We’ve all heard of ditching carbs or going easy on the sugar, but a new diet is emerging with benefits that go far beyond slipping into your favorite jeans.
The ‘tech diet’ encourages limiting — or completely ditching — smartphones, gaming consoles and other tech for a prolonged period of time to boost productivity and overall mental health. According to research by the monitoring firm App Annie, the average person spends 4.8 hours a day on a device, with resulting dopamine spikes often spiralling into an addiction.
Though technology is undoubtedly a valuable tool in modern life, and was particularly useful during the Covid-19 restrictions, experts are warning that too much tech exposure could be catastrophic.
“The overuse of technology is a pandemic in itself,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia. “Digital natives and their parents are all hooked and it’s resulting in serious mental health problems, as well as problems with social and occupational functioning.
“In the last 10 years, coincidentally since the release of the iPhone, we have seen a drastic rise in mental health problems in both children and adults. Today we’re hearing terms like Snapchat dysmorphia, Facebook depression, ‘technology addiction treatment centres’ and ‘techno brain burnout’ that we’d never come across a decade ago.”
The era of the influencer
In 2022, the global influencer market was valued at a record US$16.4 billion, according to Statista.
In Dubai, influencer status often means free meals, designer clothes and luxury hotel stays in exchange for posts — as well as a lucrative pay packet. That meansmore people than ever are focusing on building their followers.
But how are young socialites dealing with the constant scrutiny and mental toll that goes with being online 27/7?
For Dubai influencer and mum-of-one Heba Qadeer, 28, overusing Instagram led to an identity crisis and crippling insecurity.
“I’m not Kim Kardashian but there’s a fair amount of people watching my life and it really started to affect me,” says Heba, who has 15,200 followers.
“I suffer from anxiety and the social pressure was starting to become too much. In the last couple of years I’ve got married and had a baby and my career has taken a back seat. Simultaneously I’d see other people achieve their career goals and that started to affect how I saw myself.”
According to Dr Bahjat Balbous, a psychiatrist at Dubai’s Euromed Clinic Centre, Heba is part of a growing number who are struggling with overexposure to technology.
“Technology addiction has two key components — a neurological addiction and a psychological addiction,” he says. “These combine to negatively impact all areas of our life including our sense of self, relationships with others, and physical and mental health. Feelings of hyperactivity, restlessness, anxiety, as well as low attention span are all linked to technology use. While evidence is limited, most of the research already highlights a serious problem.”
As well as feeling inadequate, Heba also started to notice her motivation and productivity levels slipping, as she focused her attention on her smartphone.
“I’m a new mom and I work full-time from home,” she says. “I started to realize that I was delaying the tasks I needed to do because I was too busy on my phone. Trends change so quickly that I didn’t want to miss anything. It was crazy. I would spend hours in the bathroom on my phone.
“I had a total lack of motivation. Instead of washing the dishes or cleaning the house, I’d just be scrolling Instagram.”
The demotivation became so extreme that Heba decided to embark on a strict 30-day tech diet in which she set her Instagram account to private and deleted the app from her phone.
“At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself, but gradually I started to feel the effects,” she says. “ I felt motivated, I wanted to go out more and I was living out each day rather than doing things purely to put it on Instagram.”
According to Dr Balbousm, technology addiction isn’t new to the region, but rather a spiralling problem.
“A 2014 study, which used data from 1996 to 2012, claimed the Middle East had the highest rate of internet addiction, at 11 per cent, “ he said.
“In the UAE, we have the highest smartphone penetration in the world and naturally there are positives associated with technology, but I believe there are distinct downsides.
“Thanks to the prevalence of social media and the Instagram-friendly nature of Dubai, there can be a lack of human interaction. Instead we are addicted to being online and updating our lives on social media.”
Without social media as a distraction, Heba began to be more present and appreciate life in the moment. Now, a month on from the tech diet, she says her relationship with social media has changed for good.
