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)

Digital Dopamine

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.

DIY Detox

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).

Why Detox?

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?

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Guest's picture

Nice post, and really important for our age. My sister is like your daughter--a total connectivity addict. I take her out to lunch, she sits and plays on her smartphone. I try to have a conversation with her at home, she's on her laptop. Constant connection, totally hooked on the phone and computer. Even when I get her to actually put it down, she leaves it on the table and constantly checks it without picking it up. It's really sad.

I'm totally in favor of a digital detox and I think it's a great idea. I make my living on a computer, but at home it's a different story. I don't have the Internet and I don't have a smart phone. I haven't even turned my laptop on in three months, because there's nothing I "need" it for. I also don't have cable. Forcing my home to be a "non-digital" zone has opened up so much clarity and free time. I read, I do home projects, and I spend a ton of time volunteering. It's so much more rewarding than looking at cat photos all day or inanely updating your Facebook status every ten minutes.

Everyone should do it. It changes you--for the better!

Guest's picture

This is an interesting subject for me, as I have tried to keep myself in check to avoid *needing* this kind of detox. I can't stay away from the computer entirely - my dayjob is in IT and my freelance business is as a digital illustrator and graphics guy - but I have freed up my brain and my time recently with the following steps:

- No clock slavery unless I have an appointment or meeting at a given time. I switched the display in my car from the clock to an MPG meter. I use an alarm clock to wake up, of course, and try to leave the house at roughly the same time each day, but once I leave my house for work, I know roughly what time it is by what's on the news station (like the reports 'on the 8s') and just leave it at that.

- I backed off my personal Twitter account entirely. I told all my friends that I was taking a hiatus and they could follow the new Twitter I'd made for news from my freelancing business if they liked. I haven't followed anyone back, but I am thinking of mutually-following other freelancers and content producers I know personally.

- I turned off email notification noises on my phone. When I am on my work or home PC, I can see the little number on my gmail tab, so I know if I have a new message. And if I look at my phone I can see the mail icon. But I don't get the audio ping anymore, and I don't feel a compulsion at all to "see if i have new email".

- I don't have a Facebook account. Never did, don't plan to.

Honestly one of the biggest issues I can still run across is that I still mindlessly surf the web when I'm bored. And I quickly get bored of THAT, too. I'd turn to my other hobbies in those times, but it always seems to be at times that would make it impossible to do those things.

Sorry for the ramble, but hopefully people can relate!

Guest's picture

I work online so without connection I would be broke. But the good thing about this is that it has caused me to see being online as work. So as soon as I am finished the first thing i want to do is go for a walk or be in a park somewhere. I don't own a smartphone so once Im away from the laptop it all stops.

Guest's picture

I have undergone an enforced digital detox by moving to Africa - okay, that wasn't the reason I moved there but ironically, by getting rid of the digital noise, my life is enriched. In my village the connection is so slow as to be impractical. Twenty minutes to download a 2 line email. Now I go once or twice a week to an internet cafe a few miles away where I write a blog, check emails and read the news (and make comments on blogs like this!). I have a phone that makes calls and can send texts, and that is all. After a period of anxiousness that I wasn't getting the rolling news and updates of what my friends ate for breakfast, I now feel much happier and spend my days far more productively.

Guest's picture

I don't want to be one of those people who is far away in the same room but think I'm at a pretty high risk of going that way. I can't get away from all the digital stuff at work but I have a couple of simple rules that keep me sane at home.

1) No screens before work or between work and supper. This makes mornings and getting into family mode at the end of the day much easier.
2) While I'm home my phone stays in my jacket pocket and my jacket stays out of my sight. I have a landline so people can still contact me.
3) Email is set to check once an hour, no more. If it's urgent people can call.

Guest's picture

I think its really sad (but understandable) that we've let technology take over our lives so much. The thing you highlight here as one of the biggest benefits of a digital detox is actual interpersonal communication. We're often shells of ourselves when we're physically in a place with our digital media attached to our hands, consuming our attention. I'm 22 right now so I've literally seen how rapidly the world has changed and its kind of scary and discouraging how much we rely on technology.

Guest's picture

What happens when she gets back her phone? Do you think that with the "digital detox" the general behavior will change? Will she no longer be addicted to her digital life?

This issue is very concerning for future parents and I have yet to see a permanent and effective solution to the problem.

Guest's picture

Ironicly we are using these digital deices to converse even now. But in order for the family to survive or revive might be a better choise of words, we need to have true quality time without all the ipads, cell phones, computer, etc. Time to talk again. Time to interact with each other. And I don't mean facebook or any other devices. We need to take the time to grow together. People either grow apart or together and it takes a real effort and time.

Right now my wife is in the bedroon listening to her tones while on the internet, my daughter is watching videos on her nook, my son is on his computer in his room and my other daughter is doing her thing on her ipad. We NEED TO DETOX from all of this.

We need to have good old fashion quality time talking, play those BORED games as my daughter calls them, putting together a puzzle, or going for a walk or hike. The family is deteriorating right before our eyes and we are doing nothing about it.

Everything passes in time...even the internet will pass in time.
What will they all do then?

Guest's picture

It’s true that the detoxification of body should be done scientifically, and it will be far better to use some organic products, such as Essiac tea for removing toxins and make you full of health and vigour.