The Digital Detox: How and Why to Do It
I'm living in a household with a teenage girl, who, due to recent transgressions, was punished by losing her iPhone, computer, and any other device that she can get online with.
She’s not adapting well. Losing her connectivity meant losing her lifeline to thousands of online “friends” who were audience to her random 140-character musings. This is a girl who sleeps with her iPhone, waking up in the middle of the night to send and respond to instant messages and Facebook posts.
She is undergoing a digital detox. (See also: How to Go on a Financial Detox)
This isn't imaginary stuff. The stages of withdrawal I watched this girl go through were eerily similar to coming off any addiction. At one point of utter desperation, she begged for a beating to expedite her punishment and get her phone back.
Once — in a moment of weakness brought on by the holiday season and desire for everybody to get along — she got her phone back. Seeing her plug in and tune out the rest of the world around her for the next 24 hours (solid – she didn't even sleep) was enough to realize this is a real problem — and this girl isn't an isolated case.
It has actually been demonstrated that digital electronics are chemically addictive, giving us boosts of dopamine when we receive text messages or browse websites.
Digital Addiction Is Common
Watching this girl's digital detox made me realize my backyard isn't so clean either. I make a living online, but I know I spend far more time connected than necessary. And while this has been legitimately helpful, I know I rely a little too much on my online activity as a lifeline, especially given my nomadic lifestyle.
And what do I do when work is done, and I'm flopped down on the couch at the end of the day? You can bet my smartphone is right there beside me, so I can check emails and social media, and play games with my family and friends around the world.
Breaking the Habit Isn't Pretty
As with any detox or when breaking any habit, a digital detox can be ugly. That's why there are digital detox vacations and retreats — they provide a change of scenery and distraction from our normal lives to ease the process.
Think rehab, folks. It's more lush, it's not as painful, and you'll come home proud of your “rehab” experience rather than shamed by it.
Most of us, however, won't take a digital detox vacation. We'll do it on our own. At home...and maybe against our will.
Initially, our bereft heroine slept for lack of anything else to do (she's a teenager with melodramatic tendencies, making the digital detox process even more transparent — and at times, amusing). Then, when she couldn't sleep any more, she wandered despondently around the house, fighting for unfulfilling TV time.
Eventually, when she realized she wasn't getting her phone or computer back anytime soon, she rediscovered some of the things she used to do prior to the age of electro-consumerism. She read books and listened to music. She even cooked dinner, and I'm sure her room is cleaner for it.
Finally, she started interacting with her surroundings. She now walks down to the local community center and chats with her neighborhood peers. Talks — person to person. Previously (if she left the house at all), spending time with others was more about physically being there without really interacting (instead “talking” to others in her online world).
You may be wondering why it's worth bothering with a digital detox at all. Our electronics serve our lives as we program them to, and the sheer inconvenience of going without might be daunting.
Then again, maybe you're among the ranks for whom digital electronics have affected your relationship and/or family life, and your umbilical cord to work is draining you.
Before you decide if you need a digital detox, take a bird's eye view of your life and imagine how your inter-personal behavior with everybody would change if you didn't have digital technology at hand. For some people, the differences might be minor; for others, unimaginable.
How to Detox
The terms of your digital detox are entirely up to you. If you can schedule it during a vacation, it's usually best since you'll have a change of scenery, no work obligations, and you'll simply appreciate the vacation on a new level.
If you are doing it at home, sometimes eliminating our devices for too long is impractical, but you can create conditions that complement your daily life without affecting productivity.
You can choose to start with one day a week (a day of rest — how about that?), or even set rules for turning off all devices during certain hours, like after dinner or before work.
It helps if the whole family gets involved, but alas, if the teenager in my household is any indication, that might be more of an uphill battle than you're ready to wage.
There's an App for It
Bless the programmer who ironically designed an (Android) app to help you with your digital detox. It irrevocably shuts down your phone for a pre-determined time period (from 30 minutes to one month) to help you stick to your guns!
It's Worth It
Inspired by writing this article, I've experimented with a few short digital detoxes (up to two days in duration).
Many of my “symptoms” of withdrawal were similar to those of our teenage heroine — just far less dramatic. I fought boredom, at one point aimlessly wandering around the house as she did. I realized the extent of time I spend interacting online — and the gratification I get from it — by virtue of the emotions I felt without it.
Then, I got out of the house and increased my interpersonal interactions, feeling more energetic as a result.
Short detoxes like these do little to reshape habits, but it sure did open my eyes to the world we live in, and I hope to make some more changes as a result.
In a time where the art of communication (and even the English language) is changing by virtue of the digital age, I think it's especially important to remind ourselves of the basics — which, regardless of technology, will always get us by.
How do you feel about being addicted to your digital devices? Have you taken steps to curtail your addiction?