A virtual holiday: the benefits of a digital detox
My smartphone broke recently and I didn’t have the means to replace it. The experience was liberating
Plot your escape from technology and feel an overall sense of smugness grow as anxiety diminishes. Photograph: Thinkstock
"Levi and Brooke are not Luddites,” reads a small disclaimer at the bottom of the Digital Detox website. “Just concerned and concerted humans who care about humanity.” Levi Felix and Brooke Dean are partners who dropped out of the rat race (he was vice-president of a start-up, she was a university student) to run a guesthouse in Cambodia, to embark on silent Buddhist retreats and, ironically, to harness the power of the internet to preach the benefits of the digital detox.
The digital detox movement is one that has gained traction in recent months, possibly as a reaction to the “Fomo” (fear of missing out) phenomenon, which applies to those who spend a large slice of their time on social-media websites, cyber spying on the exciting activities of others and nurturing an unhealthy insecurity about their own lives.
And yet, most of us do it. One sunny summer evening, sitting on a bench outside a friend’s house, my iPhone fell out of my pocket and on to the ground, and the screen cracked. “No need to worry,” I thought. “Just a superficial scratch.” A few weeks later, the phone took a fatal leap from the top of a microwave on to a kitchen counter. Along the faultlines of the original crack, the LCD screen had broken. Where my apps once were was now a sea of blue lines and glitches.
And just like that, I was on a digital detox that would last almost three months. My replacement phone was an Alcatel. It cost £2.50 in England and had an FM radio that had to be manually tuned. Without Instagram, I was bereft. Now, nobody would know what I had for my breakfast, nor would I get to spend 10 minutes arranging my porridge and book just so on the table, then editing it for people to see.
On the other hand, it was liberating. I took part in actual conversations with friends and family. I concentrated on books and arguments and people’s faces. I no longer felt any anxiety about the relative banality of my life.
“Detoxification” is a strong word. It suggests addiction; but if we are addicts, then we are almost all still functioning. I would like to suggest that we, as a nation, have internet dependency issues. We’re not ready for rehab just yet.
An Irish addiction
Figures vary, but it seems about 80 per cent of Irish people regularly engage with the internet. We are by no means the greatest cyber consumers in the world, but our ranking, and thus our consumption, is set to rise. As the Government rolls out a national broadband plan, which will add to and reinforce existing infrastructure, and the National Digital Strategy gives a leg-up to small business, schools and individuals not already locked into the grid, our logging times will only grow longer.
While one in five of us doesn’t really use the internet, it would seem that the other four out of five use it far too much. The average household has 4.7 devices connected to the internet; that’s laptops, desktops, tablets, phones and internet-capable televisions. If it was once thought that televisions would divide families, keeping them mute, faces bleached in front of screens, then the internet surely exacerbates that divide. Eight out of ten Irish people use a laptop, tablet or phone to flick through pages while also watching television.
At lunch with a friend, a young digital journalist with a local news website that has a sizeable hit count, I brought up the notion that we as a nation spend too much time on the internet. He agreed. “Sometimes, when I read the newspaper, I double tap to try to make the text larger or swipe my finger to try to turn the page.”
The National Digital Strategy illustrates a disconnect between generations. It is overwhelmingly young adults who are spending most time in front of screens. However, time spent online may not be the only problem. but the ways in which that time is spent.
Too many accounts
Social-networking platforms are seemingly endless and multilayered. For example, I am in charge of three Facebook profiles (one personal, two business), three Twitter accounts (one personal, one hobby, one business), one Wordpress blog, one Tumblr blog, an Instagram account, a Depop account (for selling clothes), a Snapchat account (rarely used, for sending photos that delete themselves after a few seconds) and a Pinterest account (also rarely used, to show people photos I like but haven’t taken myself). The internet knows me better than my mother does. If my mother had a Pinterest account, perhaps I would know her a little better too.
This culture of oversharing has become a part of the young person’s consciousness; no longer does a person join Facebook because it’s fun, or because it’s a good way to keep in touch with friends. They do it because it’s the done thing. Not being on social media is akin to walking around without shoes: to a precious few, it’s delightfully eccentric, but to many others, it’s inexplicable and needless.
Levi Felix and Brooke Dean have a solution; Camp Grounded, a technology-free summer camp for adults. Based in Camp Mendocino, California, a 2,000-acre stretch of redwood forest, all phones, laptops and internet talk must be checked at the door.
For those who find the enforced jollity that summer camp implies unappealing, a DIY technology detox is not so difficult to manage without external help. The first step is to smash your phone. It helps if you don’t have the means to replace it.
If that is not an option, contemplate winding down your usage. Leave the house without a phone. Turn off email notifications after 6pm. Assign computer and phone-free areas of your house or apartment; no use in the bedroom or sitting room (the bathroom is a free space, of course). Consider temporarily suspending Facebook and Twitter accounts, if only for a week, and feel an overall sense of smugness grow as anxiety diminishes. It’s good to take a break every now and then. Consider it a virtual holiday.