The domesticity necessitated by the Covid-19 era has become notorious for worsening our fitness and our eating, but it has also deepened our dependence on, and in many cases addiction to technology.

From endless Zoom meetings to marathon boxset binges, our digital habits have got out of hand in 2020. Do you need hit the reset switch?

Just one more episode. I’d better take this call. Think I felt my phone buzz. Have you seen this photo? Have you seen this headline? Let me finish this email. Let me see if they’ve replied. I’d better follow up. Where did all the time go?

The domesticity necessitated by the Covid-19 era has become notorious for worsening our fitness and our eating, but it has also deepened our dependence on, and in many cases addiction to technology.

Across the spheres of human ­activity, we have become more reliant on screens, whether we’re working, shopping, socialising, seeking entertainment or simply stimulation. The figures show a significant increase in screen time following the outbreak of the pandemic.

According to Ofcom, locked-down Britons spent four hours a day ­online, up from three-and-a-half hours six months earlier. We spent more than six hours a day consuming TV and online video.

Tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Twitter are generally reluctant, for obvious reasons, to share the data they gather on the amount of time users spend on their devices, operating systems and apps, but the following trend is probably true in each ­instance: our daily use peaked in lockdown, reduced somewhat as a vestige of normality returned, and remains at higher levels than before the pandemic.

These technologies have been ­vital to us over the past few months, yet what started as a lifeline can feel like a leash.

Reams of studies show that overuse of social media and other forms of connectivity can make us more anxious, less happy, and less able to concentrate. Even the sight of a smartphone, according to a study from 2013, makes us less able to bond with people we’re talking to.

And the biggest impediment to bonding with people is, of course, not meeting them at all. The two-bit virtual interactions necessitated by working from home do not satisfy our need for the cognitive complexity of in-person conversation. Working from home has obvious advantages to employees and had some promising pre-pandemic ­research on its side, but it comes with downsides too. The lines ­between home and work become blurred. Stress, particularly at a time when jobs are threatened, becomes more difficult to compartmentalise. And few can work from home without constant use of technology.

If you’re so waylaid by digital distraction that you work long into the evening; if your automatic Screen Time update from your iPhone is a certain source of gloom; if you reach for your emails first thing in the morning and last thing at night; you’ve caught yourself flicking soundlessly between apps in search of a quick hit of dopamine – or if, like me, you are humiliated to admit you’ve played almost 200 matches on Fifa Ultimate Team since May – perhaps it’s time to address your ­relationship with addiction to technology.

“There was growing awareness about screen time up to about March,” says Hilda Burke, who is a psychotherapist and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “But since then, the big priority has been staying at home, staying safe, saving lives. So anything that can be done without meeting people, or being ­social in real life, is seen as a kind of ­virtuous thing, almost a patriotic act.”

That initial enthusiasm, says Burke, has turned to weariness. Using technology is “kind of addictive, and it’s pleasurable for us, but I think a lot of us have gorged on it so much. I hear from a lot of people who are sick of Zoom calls and just want to actually have an experience properly again.”

In March and April, when the torrent of Covid-19 news was at its most vigorous and alarming, Burke spent Saturdays and Sundays offline. These days, she takes one day offline per week, and recommends that people working from home emulate her in turning their ­devices off at least an hour before bed.

“Looking at emails, scrolling through Twitter and checking a work document just before bedtime does not make for a restful night’s sleep!” She ­offers tips such as changing your ­device’s home screen to a picture of something you’d like to be doing if you had more time: the image might be you playing with your children, or you ­doing a form of exercise you find fulfilling.

She practices and prescribes something she calls “wait training” – gradually increasing the time you spend without your phone, working up from short walks to spans of several hours. If this sounds mad to you – if you think anyone should be capable of spending an afternoon without technology, beacuse of addiction to technology, let alone go for a short walk without your phone – think about how this ecosystem works.

Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed to hijack your attention. Their financial model, which requires users to see as many ads as possible, demands it. Their enormous resources enable it.

In his book Irresistible: Why You Are Addiction to Technology and How to Set Yourself Free, the psychologist Adam ­Alter describes a vast power asymmetry between those who create our ­communication and entertainment systems and those who use them.

