Why we are talking about digital detoxing and why it’s not the answer to the problem.
There’s a certain irony to talking about digital detox. Our Twitter and Facebook feeds or old fashioned RSS, are regularly filled with new studies suggesting any number of calamities are being caused by over-using digital technology and the media therein. Smartphones are making us lonely. Too much internet usage is causing our brains to shrink. These clickbait headlines re-emerge as you once again refresh your Instagram feed. And yet as we quickly progress into an ever-more connected digital world we return again and again to the idea. To the degree that it is now difficult to determine exactly what a digital detox is. We need to take a more analytical approach to what it actually is, and what it is trying to combat.
A digital detox was defined as long ado as 2014 as a total disconnect from all mobiles, smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers for a certain length of time. Since then the concept has developed a kind of semi-official legitimacy as Britain’s communications regulator suggested that a digital detox had to last for at least 24hrs without devices.The Oxford English Dictionary defines the experience being ‘regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world: break free of your devices.’
With the introduction and mass adoption of new technology comes inevitably counter-fear of the detrimental impact it has on society as a whole. Generation X-ers were warned not to sit too close to the television and that video games were damaging their moral fibre. And they turned out OK. (actually…) However, the situation with our current technology is unparalleled. Where we were once able to remove ourselves from the fixed position of our televisions and desktop computers; laptops, tablets and particularly smartphones are often about our person. They also have given us constant internet access and with it, the temptation to check and re-check work emails, instant messages, social media notifications, new bulletins etc. almost anywhere.
‘Digital connection is so built into our personal and work life, it is not always feasible or desirable to step away entirely.’
As much as we’d like to wave away the idea of ‘digital detox’ as a fad, we cannot. We are now more reachable, more bombarded, notified and in return more expecting of other people’s availability than ever before. But as Howard Gardner and Kate Davies put it in ‘The App Generation’, ‘Technology only facilitates this constant connection; It doesn’t instigate it.’ In other words, it is easy for us to blame technology, but in actuality it’s how we are currently using it that is the real problem.
Now, even bath salts claim they can help us practice safe tech. The term has been co-opted by businesses looking to take advantage of a buzzword, offering services to help facilitate this time-out from our devices. Fenced-off woodland and savvy spas are being rebranded as ‘digital detox’ camps and retreats, bringing the disconnect from devices into modern day well-being.
From the event Innocent Unplugged which was held in 2016. A branded, 'off-grid' experience held in Kent.
For those that love bath salts and those few that can justify paying the premium to have their smartphones, tablets and laptops taken from them, that’s fair enough. It’s perhaps not a wonder that people report feelings of reduced anxiety, improved attention spans and an increased awareness of the world around them after lounging around in a stately home in rural Hampshire. They might even experience improved sleep and more energy after long soaks in bath salts. But in the long run, like any detox, it’s not sustainable.
But why do we need a digital detox anyway?Well, alongside the many benefits of modern technology and constant-connectivity (through phone devices), there are drawbacks. We often hear of a disconnect from the ‘physical’, natural world, a disconnect from each other and even our own emotions. Gardner and Davies warn that, ‘ultimately, we find that the quality of our relationships in the app era depends on whether we use our apps to bypass the discomforts of relating to others or as sometimes risky entry points to the forging of sustained, meaningful interactions.’ All of this combined with the general sense and frustration that individuals are losing control over their time has left us, in one way or another, feeling a need to escape.
‘For those few that can justify paying a premium to have their smartphones and laptops taken away that’s fair enough.’
Some of the impacts of constant connectivity may be overstated. However, there is certainly a degree to which digital detox is responding to a real feeling. A poll by the market research company Opinium reported that more than half of those surveyed (56%) said they feel pressured to constantly use social media.
According to a 2014 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers concluded that by the time people log out of Facebook, they feel like they’ve wasted their time. Their remorse over being unproductive causes them to feel sad.
