Is it time for a digital detox?
By Samantha Steele
Friday, May 04, 2012

Are you so connected (online) that you’re disconnected (in real life)?

It’s ironic, really. I’m trying to write about the Internet as a distraction, and yet... Between. Every. Other. Word. I feel compelled to click back to my Internet browser and check my social networks.

To squeeze words out of my easily diverted mind I had to turn off my BlackBerry, close Facebook and Twitter, shut down Gmail — and my work email as well — click the ‘x’ on StumbleUpon, close those four long articles I was planning to read…

“The cursor never rests in one place for long,” writes William Powers in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, a book highlighting the importance of finding a balance between being logged in and logged out. “Although we think of our screens [an umbrella term for phones, computers and other digital devices] as productivity tools, they actually undermine the serial focus that’s the essence of true productivity,” says Powers.

They don’t call it ‘CrackBerry’ for nothing.

According to a global study (involving over 1,000 students in 10 different countries, on five continents), the word ‘addiction’ was frequently used by participants to describe their relationship with the Internet and their phones.

Constant connection

Speaking to friends and family, this “addiction” to being connected at all times becomes even clearer. A friend in her late twenties confesses that without her smartphone, she feels “like an island”.

“I sit in front of Facebook like a crack addict waiting for life to happen to me,” says a colleague, Helene, 26. “As long as my phone is online, I’ll always check it and wonder if someone is looking for me, or if I’m missing out.”

No wonder, really, since the ideal is to be as connected as possible. “The goal is no longer to be ‘in touch’ but to erase the possibility of ever being out of touch,” says Powers.

Why talk to one friend (who happens to be in front of you) if you can simultaneously chat to five (who aren’t)? The result of that philosophy is answering work emails in bed, instant messaging people on BlackBerry Messenger or WhatsApp while ignoring your friends at a party — and leaving no time to develop what Powers calls “depth” in your relationships and life.

We are more connected, but not better connected. Powers defines ‘depth’ as “the quality of awareness, feeling, or understanding that comes when we truly engage with some aspect of our life experience”. Depth lies in the silence after a phone call, when you contemplate what was discussed. Depth is engaging with a friend, eye to eye, and not constantly breaking contact to check your screen. Depth is not constant contact. “Digital busyness is the enemy of depth,” he says.

It was after realising that his family spent more time looking at screens than at each other that Powers suggested to his wife and child that they do a weekly Digital Detox. He explains, “The point isn’t that the screen is bad. The point is the lack of proportion.”

Every Friday, Powers turns off his home’s Internet connection to encourage more intimate family time. And it works. “If more modems were to shut down on Friday nights,” Powers suggests, “I can see people wandering outside the way they do when there’s a power outage, meeting neighbours they barely know.”

Without the space away from the busyness, the information we frantically collect is a useless burden. As Peggy Orenstein writes for the New York Times, “The promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information.”

This is true for both human relations and work. We think having several tabs open on our browsers is the result of a productive mind, but the truth is that trying to multitask often means that we do more tasks less efficiently. This is because flipping from task to task has what psychologists call a ‘switching cost’ on the mind.

The American Psychological Association says, “Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 per cent of someone’s productive time.”

Switching off

Digital detox is catching on. Some hotels in the USA offer digital detox packages, where your phone is confiscated at the door and you are handed a board game instead. Apple users can download an app called ‘Freedom’ that blocks your Internet access. Anne-Marie, 54, says, “A while ago we were on a remote island with no reception, and it was unbelievable how relaxed and in the moment we were — not to mention the level of connection.”

Lieze Langford, 34, digital head of Media24’s women’s magazines division, adds: “No matter how many Twitter followers you have, you still need real friends. In a world where everything is instant and digital, we have to remind ourselves — and teach our kids — to be real.”

— Gallo Images 




1.         LOG OUT.

Turn off your Internet connection! If it’s not worth a phone call, it’s not worth it.

2.         DUMB PHONES ONLY.

Switch off that smartphone with its plethora of distractions.


How often do you see a table full of people all staring at their screens, chatting to people far away, but ignoring each other?

4.         SET A TIME LIMIT.

And stick to it. Whether it’s one hour, one dinner, one weekend or one holiday.

5.         TV IS OKAY.

This is a detox from connectedness, not entertainment. Honestly though, just read a book or play a board game — much more fun!



MARK: “We have a box at the door where we all — my wife and our three kids — put our cell phones as we walk in. We’ve got a landline — friends can call us on that if they need to talk to us. Without our phones on us, we talk to each other as we make supper and catch up on each other’s lives. With phones, we’d all be distracted and focusing somewhere else.”

ROSEMARY: “I just leave my phone at home or switch it off when I go out. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it allows me to have fun without updating my profile or status, or checking my messages and missed calls every two minutes.”

COLLEEN: “I switch off my phone and PC. I literally go off the grid.”

TAMSYN: “I leave my phone at home and go surfing or golfing — or else I watch a movie... Me-time.”

MONIQUE: “I hardly ever switch off digitally… But if needed, I place my phone on silent and in a drawer. Ha!”

MARIA: “I never take calls after 5pm; I leave my office laptop at the office; I don’t Facebook after hours — only sometimes on weekends.”



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