“The people who create and refine tech, games and interactive experiences are very good at what they do. They run thousands of tests with millions of users to learn which tweaks work and which ones don’t – which background colours, fonts and audio tones maximise engagement and ­minimise frustration. As an experience evolves, it becomes an irresistible, weaponised version of the experience it once was.”

Whistleblowers such as Tristan Harris, Google coder turned design ethicist, have described smartphones as “slot machines”, which is an apt analogy given what the technologies have in common. There is a reason that ­social networks require you to swipe to update your feed, appealing to the same human taste for tactile cause-and-effect as a slot machine lever.

There is also a reason that social networks briefly withhold the notifications caused by people interacting with your posts, thus inducing anxiety in order to assuage it. There is a reason that likes, retweets and shares are publicly enumerated on every post: millions of years of evolution have made us as fearful of social rejection as we are of serious injury.

There is a reason the “like” button became universal: it is the most frictionless way imaginable to persuade social media users to hand over data and to bestow or withhold the approval we all crave. Different types of addiction to technology use different techniques. Netflix’s autoplay feature, now industry standard for video streaming, seems quaint when compared to the company’s investment in artificial ­intelligence that customises trailers to suit the tastes of individual viewers.

Games manufacturers have mastered the balance of difficulty and ­reward that most appeals to human minds. Email inboxes, by design or not, have become never-ending quests that, combined with our failure to ­emulate stricter continental norms against all-hours emailing, exert a ­terrible magnetism on our time and ­attention.

Nobody knows exactly how this bombardment affects a human brain, particularly a developing one, in the long term. We are living in a real-time experiment, and the speed of that ­experiment is picking up. As Alter writes, addictions arise when the brain learns to use a substance or behaviour as a salve for our psychological troubles. Think about the momentary states of mind that prompt you to check social media, email, and so on. Boredom? Anxiety?

The more you respond in this way, the more myelin builds up in the neural pathways that enable this activity. Over time, the behaviour becomes more ­automatic and less fulfilling. And speaking of boredom and anxiety, how would you describe your experience of the past few months? In all kinds of ways, the pandemic has created ideal conditions for technology to strengthen its grip on us.

Cal Newport aims to loosen that grip. “Now is the time to think about ­reclaiming focus,” he tells me over Zoom. Newport is an American computer scientist whose book, Digital Minimalism, outlines how its readers might reclaim their sanity and leisure time by stripping down their addiction to technology use to a mindful minimum. Naturally, he is hard to contact. I feel a frisson of guilt for asking him to sit in front of his computer for me.

The coming of autumn, he says, is a time “where you get your act together with work. And from a timeline perspective, we’re at a point in the pandemic where we’ve gone through the initial period of lockdown, not knowing what’s going on, to a more steady-state period.” Now that the early panic and chaos have subsided, says Newport, “it’s time for people to think, ‘OK, I need to shift to a new cognitive mode. How am I going to rebuild my life for what we’re going to face for the next six months and beyond?’ ”

Newport, whose advice for people working from home is below, now reads news only in the morning rather than grazing on stressful little gobbets all day long. He doesn’t use services such as Twitter and Instagram, but recommends that people who can’t get by without using them restrict their use to pre-scheduled periods on desktop computers rather than mobiles. He has maintained his habit of treating his phone, which has no social media apps, as a wired landline rather than a constant companion. Both of these are ­behaviours he recommends in the same way that Burke recommends “wait training”.

Where Burke and Newport differ is that while Burke advocates a gradual lessening of one’s dependence on addiction to technology, Newport prescribes a 30-day cold turkey period in which you eliminate all technology but the bare minimum, a process that he says helps you identify the online and offline activities that you find truly meaningful. In his book, Newport recommends what he calls a “digital declutter”.

Over the call, he expounds the benefits. “One of the big things people ­notice when they do an aggressive, ­intentional, digital declutter, is the background hum of anxiety goes away, and you don’t notice it until it’s gone. It’s just like the brain fog you get when you’re eating terrible foods. You don’t really notice it until you do the hard work of cleaning up your diet and getting new habits in place. Suddenly you feel like you’re bouncing off the walls with energy. It’s the exact same thing.”

