Wake up. Check your phone. Scroll through Facebook for ten minutes, gently exhaling through your nose at the sight of a funny frog video. Open BBC News, flick through the latest Coronavirus headlines, roll your eyes at Boris Johnson’s newest bout of mixed messages. Tap through the Instagram stories of people you barely know, eyes glazing over as you soak in their highlight reel. Thirty minutes of your day already gone, spent passively staring at a screen. Forty-six percent of smartphone users stated in 2015 that they ‘couldn’t live without’ their phone. Our dependence and addiction to technology is proving disastrous to our mental wellbeing. On World Mental Health Day 2020, let us take a minute to consider the importance of spending time ‘unplugged’ from the online world.
In the past decade, technology has become an inescapable and pervasive part of daily lives, with screen time engulfing an average of seven hours of each day, according to Business Insider. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced people to transfer many aspects of their lives to online (how many more Zoom pub quizzes can we take?!) and 2020 has seen our screen time increase to a potentially record high. This level of excessive screen-time impacts nearly every facet of our lives, and a growing body of research is finding negative consequences for our mental and physical health. Elevated levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance have all been associated with smartphone use, as have physical symptoms such as eye strain, blurred vision, and headaches. Our relationships are suffering; those with high social media consumption tend to report lower relationship satisfaction, which then leads to poorer individual wellbeing.
That’s not to say that all social media use is bad. It can be a powerful tool, allowing us to raise awareness and campaign for important societal issues, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Instant messaging is quick and convenient, connecting us with people across the world with the press of a button. However, it is also diminishing the social interactions that we have in real life, as we rely more and more upon online communication. A recent study published in the Journal of Travel Research found that those who digitally disconnected while travelling reported experiencing more meaningful interpersonal relationships and experiences with the world around them. Body language and tone are key to helping us understand each other and form social bonds, but neither of these are available through screen-based communication mediums. This means that we are missing out on the very thing that makes being a human so wonderful: forging authentic connections with others. It is no wonder that loneliness and depression are on the rise in today’s increasingly digitalised world.
Reaching for our phone to passively scroll through social media has become a reflexive action to stave off boredom. Think how often you pick up your phone at odd moments throughout the day, just to see if there is anything on there that might briefly spark your interest and hold your attention. Perhaps that’s how you have ended up reading this article. Our constant need for entertainment and distraction from our own thoughts means that we are missing out on the happenings in the natural world around us. Research suggests that time spent away from our screens and reconnecting with nature could be incredibly beneficial to our mental and physical health.
In a 2017 study, researchers investigated the potential benefits of unplugging from all our devices (phones, laptops, etc.). They found that as participants went through this experience, they came to feel a sense of regaining time and life, especially within the domain of personal growth. Previously overlooked and new behaviors were sought to fill this increasingly available time, such as reading and meditating. Without a constant source of distraction, individuals made more time for self-reflection. Could taking time out to focus on ourselves and our personal relationships be key to protecting ourselves from the mentally damaging effects of excessive screen time?
In the 1980s, Japan noticed that there was a growing problem with stress and burn-out within their population, linked to the tech-boom in these years. As a solution to this, a form of ecotherapy known as shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing’, emerged. This therapy was designed as a natural remedy to the increasingly prevalent mental health problems, as well as a method of encouraging people to reconnect with and protect Japan’s forests. The practice of forest bathing involves no exercise, focusing simply upon being in and connecting with nature through the senses. Listening to the sounds of the breeze rustling through leaves, absorbing the way that the sunlight plays on the forest canopy, and breathing in the natural aromatherapy provided by phytoncides (airborne anti-microbial substances released by plants). This notion that nature is highly beneficial to our health and well-being is by no means a new concept, however it has only been in the past few decades that researchers have begun to investigate the healing effects. Studies have found that time spent in forest environments promote lower pulse rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, and greater parasympathetic nerve activity than city environments. Forest bathing also decreases scores for depression, anxiety and fatigue. What does this all mean? It means that forest environments act as a de-stressor to the body, which reduce negative emotions and promote wellbeing. This link is so profound that researchers suggest that nature therapy should be adopted universally as a means of reducing burn-out and stress.
The restorative effects of nature are not just exclusive to forests. A recently published study from the University of Surrey found that certain types of birdsong provide relief from stress and mental fatigue. In particular, the sounds of greenfinch, dunnocks and blackbirds were found to invoke positive feelings and aid mental restoration.
So why is nature so mentally restorative? One theory is that nature allows us to replenish our mental energy as it is a simple and often pleasant thing to focus on. This provides our brain with a break from processing other cognitive challenges which are so often present in our environment, and therefore allows us to overcome mental fatigue. Nature helps us feel more connected with the world, and therefore reduces our feelings of isolation. Engaging with nature could be a highly effective way for us to alleviate the lonely feelings which are aroused by social media use.
How can we practice this in daily life? It need not be something huge – you don’t have to rush out and stare at tree bark for the next six hours, although by all means do let us know if this turns out to be effective. It can simply be heading out for a walk in the park, with your phone on airplane mode. Interacting with nature using your senses is key to reaping the benefits it has to offer. Take note of the scent of damp earth after a rain shower, allow a moment to identify the interweaving melodies of the birds in the trees. Remind yourself that being alone with your thoughts isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact it may help to reduce those feelings of anxiety that buzz around in the back of your mind. Spend time immersed in the forest, unplugged from the online world. Your wellbeing and relationships will be all the better for it.
Resources to check out if you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health:
The National Trust’s guide to forest bathing: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/a-beginners-guide-to-forest-bathing