The speedy mass adoption of smartphones brings us to a point where we have to take responsibility, finding ways to manage ourselves to foster a more balanced relationship with tech. Far from handing over responsibility to others, most people are reacting to this in independent fashion. For many reasons a detox or total disconnect is not the answer to the problem, the reality being that digital connection is so built into our personal and work life that it is not always feasible or desirable to step away entirely. Instead we must look above digital detox, and focus our attention not on the devices, but the habitual behaviours that are allowing for this imbalance and lack of control over our digital usage.
Leaving phones behind is one tactic users are adopting to find better balance.
In some ways people are treating their relationship to tech like their relationship with food – striving for moderation and balance. For many, a total disconnect or ‘detox’ is not realistic. Instead, we will continue to see people exploring novel ways and services that help people gain a better balance to help them co-exist with technology.
As Sherry Turkle, a professor of social science who has written a great deal on human-technology interaction claimed in her book ‘Alone Together’, ‘we have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes.’
Here are a few effective methods we are seeing people use to regain balance and take back control in a fashion that they feel is appropriate. They aren’t always definitive actions, but they show the way in which ‘digital detox’ is merely one way in which people are regulating their use of smart-phones, tablets and connective digital technology.
During our research, we witnessed people, particularly families, practising a new social etiquette around phones. This might be limiting access such as permitting an appropriate amount of screen time or even re-setting wi-fi passwords until certain tasks have been completed. Some families denote bedrooms and bathrooms as tech-free spaces. The TV is being de-prioritised as the centrepiece in hope of nurturing conversation and relaxation.
To be phubbed describes the act of somebody pulling out a phone whilst communicating with you. We’ve seen playful tactics such as ‘phone stacking’, whereby diners balance all their phones in the middle of the table. Now we are beginning to see a more collective discipline of the appropriate times to hide away our phones. Some restaurants such as Bunyadi in London are banning phones as a USP to allow people an escape from the everyday.
The relaunch of the Nokia 3310 might not simply be a case of addressing a market nostalgic for retro design. Another reason might be to consider this a sign that some want to rid their phones of distractions and strip their mobiles back to the core functions – making calls and sending/receiving SMS messages. An article in the FT suggested that there are a number of ‘second phoneys’ who use a smartphone in the day but a simpler phone in the evening.
Do Not Disturb
Turning off notifications is an effective demonstration of people pushing back on the constant bombardment faced by apps that are designed to encourage engagement. Notifications demand our attention and pull us away from the task at hand or the people in front of us. Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary suggested that teachers should not email after 5pm. Others suggest that school servers should stop pushing emails between 6pm and 7am the next day.
There are lots of mobile and web services to help us monitor or limit the time spent on devices such as Offtime, Moment and Flips. They devise different tactics to help you track how you use your phones and set restrictions on usage. Smartphone users are minimising time spent within an app. These include ditching editing features or ‘filters’ when sharing images partly to make the process swifter and partly to make the result more natural.
UX design has been so successful at making the act of unlocking our phones and launching an app almost subconscious. This too makes some certain applications almost addictive in nature and can contribute to the frustration and feeling of not being in control. During research, we have seen how people have re-arranged their apps, moving certain ones to harder-to-reach places on their phones. Deleting apps from mobile devices is another strategy.
Becoming self-aware of when you are most susceptible to using your phone is the first step to being able to create rules to help you find balance. Rules could include: always keeping your phone out of sight when eating, switching to the ‘do not disturb’ function after 9pm, replacing your phone with a book on public transport, limiting the number of times you check social media to twice a day or turning off email notifications as you leave the office.
Mindfulness is a meditation technique that encourages a moment outside the pressing concerns of daily life and thereby regaining attention over the present moment when one returns. ‘Being in the moment’ has become another coping mechanism used to help people address the negative affects of information overload associated with smartphones. In April 2016, the mindfulness app Headspace claimed to have over 6 million active users.
Also published on Medium.