Our writer, below, found the cold turkey period challenging. Over a long weekend, I tried it myself, and found it to be pretty much as Newport predicted. For the first time in years, I could painlessly read a book in a day. I didn’t miss anything urgent. Briefly left alone at a bar’s outdoor table, I didn’t mind not having a device to whip out of my pocket. I meant to ­reactivate my social media accounts the following Tuesday, but I still haven’t got around to it. Twitter is much less attractive now that I’ve compared its benefits (nebulous at best) to its costs (half an hour a day of subtle psychological manipulation).

One of the few elements of Facebook of which Newport approves is the network of groups based on ­common interests such as craft.

n May, I wrote about the new ­hobbyists of lockdown – the newly-minted woodworkers, cheesemakers, model-makers and ballet dancers who had found fulfilment in absorbing, real-world activity. It seemed to be a reaction to the anxious, screen-heavy environment into which we had just been plunged.

“I’ve noticed that as well,” says Newport. “I think a deep reset is ­going on for a lot of people.” He explains that the upheaval inflicted on modern life has prompted some people “to see things from a new perspective, try new things, and get into an experimental mindset. This is common every time you see great conversion experiences in literature – there’s usually some sort of disrupting occurrence that breaks up your normal patterns, and from that perspective, you’re able to see what’s actually working, what’s not, and what the possibilities are.”

Just as Burke hopes our dissatisfaction with virtual connectivity might cause us to fall away from “peak tech”, Newport forecasts the return of values to do with community and family connection. The architects of the most manipulative addiction to technology, he imagines, might one day be seen the same way as the robber baron monopolists of the Roaring Twenties.

As for the rest of us, we have an ­opportunity. With the world in flux and with post-coronavirus social norms yet to have solidified, this is a good time for us to work out what ­really matters to us and how our ­devices, software and social networks can support those values. Technology can be a wonderful servant to us, but we must not allow that relationship to be reversed beacuse of addiction to technology.

I don’t drink or smoke, and I haven’t got secret shopping bags stuffed in my wardrobe. But I do have one addiction, which for 15 years has dominated my life – social media.

I live in the wilds of Scotland, and social media is my daily lifeline to family friends, information, interesting strangers, fascinating debates and funny hedgehogs. During lockdown, I would spend hours a day toggling between Twitter, Facebook Instagram and WhatsApp, checking for updates, posting pictures of my dogs, or making bitter political jokes. I love that I can connect with my dear friend in Bath or my family in Manchester purely by typing a quick sentence. I don’t find Twitter a “cesspit” because I block annoying people, and I don’t find Facebook a fiesta of smug updates because my friends aren’t smug.

I do, however, spend many hours online when I could, in theory be learning Spanish, or doing a couch to 5K regime. I doubt these things will happen, but I’ll never know if I’m nose-deep in my phone 24/7. I also suspect my partner and I could have more fulfilling conversations if we weren’t both constantly scrolling and announcing terrible world events to each other like a midlife kitchen-based CNN.

Nevertheless, agreeing to use my Wi-Fi for work only for a few days is like having my favourite toy prised from me. I feel immediately bereft, crippled with FOMO and harbouring a sense of dread that something huge will happen and I won’t know. Cal Newport cheerfully suggests that cold turkey means “you’ll take walks, talk to friends in person, engage your community, read books, and stare at the clouds”. I do those things anyway, I think mutinously. I live in the countryside, social media is my break from all that stuff.

I am miserable, fidgety. I can’t take my usual photos, I can’t check in with my best friend, I can’t laugh at funny cats. Life feels hollow.

“God’s sake, just go back on Twitter,” sighs my boyfriend, who spends most of his time commenting angrily on news sites.

I try it for three days, and the only upside is finally finishing Jamaica Inn, which has been lying by the bed for three months. Normally I read books on my iPhone Kindle.

I’m then supposed to carefully curate my minimalist re-entry into the digital world. I consider what I could give up and decide I can live without YouTube. I can also manage without Netflix for at least a few nights a week. Other than that, I’m straight back in, like Norm bursting into the Cheers bar. Admittedly, my addiction may have twisted my synapses beyond help. But there’s a Collie on a trampoline to watch, and frankly, I don’t care.

The article is originally published at telegraph.