Many articles suggest lots of tips on ways to reduce your use of social media and the internet, especially as we try to make resolutions for the future. Doubtless, several of these suggestions could be of great use in curbing unwanted or unnecessary usage of digital technologies. However, these suggestions tend to miss the two fundamental questions that underlie all behaviour change – ‘do you really want to change?’, and, if so, ‘how are you going to support this change?’
In many areas of behaviour, there is increasing pressure brought on people from governments and official agencies to adhere to a norm of ‘healthy’ behaviour. In the areas of eating and exercising, for example, attempts at altering the ways people behave are especially noticeable. What is also especially noticeable is the complete failure of these approaches to impact behaviours – and the complete waste of public money that many of these schemes have turned out to be. As we all become more aware of the issues surrounding digital behaviours, let’s not make the same errors.
Failures to impact eating and exercising occur because people often see these interventions as attempts at unwarranted, and unwanted, control over their lives. Such a strategy will merely produce attempts at counter-control, and usually results in the opposite effects to those intended. More importantly, these ‘preachy’ approaches fail to take into account whether a person wants to change, and, if they do, how they can be helped to change. So, if the goal is reduction of digital behaviour, then preaching or, indeed, legislation, is hopeless – doomed from the start!
It may be that you are perfectly happy with your use of digital technology. Although we now certainly know that prolonged and excessive use of such technology makes people sad, lonely, and damages their brains, you may not care: you may enjoy its use – it’s designed to be enjoyable; you may fear what will happen if you stop using digital devices – change is scary; and you may resent interference – everybody does! This certainly happens with smoking and drinking – so, if that’s the case, then don’t bother to change. But, if you have a nagging feeling that you should alter your digital behaviour, then ask yourself – ‘do I want to do this, and what’s stopping me?’
The ‘do I want to change?’ question may well be critical. Models of behaviour change employed to understand and remove addictive behaviours – such as the ‘Transtheoretical Model’ – all suggest that change will not occur until people want to change. According to such models, the processes of change go through a number of stages: awareness of a problem turns to a resolution to do something about it, and then the resolution turns into action. Without recognition of this process, then changing potentially harmful digital behaviours will not happen – or, if it does, it will not last for long.
Beyond this, what is not often considered is ‘why’ people want to change. People may value their health, of course, and changing damaging behaviours will allow people to achieve goals related to this health value. However, values can come in two forms – firstly, we can value our health because we think we should for the sake of others, or because of how it looks to the world (‘external’ value); or secondly, we can value our health because it is important to us (‘internal’ value). Only the latter sort of value really produces lasting change in behaviours. So, after deciding you want to change, the next step to changing your bad digital habits is to clarify your values – do you want to be well, and do you want to be well because you value your own health? Only you can really determine this – and that’s why change is so hard.
Once this first ‘values-clarification’ step is taken, changing is still not easy, and this is where you may need help and support. You may well know that you will end up sad, lonely, and damaged, if you continue down your reckless digital path. You may not want to do this – but that path is really attractive, and the rewards you get from it are so now! Contrast that with the vagueness of the rewards from stopping that you may get in the future – sometime – but it’s not clear when, or even if, you’ll get them. Add on to this the fear that comes from changing your well-worn path and entering unknown territory. This second set of issues is a really difficult one – and it requires both that you ask the question: ‘what’s in it for me?’, and that you make sure you notice when you get your reward.
Behavioural Psychology can help with this. If you want to change, then make sure you note down what it is that you want to achieve by changing – perhaps it’s more time with your loved ones; perhaps it’s more time actually seeing that path you are on, rather than its virtual representation! Whatever it is, it’s yours – you own it – and you need to note it. After you have made the change, and ditched the digital device, note when you have achieved those things that you want – self reinforce! They happen more often than you think, and you’ll miss them if you are still worrying about not doing digital things. Think what the digital thing you are overdoing actually does for you – and can you get that from non-digital means? The more similar the rewards, the more likely you are to continue doing the non-digital behaviours.
Stopping an addiction behaviour is not easy – tips can help, but, in the end, you need to ask yourself: ‘do I want to change?’; and ‘what’s in it for me?’ Nobody can do this for you – although you can get support from Counsellors to help – and, ultimately, it’s your call. Don’t be bullied, and don’t wait for the nanny, but do look at the evidence of what might happen if you don’t.