United Kingdom

The Great Digital Detox: Balancing the benefits of technology with a cultural shift against screen time

Jon Bryant



There’s a strange dichotomy in the digital world we live in. Technology has enhanced our lives in so many ways; our jobs are easier, our entertainment varied, and our global communities more connected. But it also has significant drawbacks; it can disrupt our sleep by suppressing melatonin production, cause significant issues with our vision, and related inactivity can cause musculoskeletal problems1. What we do online can also impact our offline wellbeing; social media scrolling has been linked to anxiety and depression, and yet, conversely, social media can also help us form connections with like-minded individuals beyond our physical ‘real-world’ communities2.

We’re spending an extortionate amount of time on our screens. On average, smartphone users spend three hour and 15 minutes on their phones every day3. For all screens – phones, TVs and laptops – this figure doubles to six hours and 25 minutes. It’s all-consuming. When we consider health-specific technology, we have seen the meteoric rise of digital health apps and companion wearables in recent years. In the UK, 27% of people own and use a wearable device (with a further 8% owning not but not using their devices)4. The market is huge; Strava has 76 million users5, MyFitnessPal has 80 million6 and market disruptor Peloton forecasted $4 billion in sales in 20217. It’s a growing market, with an incredible amount of growth still to go.

But is it healthy, spending so much time on our devices? And what about those apps which are aimed at improving our health?

Tech companies certainly don’t think so; in 2018, Apple introduced the Screen Time limits to its latest iOS8 and Instagram has recently announced its ’Take a Break’ feature which will encourage users to spend less time on the app9 via prompts every 10, 20 or 30 minutes. This raises an important question; if commercial benefactors are encouraging us to disconnect from their devices and platforms, why are not more of us listening? It draws parallels with the parental messaging around gambling and alcohol consumption – perhaps it won’t be long until we see similar pleas; please use apps responsibly; when the fun stops, log out.

In parallel to the boom of B2C apps and increase in time we spend on digital technology we’ve seen an increase in the use of benefits technology – albeit in its employee-only microcosm. Whether its employee-only wellbeing apps, discount portals, or financial wellbeing dashboards, the use of technology in facilitating total reward is more prevalent than ever before. So how do we balance the benefits of improving wellbeing through technology whilst encouraging responsible user behaviour? How do we draw the metaphorical line in the digital sand? And more importantly, where?

Promote offline experiences

Good benefits platforms allow us to inspire employees to live better lives. By promoting offline experiences – discounts on days out or gamifying specific activities – employers can encourage employees to step away and disconnect from digital. This activity could even be reinforced through gamification – digitally accruing points or competitive leaderboards, encouraging further interaction in the future. Platforms are also a good way of delivering inspirational content or creating employee-only challenges; perhaps a list of activities to tick off during the summer holidays, or a list of bucket list of books to read throughout the year.

Encouraging mindful usage

It may feel hypocritical encouraging users to use digital apps mindfully whilst encouraging them to engage with digital apps – but there are significant advantages to mindfulness apps such as Headspace or holistic wellbeing apps such as WellOne that may not be easily replicated in an offline environment. This is where good user experience is critical, and where we start to introduce ethical design; digital processes should have a smooth user journey that facilitates the intended outcome in the shortest possible time frame. Dark patterns or inefficient design could increase the amount of time someone spends on website or app, but with the same outcome (and increased frustration or reduced satisfaction). In-app coaching or educational webinars can help encourage employees to regularly take a break from digital and the benefits of switching off technology. However, to be effective this must be supported by an accepting culture that enables this behaviour, perhaps through flexing work hours, encouraging employees not to check emails after a certain time or by introducing blocks of working hours which a call-free zones.

Employers can also consider the personal lives of their employees. As I’m sure any parent would echo, I live in an incredibly busy – and undeniably brilliantly chaotic – household. Whilst it can be tempting to seek out quiet respite in the form of small-screen entertainment, it can create a dangerous divide. In my home, we strive to not prioritise digital distraction over interpersonal relationships; phones are squirrelled away every evening so as a family we can focus on building the relationships that actually matter. But it's not easy, and it’s a looming social issue; a recent study on smartphone addiction showed that over a third of UK young adults meet the ‘addict’ criteria10. The wider implications of this are still to be uncovered and understood, but perhaps it will start to be an area where we see employer intervention in the form of educational sessions or via employee assistant programmes.

Communicate wisely

For many benefits platforms, we see that employees don’t proactively engage; they respond to prompts, reminders or deadlines. It’s therefore important that your communication strategy is considerate to digital use; don’t email communications about benefits schemes at the end of the day when people are perhaps wanting to switch off and spend time with family. In a similar vein, if you use push notifications send these at reasonable times for each time zone and at spaced-out intervals; you don’t want to unintentionally create a stress response by sending too many notifications. Notifications should also have a clear, specific call-to-action with set expectations; don’t prompt users to engage with a vague low-value message.

Although over-engagement may not be an issue for most benefits providers at the moment, it is certainly a trend that the industry needs to consider. As research grows and attitudes evolve, we need to ensure that we are responsive to the cultural landscape we operate in – and promote balance and health over engagement and metrics. It’s not necessarily something we can build into an app, but it something we can build into our culture and ethos: when the task is completed, log out.


1 https://www.businessinsider.com/screen-time-effects-health-vision-staring-at-screens-bad-for-you-2019-1?r=US&IR=T
2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7364393/
3 https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/aug/21/cellphone-screen-time-average-habits
4 https://yougov.co.uk/topics/technology/trackers/brits-use-of-wearable-devices-eg-a-smartwatch-or-wearable-fitness-band
5 https://www.businessofapps.com/data/strava-statistics/
6 https://www.businessofapps.com/data/myfitnesspal-statistics/
7 https://www.reuters.com/business/peloton-plunges-loss-bike-price-cut-higher-costs-2021-11-04/
8 https://www.theverge.com/2018/9/17/17870126/ios-12-screen-time-app-limits-downtime-features-how-to-use
9 https://www.mediarunsearch.co.uk/instagram-tests-feature-for-users-to-spend-less-time-on-the-app/
10 https://inews.co.uk/news/health/smartphone-addiction-one-third-young-adults-report-problem-use-scale-study-893194


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