“I can feel the benefits 100 per cent,” she says. “ I don’t pick up my phone anywhere near as much as I used to. I don’t need to validate myself through other people anymore. It’s changed how I see my life.”
The digital workforce
According to Dr Afridi, the younger generations are spending up to nine hours a day using technology, with many of us working in digitally focused professions.
Dubai-based marketing director, David Dougall, 31, noticed that his technology use was becoming a problem after being alerted by a disgruntled friend.
“Unfortunately, we are somewhat hostage to technology these days,” he says. “For many people, myself included, it’s not possible to do their job without being glued to their phones.
“This then transcends into their personal lives and before you know it, you have an addiction that can be hard to shake.”
At the height of his addiction, David was using his smartphone for up to eight hours a day and noticed that his concentration levels had started to slide.
“I was addicted to the dopamine hits that it would constantly be giving me, but what really worried me was when I started to notice how my phone addiction was becoming subconscious — I sometimes wouldn’t even realize that I was doing it,” he says.
“If my phone was within reach, I just couldn’t resist checking it every five minutes. If I didn’t, I would start to feel irritable over time.”
According to Dr Afridi, the human brain is negatively impacted by heavy technology use, with irritability being one of several symptoms.
“We might have the same brain as our ancestors but the brain is being wired differently because we are using it differently,” she says. “It is also not able to handle the amount of information that it has to consume, leading to ‘techno brain burnout’.”
To combat the effects of overuse, David set limits on when he could use his phone, physically separated himself from it in the evening and even set a screensaver reading ‘Why am I in your hand?’ to deter him from mindless scrolling.
After a couple of weeks of his tech diet, he noticed improved sleep, less anxiety and increased focus in all aspects of his life.
“My relationship with technology has changed in a subtle way since doing the detox,” he says. “Beyond reduced consumption, I am now much more aware of when I need to be using technology and when I don’t.”
For Dubai resident, Bilal Muhammad, 25, his job as a writer and social media manager meant he was on his phone for up to nine hours a day, through a combination of work and personal use.
“I was putting my phone usage and TikTok scrolling ahead of my sleep and waking up the next morning gasping for a cup of coffee to fuel me for the day,” he says. “I was essentially an addict and couldn’t function without something in my hand to entertain me.”
A recent study at King’s College London found that 38.9 percent of participants displayed symptoms of smartphone addiction and that 68.7 percent of those had trouble sleeping.
Those who used their phone after midnight or for four or more hours a day were most likely to be at high risk of displaying addictive use of their device.
To combat his growing reliance on his smartphone, Bilal deleted all of his social media apps and removed it from his bedroom in the evening. He also began focusing on hobbies, which included learning how to cook new meals, baking for friends and colleagues and working his way around Dubai’s art hubs and museums.
“I recommend a digital detox to everyone,” says Bilal. “Although my methods were somewhat drastic, they were needed to show me the alternative life I could live if I invested in myself and did the things I loved.”
Tech diet tips
For anyone considering going on a tech diet, Dr Afridi has a number of tips:
• Make a tech schedule. Set a time window when you will use more addictive technologies like Netflix or social media, instead of having it scattered throughout the day.
• Have tech-free days. If this seems daunting, start with a few hours and eventually aim to have whole days where you enjoy the moment without having to capture it.
• Set technology rules. This could include avoiding your smartphone as soon as you wake up or when you go to bed.
• Engage in stress management activities. The more stressed we are the more likely we are to numb ourselves with technology and seek social media pleasure neurochemicals.
• Engage in hobbies in the real world. Read, learn, travel, play sports – do things that bring you joy and refrain from documenting those activities on social media.
Emma Pearson is a freelance travel and lifestyle journalist with an ever-rumbling belly and permanently itchy feet. Currently based in Dubai, Emma lived and worked across the UK and US before settling in the UAE five years ago. Favourite country: Vietnam. Favourite food: crisps. Favourite writing topics: fitness, feasts and far-flung lands.