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The Kamwell Interview: digital wellbeing experts Shine Offline

This month we were delighted to interview digital wellbeing experts, Shine Offline.

Shine Offline help businesses understand the negative impact our connected world could be having on their people, culture and potential. They help support individuals to use their digital technology in a healthy and sustainable way; to take back control and reclaim some space in order to reduce overwhelm, distraction and exhaustion.

Kamwell: The statistics around the dominance connected technology has over our lives make for sobering reading. How do you think we've ended up in a situation where the average person checks their phone at least 12 times an hour? 

Shine Offline: Firstly I think we need to consider the sheer speed at which the digital revolution has unfolded. It was only 2007 that the first smartphone launched and since then our lives have changed completely. We now use smartphones for work, social life, exercise, navigation, entertainment, banking…the list goes on. It’s no wonder we’ve started to feel an over-reliance. But the speed of change has outstripped our ability to adapt and understand the psychological impact: there has been an incredible tech boom and we haven’t quite caught up. As a result there are no guidelines and little understanding of how consuming tech might impact our health.

Secondly, tech has evolved in such a way that our time and conscious attention has been monetised – this is called ‘attention economy’ and there are a lot of businesses making money out of our over-reliance on tech. And handsets, apps and social media platforms have been created by some very clever people using the principles of ‘persuasive design’ – it’s addictive for a reason!

Kamwell: What aspects of our wellbeing do you think are most negatively affected by our 'always on' culture? 

Shine Offline: As animals, we’re not designed to be in a 24/7 connected world. We are social creatures. We need quality, real life interactions and relationships. People are designating more and more of their relationships into an online space, which means we don’t get the nuances of what people are saying, we don’t get to look into people’s eyes, hear their tone of voice, see their body language. This is having an impact on the sorts of connections people are making. And our devices often come with us into the real-life interactions that we are having, from meetings to meal tables. This impacts on our ability to focus on the people we are with and actually be in the moment. A book called ‘Reclaiming Conversation’ talks about ‘continuous partial attention’ and how that’s our default state now. We’re only ever half there!

The fact we can work anywhere, any time and with people across time-zones is fantastic, but this makes it incredibly hard to switch off.  If you have the same phone for work and personal life then you’re effectively carrying the office around with you into your evenings, weekends and holidays. Some research by CMI found that three out of four managers are cancelling out all or more of their annual leave allowance in hours spent working on their smartphones out of hours. London workers at BNP Paribas wore wristbands to monitor stress and they found that levels spiked most in connection with being interrupted by something work-related during their downtime/personal time. The levels recorded were so high, they were at serious risk of burnout and – worse – a heart attack!

Sleep is another area of our wellbeing that technology is notorious for affecting. We get into bed but then check our email, the news, social media – we’re going to sleep in a state of heightened stimulation. We let Brexit into our safe space that is meant to be for rest.

Kamwell: We are arguably in an age of skimming, scrolling and surface interacting - do you think the speed at which we demand and digest information these days discourages deep, reflective thought practices?

Shine Offline: A lot of the time we’re in ‘response mode’ and we turn to our phone as soon as we don’t have incoming stimulus, for example, when standing in a supermarket queue, waiting at the doctors, walking to the bus. Boredom is a thing of the past! We’re not leaving space in our brain to make connections between thoughts, to make inferences and predictions. And our brain adapts to the way we use it, so the more we indulge in distraction, the less we are able to focus.

Neuroscientist Maryanne Woolf wrote a book called ‘Reader Come Home’ which looked at the impact on the human brain of skim and surface reading. She was inspired to do this when she returned to a favourite book and found she couldn’t read it. She suggests that in order to have complex thought and appreciate beauty, we need to allow our brains to narrow down focus on ONE idea, and...let it hold us. This is something we are doing less and less of and she argues that this is going to have a huge impact on society. We work with some creative agencies that are fidning distraction to be a real problem when it comes to the creative output of their employees, especially millenials.

But I think we are coming round to understanding the importance of deep work, uni-tasking and flow – this is when you’ll get the best from your brain.

Kamwell: Children spend more time than ever before at a screen – what effect to you think this is having on their ability to think creatively and be original? 

