day in my world, I had looked at my phone an astonishing 97 times. By bedtime, I had clocked up five hours and 36 minutes.

Last week, journalists Isabelle Truman and Grace O'Neill discussed their own levels of screen time on their podcast, After Work Drinks, and the benefits of digital detoxing. O'Neill said she routinely "throws her phone in a drawer" on weekends so she can have quality time with her partner.

It's something Queensland academic Dr Jason Sternberg describes as "together alone". You know, when you're meant to be on a date with your partner or friends but, really, you're more engaged with social media or your email. Heck, even the weather app is getting more attention than your companions.

The trip to Bali, as well as my tragic re-entry, got me thinking about the merits of "micro detoxing" because going full cold turkey isn't fun, nor is it practical in my job or single life, nor is it likely to be lasting.

Blessing or curse? Apple’s Tim Cook explains the ‘Screen Time’ feature.Credit:AP

Dr Peggy Kern, of the University of Melbourne, agrees that managing digital habits should be approached in a similar way to dieting.

"We know crash diets don't work, people lose weight getting it right back," she said. "The healthy people are the ones who gradually diet over time.

"Often times that can allow for things like chocolates but by having a little bit they can control it more. In the same way … we can think about turning our phone usage into a positive behaviour done in a controlled manner that’s sustainable."

Dr Sternberg thinks that the Screen Time function, which Apple made "native" with its latest update, is only as good as the people using it are willing to change.

"I get the impression most people, if they turn it on, will look at it, be mildly horrified for a while and then go back to the same habits," he said.

The hardest thing is to break the dopamine cycle that phone companies and developers such as Facebook perpetuate with their constant pings and rings that people have come to associate with attention and even love.

"When reinforcement is coming at inappropriate times and it’s impacting on personal relationships it’s an important habit to break," he said.

He said discussions – and even bragging – about reducing social media and phone usage overall means we may be in a period of "normalisaton" of phone behaviours.

When reinforcement is coming at inappropriate times and it’s impacting on personal relationships it’s an important habit to break.

"As a culture we are making the rules up as we go along about what’s appropriate [phone] etiquette. This might be the beginning of a normalisation … we have gotten over the bright, shiny object that tells us we’re wonderful."

Dr Ritesh Chugh, of Central Queensland University, said abstaining from "addictive" services such as games and social media apps can be a good way to "e-fast" that doesn't impact on the phone's use as an important work or communications tool.

"Micro-detoxing can increase wellbeing, give users more control of their time and enhance productivity. It can also reduce disruption to family life," he said.

"If a micro-detox is not possible, I’d certainly recommend disabling notifications so the constant urge to check smartphones is reduced."

Dr Chugh believes tech companies should adopt principles that minimise addictive behaviours, such as "chronologically-based posts … in contrast to shuffling them throughout the day".

Other ways to micro-detox:

  • Have a book: it helps fill the time between going to bed and sleeping and can also improve sleep quality.
  • Buy an alarm clock: using an analogue clock can reduce the temptation to have a phone right by the bed.
  • Have mini-detoxes at set times: make meals phone-free and hold others accountable.
  • Schedule phone time: "reward" yourself with social media on the afternoon commute, or for a fixed period when you cannot get "lost" in a black hole.
  • Block incoming calls during exercise: use it for music but reduce its capacity to distract.

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