Helping with 'digital detox' has become a viable business

We’re almost a month into 2019, and with one-third of resolutions abandoned already, there is a simple change we can make in our lives, writes Ruth Doris.

Dry January and fitness apps aside; one way we can look after our health this year is to do a digital detox.

Research shows that excessive screen use affects sleep quality, stress levels and productivity.

Many of us spend much of our working day in front of a screen and use our smartphones to unwind when we get home.

According to a 2018 Deloitte survey, the average Irish smartphone user checks their device 55 times a day, and one-in-five of us check our phones within five minutes of waking.

However, help is at hand: Two Irish startups, UnPlug and The Present Box, aim to help people and organisations take control of their technology use.

Self-employed mother of two Jenny McGrath had been on a mindfulness retreat when she realised how much time she was spending on her phone and computer.

The concept of a "present box" came to her:

"Initially, it was just a place to put my phone where it was out of sight and out of mind, and I would be present with my kids."

She developed the character "Boxie", a 12cm plush toy with 15 family characters that speak in rhyme. It comes with an activity book with hundreds of ideas to keep young and old entertained. The core value, she says, is "family togetherness".

The product is two-sided "because you are giving the gift of your time to the ones you love, and you're also present in the moment with them."

She shared Boxie with friends and family and started to notice the topic of device usage coming up more and more, so she decided to expand the concept.

The performer and singer, who ran a Gymboree franchise for 14 years, says "playing is a big part of my life. I'm passionate about getting people to remember to play whether they're 80 or two."

She acknowledges that the market is a challenging one. "It’s like diets; we're asking people to change their behaviour."

Taking part in the Enterprise Ireland-backed New Frontiers programme, Ms McGrath received a stipend of €15,000 to set up her business. She launched in November 2018 and had a lucky break when Boxie was featured on the Late Late Toy Show. She has big plans for 2019, including a redevelopment of the brand.

Psychologist Aidan Healy co-founded UnPlug, a consultancy which helps people and organisations to take control of their technology use, with Chris Flack who has a background in digital transformation projects.

While most of their clients are in the corporate sector - UnPlug has delivered programmes and workshops for tech giants like Google and Dell and organisations including the ESB, NHS and HSE - the company also took part in a project with 10 primary schools in north Dublin in 2018.

Launched in 2016, UnPlug which has bases in London and Dublin has grown organically so far. The company advises organisations on how they can "avoid the pitfalls in an always-connected culture where people are constantly interrupted and distracted or where there's a lot of low-value communication going on," Mr Healy says.

UnPlug's approach is to encourage people to reflect on how their environment and how the products they use impact on their behaviour. External factors like notifications and pop-ups can lead to excessive screen time.

"If you have notifications turned on your smartphone and your laptop and every time you get an email you get a pop-up.

Or, if you're in a meeting, smartphones on the desk in front of you are acting as a 'visual trigger'," says Mr Healy.

Internal motivations, such as the desire to feel connected, can also drive people to overindulge in screen time.

Mr Healy suggests substituting social media conversations for real-world chats.

"Instead of posting to 45 people, arrange to meet up with a friend or make a phone call.

"Or set aside specific times during the day for your family to be technology-free."

So, what advice would Mr Healy give someone whose job involves eight-to-10 hours a day on a screen and downtime includes browsing on social media and watching Netflix?

It’s about finding balance, he says.

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