Shine Offline: We are only just starting to see what the impact might be from a generation growing up with tech at front and centre. And when it comes to children, we’re talking about developing brains that are malleable and highly susceptible. Sherry Turkle looks at teenagers and the development of empathy. Teenagers are particularly prone to moving interactions into a digital space, which can feel safer, but isn’t giving them the experience of ‘live’ interactions, how to handle difficult conversations and how to treat people with empathy. She argues that the repercussions of this could be huge.

But it’s important not to demonise tech – children are growing up in a world where it needs to be embraced – but – with your eyes wide open. So it’s not so much about how much tech children are consuming, it’s more about HOW they are consuming it and, most importantly, whether they are doing other things. Are they getting outside? Are they reading and playing board games? If tech is replacing real life interaction, that’s when we need to be careful.

What can we do? Well parents and anyone who cares about the next generation needs to model behaviour and put down their phones. Kids are living in a world where everyone is looking down, let the home be a place where this isn't the case. 

Kamwell: What is your view on wellbeing apps? Are they counter-intuitive because they encourage more screen time and digital relience? 

Shine Offline: In many ways apps can be great, especially around fitness and meditation. But there can be tech for tech’s sake and we need to be clear about what is actually helping us. For example, you might use some running tech – this is great – but don’t let it stand in the way of you listening to your body and finding your own rhythm. And be sure to take a moment to exhale at the end of your run rather than immediately checking your stats on your watch!

Google and Apple offer ways for us to monitor our screen time. But this is only useful if we engage with the information and take action as a result. We have to be clear on what is just a gesture, like offering fruit with a Happy Meal.

But I do think there are apps that are useful in terms of digital balance and I have two particular ones that I use all the time: one of them is OFFTIME and the other is Forest - both highly worth checking out. 

Kamwell: How do you manage your own relationship with connected technology? 

Shine Offline: For us at Shine Offline, having two phones is really, really important and we think it’s a no brainer: one for work and one for personal. And as much as possible keep the two phones strictly for their intended purpose. This is so that we can go on holidays and go away for the weekend and be able to switch off. And it works in the other direction: if you’ve got a work task to focus on, you don’t need a What’s App group distracting you or your granny calling to sing you happy birthday!

I like to put some hard edges into my day: If I’m working I’m working, if I’m with my family, I’m with my family. I also try not to email people outside of work hours but if I do occasionally have to write emails late at night then I’ll schedule them to leave the next morning. This out of hours email culture is out of control. We need to lead by example. If someone doesn’t need to read something until the next working day, they shouldn’t receive it before then.

Kamwell: If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to take back control over their relationship with their digital devices, what would it be?

Shine Offline: I’m going to give you two! If work life balance is your problem and you don’t have two phones, you should have two phones! The impact of this will be vast. If this isn’t’ an option then download an app such as Offtime to help manage your phone use.

And…get an alarm clock. Start and end your day tech free: have an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening when you don’t look at your phone. It’s a small thing that can have a really big impact.

Kamwell: What do you think the future holds? Might we see a counter-movement to the digital revolution that has dominated the past 10 years?

Shine Offline: Ten years ago we would never have anticipated the dominance of tech in our lives today, and I think people are more clued up now about how their attention is being commercialised by Silicone Valley. The tech industry itself, along with governments, are starting to take action on digital wellbeing and accountability is on the rise. Social media platforms are under heavy scrutiny, especially when it comes to young people.

Businesses are noticing the link between connected technology and burnout and they are also starting to take action. This is all about nurturing the skill of concentration and creativity, and investing in solutions that help employees embrace deep work.

France are ahead of us with their ‘Right to Disconnect’ law: if a business has over 50 members of staff they need to have guidelines in place as to when employees are expected to be connected and when they can expect not to be contacted by work. Companies have been prosecuted for breaching this law!

But overall I’m an optimist. I think that tech has enabled us to do amazing things. Most of it was created with good intention. I do maintain that we’re not designed for this much stimulus and I think tech will increasingly be developed in a way that complements how we work as animals. It’ll just take a bit of time to find that balance.