Computer games and other apps on the phone, tablet, or computer tend to trigger the release of chemicals (dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine) in the brain. This drives addiction, finding ways to reduce and control the release of those chemicals can be key to acquire true virtue in the use of technology. One way to do this is through digital calming, finding ways to makes apps and games provoke a less intense response in our brains.
Start by de-cluttering the home-screen. Each app clamors for attention, so delete (or bury them in a folder) unused or rarely used apps, or ones you don’t need and save your device for what you purchased it. Years ago I got a free solitaire card game app on the computer. I decided to try out this boring game and noticed that I kept going back and back to it without thinking. Once I deleted the app I returned to using the computer for the reason I bought it: writing and other work. Look at your screen time usage and see which apps are time-drains (ones that get more time and attention than they should), eliminate them (or at least move them to a folder) to keep the focus on what is truly useful.
Another way to foster digital calming is to switch off notifications, badges, and alerts in most apps. It is amazing how the buzz or ding or an alert on the screen—even a mere new email ding—can trigger a dopamine rush that tells the brain to check it. Alerts for likes, comments, on posts or messages can be even worse. Although I don’t use WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, etc., etc., learning to control and turn off notifications can be key to digital sanity. In Settings > Notifications… turn everything off unless you have a serious reason to give immediate responses. Also consider switching off Badges (counters of unread messages) and Banners that clamor for our attention, including alerts on the lockscreen. Isn’t it amazing how we pull out our phone to make a call or text someone only to get distracted and diverted by some lockscreen notification? I even turn off sound and vibration notifications to Messages to avoid them distracting me when praying, working, or speaking with people in person. People learn that if you need to reach me you call me. You may choose to mute certain conversations and groups so that you choose the read the messages on your time, not theirs.
You may find that using a particular platform on your computer is much less addictive than on the phone, which is always with you. If that is the case, don’t download the app to the phone. If you need to access the platform on your phone, you can almost always use the browser—this can be a healthier way to use it on the computer too.
Avoid news, weather, podcast alerts, etc. We don’t usually need to know the moment that something stressful or depressing happens or a new episode comes out. Have a schedule when you will check the news or weather, or when you have time to listen to a something to check. You may wish to remove your personal email from your work devices and your work email from your personal devices, helping you separate the two spaces. Others may use the Do-Not-Disturb feature to quiet their devices when in church, praying, or at meals, meetings, and social gatherings. Others use Focus Mode.
I recommend not being the first at adopting a technology or platform, but be intentional at evaluating the impact—positive and negative—that it may have on you, your work, prayer, and social life. Do the same with your children. Before giving them a device, share your own with them for short periods of time. If they want an app to communicate with their classmates, let them install it first on your phone and let them use it at scheduled intervals—perhaps starting with one day per week for set amount of time. You can augment that time as their virtue is proven.
Virtue means control and the more we can simplify our digital life, the easier it is to regain and keep the control that virtue entails: by keeping a calmer relationship with our phone or digital device we will be more present to God, our families, and our friends. In addition, greater calm usually leads to greater joy and happiness, making it easier to be more intentional in how we live our lives for others.
Digital technology and devices should serve us, not enslave us. Let’s not let the app developers control when and how we use our not-so-“smart” devices.
Fr. John Waiss