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Your phone is ruining your life. We all need a digital sabbath

Saturday 28 March 2015

It’s rather ironic that as dot com millionaire Martha Lane Fox pushes for everyone to get online that the digerati have finally started to log off. It’s about time, writes recovering tech addict Emma Barnett

By Emma Barnett

26 Mar 2015

Sitting in a Japanese restaurant in New York a few days ago, I was struck by something while my friend nipped to the loo: every single diner had their phone out on the table. Regardless of whether they were sitting casually at the bar (like we were) or across from one another, everyone was guilty. Little tiles of light were scattered around the room, alongside the porcelain bottles of soy sauce and chopsticks.

The same scene greeted me in countless bars and brunch spots over the next few days. People wolfed down their food in between messaging their friends, checking their emails, posting photos on Instagram (after the obligatory digital touch-ups) and, you know, occasionally engaging with the real person sitting next to them.

Of course, the situation is no better back home in the UK. The only reason I noticed it in the States was my own self-imposed technology ban while on holiday visiting my best pal. Banishing my phone to the darkness of my handbag opened my eyes to what device-slaves the digitally savvy have become. And how scared they are of their own thoughts and the possibility of boredom.

By resisting the temptation to tweet or email during my short break, I was able to experience how my mum and other web illiterate folk view the world. They have to contend with a nation of distracted individuals, always talking with their heads down, one eye on the web app taking their fancy.

So it was with some wariness that I read the latest comments by the dot com millionaire Martha Lane Fox. Speaking ahead of her BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture next Monday, she told the Radio Times that anyone of any age who resists going online should be given a gentle nudge towards the digital world. It is “not good enough” to say one “doesn’t do” the internet, she said.

Of course, I am not saying for a moment that I disagree with the wise Baroness Lane Fox. I had the pleasure of interviewing her several times while I was this paper’s technology correspondent and she the government’s digital tsar. Her arguments in favour of “emancipating” the web, for personal and professional use, are impossible to oppose.

However, there is some irony in the fact that, as she continues her tireless mission to push the remaining 10 million internet-free Britons online, the digerati are finally pushing back.

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for those, like myself, who enjoyed the early fruits of the web in their teens and are now too attached to our screens. We are slowly switching off. Whether it’s just for a few hours in the evening, or offline “sabbaths” (something I’ve been trying most weekends for the last year – it’s still a work in progress) or the more extreme trend for digital detox holidays, known as “black hole” breaks – where the web is banned – it’s happening. Even the rise of meditative movements like mindfulness, which encourage people to concentrate on the present, rather than on the anxieties of the past or future, points to this growing desire to disconnect from the internet so we can connect to our real lives around us.

Rightly, society often focuses on the damage this constant fixation on the internet has among children. In fact, one of the most popular articles on telegraph.co.uk last weekend was an interview with the leading child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans, entitled: “Are smartphones making our children mentally ill?” While Lynn Evans has attributed the steep rise in the number of young people self-harming or suffering from depression partly to their unaccompanied exploration of the dark web (saying it’s “battering our children’s brains”), she also helpfully recognises that balance is key. “I believe that parents who don’t allow the internet can cause as much damaged as parents who allow too much,” she writes. “It’s has to be about balance, not banning.”

Instagramming our food is normal

The same is true of adults, too. We need moderation just as much as children. Earlier this month, more than half of Brits admitted in a survey that mobile phone use has spoiled a key moment in their lives, from speeches at weddings, to watching their child graduate. More than 40 per cent of people were texting, 24 per cent were “habit-checking” their phone (i.e. nothing) and 10 per cent were scanning social media feeds when something real and beautiful was happening before their very eyes.

So to those coming online for the first time, I offer a cautious welcome. As Baroness Lane Fox attests, the internet will open your eyes to a fizzingly brilliant new world. My 89-year-old grandfather has managed it perfectly – a few emails here, a Skype chat there – but these acts have enhanced his existence, rather than hampered it. Strike the right balance and you’ll be laughing, rather than wondering where all your real friends scarpered off to while you let your phone eat your life.

© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2015

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