Switching off: ‘Digital detox’ lets people turn off the technology

July 15, 2017

The hardest part for Holly DeLoache were the bus rides.

When she was a student last year at Washington & Jefferson College, DeLoache had decided to tune out social media for one month and chronicle her feelings about it on video for her senior project. So, in January 2016, she bowed out of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and all the other online forums that have been so integral to our everyday lives. A member of W&J’s lacrosse squad, DeLoache found herself on lengthy bus rides without the comfort of reaching for her phone and aimlessly scrolling through her social media accounts.

“It was interesting to me that the world is so reliant on it,” said DeLoache, 23, who now handles, ironically enough, social media for the television news operation of WMBF-TV in Myrtle Beach, S.C. She admits that, at first, she was overwhelmed by her self-imposed exile from social media.

“You felt left out,” she added. “You felt like you were missing out on these viral posts.”

DeLoache attempted to get a few friends to join her. She was not successful.

“A couple did for a day here or a day there,” DeLoache explained. “And then they said, forget it.”

The reluctance of DeLoache’s friends to join along in her social-media fast underscores what a magnetic pull social media has in today’s world and how, in a broader sense, the internet itself and all of our gadgets can be addictive. Consider that the whole notion of sending an email message to someone, and it being received just about instantaneously, was part of a brave new world as recently as 25 years ago. Before then, we had to write letters to people if we wanted to stay in touch, or make phone calls. Getting the latest news bulletins would have to wait for radio or television updates or the next morning’s headlines.

Now, we’re at the bottom of a digital avalanche. High school acquaintances who would have otherwise vanished into the mists are Facebook friends for perpetuity. We can follow the play-by-play of a West Coast baseball game as it happens, read headlines from a news outlet in New Zealand, and see what a boulevard looks like on the other side of the world. And not only is all this available for the price of an internet connection, but it’s also available on a gizmo small enough that it can be slipped into our pockets.

This sense of being constantly wired and constantly connected is leading some to wonder what it might be like, at least for a set period of time, to disconnect from our phones or our laptops and try to live a life where our attention spans are not fragmented by the demands and temptations of our devices.

To party like it’s 1989, to paraphrase Prince.

So, some have decided to switch off their phones and turn off their computers, at least for a little while. There’s a burgeoning industry in “digital detox” programs where individuals can turn the clock back to that epoch when “Google” sounded like something a baby would utter, “Amazon” was just a river and “Yahoo” is something you would yell as you went downhill on a rollercoaster.

In fact, some are advising that finding the off switch on our phones and computers is not merely a luxury, but necessary to good health.

Like sex, food and television, technology can be addictive, some experts argue. Bradford Regional Medical Center in Bradford briefly offered an internet detox program, and its former director, Kimberly Young, has written extensively on technology addiction. No national surveys have been conducted, but Young said that at least 30 percent of the populations in Asian countries are hooked on the internet.

Some of the signs include neglecting family, friends and sleep, losing jobs or relationships because of the internet and feeling restless and irritable when internet “withdrawal” occurs.

“It is hard to determine at what point people need treatment,” said Young, who is now a journalism and mass communication professor at St. Bonaventure University in New York. “We live in electronic noise and depend on our phones for many productive things.”

Young started studying internet addiction in the comparatively primitive days of the mid-1990s, when a friend’s husband was spending hundreds of dollars a month so he could participate in AOL chat rooms. Young cautioned against strictly measuring addiction to technology in terms of time, but by how disordered someone’s life has become because of it.

“I think that we all suffer from compulsive checking, and I recommend taking a 48-hour digital detox,” she said. “We all need to unplug for a while. We need to spend more quality time together. We need to focus on tech-free time at home.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics concurs with Young. Last year, it announced new recommendations for the use of media by children, urging, among other things, that children ages 2 to 5 limit screen time to one hour per day, and their older brothers and sisters use it sparingly and that it not take the place of sleep or physical activity.

“Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning,” the organization stated. “Too much screen time can also harm the amount and quality of sleep.”

Just as the children of the 1960s were the first to be fully immersed in television, today’s college students are the first to have come of age in a world where the internet is a constant and they have no recollection of what the world was like before its arrival. Danielle Ficco, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington & Jefferson College, has her students take part in an experiment where they go completely media-free for a 24-hour period, and then gorge on it for another 24-hour stretch. Ficco said that many reported it was arduous to wall themselves off, and “the hardest part was to do without their phones.” She also said that students became aware of how much their peers were hooked to their phones, and how frequently they didn’t even look up from their phones.

“I gave (the assignment) to them in advance, so they could plan when to do it,” Ficco explained. “It is like going cold turkey.”

One day, those students will be older, connected minute by minute to their jobs and, perhaps, they will crave a getaway where they don’t have to worry if the battery dwindles on their laptop or if they remembered to pack their iPhone charger cord. The Renaissance Pittsburgh Hotel offers “digital detox” packages where visitors can check into rooms where no phones, television sets or computers are allowed.

Instead of kicking back with Facebook, they can thumb the pages of a literary classic by Shakespeare or Edgar Allan Poe, and play old-school board games like Battleship or Scrabble. How do visitors respond to it? According to Craig Bollman, director of sales and marketing at the hotel, they go through what he described as “pseudo-withdrawal” symptoms.

“It’s really hard, especially when people are testing themselves.”

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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