Earlier this month, cybersecurity firm Kaspersky unveiled a digital portal called Cyber Spa—a digital space for relaxation with the help of online tools.
Essentially, you find yourself manipulating the shape and size of a digital stress ball. Following the basics of tactile and anti-stress meditation, this tool lets you use your cursor to keep changing the shape of a digital slime—think of it as a stress ball but on the computer screen— until you feel fully relaxed. This ball needn’t be of rubber, it can be made of water or smoke.
If that doesn’t help, you can click a “fitness selfie”. In this, you practise a set of facial exercises aimed at removing signs of stress and negative emotions. There are also a set of audiovisual relaxation modules that let you look and listen to fire burning and drops of water. Or, you can just sit back, close your eyes and try sound therapy that includes futuristic sounds. This sound therapy tool comes with a set of special sounds—combining elements of space and time—created specifically for the Cyber Spa.
While meditation and mindfulness apps are still popular, digital games and websites designed to help people unwind are gaining traction. It’s a form of detox via the digital route, in innovative ways. If you head to Pixel Thoughts, a 60-second meditation website, you can type in stressful thoughts and see them disappear like a star in the vast galaxy as peaceful phrases ask you to relax and breathe.
If interactive art is your thing, then try WeaveSilk, a website that lets you draw digital silk strands with the help of a magic brush. It’s addictive—and surprisingly calming. WeaveSilk is also available as an app on Apple devices.
Some of these websites even play with sound as a way of relaxation. A Soft Murmur, the popular online background noise generator, lets you mix and match sounds that people find relaxing—everything from the patter of rain and gust of wind to the soothing tune of a singing bowl or the buzz of a coffee shop.
“It goes back to the old saying that it’s not the quantity but, rather, the quality. What your digital life is or what is the quality of content that you are consuming online, that increases or decreases your stress,” says Amitabh Kumar, founder and CEO of the Delhi-based non-profit Social Media Matters, which works on tech-public policy, online safety and digital parenting. “We have been conducting a lot of research and also ran a campaign recently called Mental Health May. There are many innovative games and fitness apps out there that are designed in a manner that you are stuck at home, but how do you make the best of it? It is about how you implement the technology in your life,” says Kumar, adding that we are now entering a phase where technology has become an important service provider.
Digital games are an interesting proposition. In August 2019, researchers at the UK’s University of Bath and University College London published a study in the journal JMIR Mental Health suggesting that digital games, the ones a lot of us play on smartphones, may relieve stress after a day’s work more effectively than mindfulness apps. For this study, participants were given a 15-minute maths test and then asked to either play Block! Hexa Puzzle, a shape-fitting game, or use a mindfulness app. Those in a control group were handed a fidget-spinner.
According to the findings, participants who played the game reported feeling more energised. Those in the mindfulness and fidget-spinner groups reported the opposite. Their level of “energetic arousal” appeared to decline, according to a statement from the University of Bath. In the second part of the study, participants who played the shape-fitting game after arriving home from work for five days reported feeling more relaxed by the end of the week than those who were asked to use a mindfulness app.
The study’s co-authors noted that digital games appear to fulfil four criteria necessary for post-work recovery: They tend to be relaxing, provide opportunities for mastering a new skill, are highly immersive and distracting, and allow people to feel in control.
In recent years, many digital games have been designed with immersive visuals and relaxing soundtracks at their core (see box). For instance, the 2018 game Alto’s Odyssey—often dubbed a “zen digital game”—has even collected multiple awards at gaming festivals for its excellent audio and visual art.
“If you were to look at it in terms of ease of access, affordability and easy applicability, then technology has become the preferred mode for relaxation for many people. This trend is more prevalent in people under the age of 30,” says Manoj Kumar Sharma, coordinator of the SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology) Clinic at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences.
“The in-built features (in all these websites and games) include the principle of involvement. That also contributes sometimes to a feeling of well-being and relaxation,” he explains.
The pandemic has fuelled the trend, with digital tools playing an important role. There is less scope for outdoor social activities and the fact that many people have switched to remote working means there is less leisure time and fewer possibilities of disconnecting from technology.
Kumar, however, says that even in such scenarios it is important to maintain a balance. Too much of anything can be bad. “The golden mantra is balance,” he says. “If you have used an app or a game for relaxing for an hour, but your eyes, body and hand movement have been strained for that one hour, then make up for it by doing something that does not involve technology.”