Digital detox: here’s what happens when you give up tech for a week

Study says we now check our phones every 12 min. If that's not enough of a reason to embark on a fullblown digital detox, we don't know what is.
By Anonymous

Let’s face it: We all know we have an unhealthy addiction to our smartphones. But a 2018 study proved just how real the issue is. The research, which was conducted by British telecoms regulator Ofcom, revealed that the average adult checks their phone every 12 minutes they spend awake.

That means we’re only just about making it through a quarter of an episode of their favorite Netflix series without heading for a quick scroll.

The survey also revealed that two in five adults check their phone within the first five minutes of their day, and 71% of us never turn our phones off at all (yep, guilty).

Ofcom says this data denotes we’ve officially entered a decade of “digital dependency.” Cast your mind back to 2008, where only 17% of UK adults owned a smartphone. Now, 2018, it’s more like 78%. When our first reaction to such a statistic is “What on earth are the other 22% doing without one?!” it’s safe to say it might be time to take a step back.

And that’s exactly why we’re forcing ourselves to take another digital detox.

We know the internet is a wonderful place full of great websites, and social media can be inspiring, but we also know spending all our time focused on a small screen isn’t all that good for our health. Blue light from phones can wreak havoc on our sleep cycle while social media can negatively affect our mental health.

So, if you’re reading this, we’d like to encourage you to take time away from your screens too. Go for a walk, try meditation, catch up with friends, take up a new hobby or read a book. Do something you’ve been meaning to do for ages but haven’t had time for.

“Being in the present is one of the best ways to connect with yourself and those around you. It’s what helps bring peace and happiness,” says Jess Henley, psychotherapist and mind coach. “If you’re constantly online, you’re not present—you’re distracted, and your mind is elsewhere.”

“Being online takes you away from your body, which is a key source of information to how you’re feeling. The idea is to integrate your mind and your body so they can work together as a team, and a digital detox allows you the space to be able to do this. Instead of looking at your phone, you can connect to your being,” she adds.

And it’s not just your mind that can benefit from a 24-hour digital detox. “Stepping away from the phone and the computer is so beneficial for your skin,” says Sarah-Jane Tipper, clinical director for Pure Swiss Boutique. “Seventy percent of skin damage in terms of UV rays is created by artificial HEV light from our screens and electronics. HEV could be a source of premature ageing, and given how much time we all spend in front of screens now, HEV exposure is something everyone should be thinking about.”

Once upon a time, I knew how to be bored.

As a child, my imagination alone could occupy me for hours on end. My parents largely saw TV (and later the computer) as a time-suck and even corruptive to my siblings’ and my developing minds, and our screentime was thus strictly limited to just an hour or so a week (aside from educational use, of course). And while I may have wailed about the unfairness of it all at the time, in retrospect, l know that learning to entertain myself helped foster the creative thinking that drives my life and career now.

I look back at the long afternoons I spent outside with my siblings and our neighbors, dreaming up games and universes until we were called inside for dinner. It was practically idyllic.

And now? Now, I’m just like most members of my tech-minded generation: addicted to every one of my devices and shouldering all the crap that comes with that. I fall asleep to Netflix; I compulsively record my life for Snapchat. It’s not unusual for me to be browsing the internet while watching TV and scrolling through my Instagram feed.

If I’m stopped for just a moment at a red light, I feel the itch to check my phone. I voraciously consume the news and the media commentary surrounding it on a minute-by-minute basis—so much that I often feel as though my mind is on the brink of a cartoonish information overload, not unlike that hilarious “Technology Loop” sketch in the pilot episode of Portlandia.

(Another symptom of the disease is I often speak in topical cultural references or memes.)

The irony of all this is that I have all the tools to properly disconnect. I love yoga; I know the benefits of meditation and have experienced them in practice. I’ve had a fierce, undying connection with nature since birth. I live for music and travel and enjoy art and creating things with my own two hands. And I spent my formative years embracing boredom, away from electronics.

Yet still, I often come home from work and immediately turn on my TV. Vegging out is something I do very well. On the occasional weekend afternoon that I don’t have plans, I revel in the silence for just a moment, thinking of all the things I could do with my free time.

I could paint! Go for a walk! Cook something new! Dive into the stack of books I’ve been meaning to read! Work on writing that book I’ve always talked about! But then my gaze lands on my laptop, and the moment passes. I rarely even just listen to music anymore, unless I’m doing something else at the same time.

When I’m with my friends, my phone is always in my death grip, as if it’s another appendage. When I’m travelling or if I happen upon something beautiful, I instinctively swipe open my camera to document it and move on. And because of this, I feel as though I’m never completely present. I never really see things. By perpetually putting a screen between myself and the world, I’m surveilling my life from the same vantage point as my social media followers, rather than actually experiencing it.

To be clear, I think technology is a wonderful thing—I’ve built my career in the digital space, after all. I love that even though I spend most of the year on the opposite coast from my family and many of my friends, I still feel connected to them on a daily basis. I think it’s amazing that in some ways, we can travel around the world just by going online; I love interacting with and learning from people who would otherwise be strangers. And whatever, I’ll say it: Snapchat is one of my favorite things ever.

However, because my job is already so digitally focused, I’ve found it increasingly harder to really feel off-duty when I’m online for leisure—it’s like part of my brain immediately clicks into work mode whenever I open up my laptop or log onto Instagram, even from the comfort of my own bed.

Yet I can’t stop logging on, to the point where I’m seeing my addiction manifest in physical ways. My ability to sleep well has always been precarious, and at this point, I haven’t felt well rested in months. I’m not as active as I know I could be, and I can see that impact on my body.

The compulsion to stay on top of the latest headlines leaves me feeling anxious most days (and the latest headlines themselves only exacerbate that anxiety). Above all else, I’m so nostalgic for those childhood days when I could revel in the silence and make something out of the nothingness—a far cry from the perpetual noise I surround myself with now, which I know is stifling so much untapped creativity, productivity, and real-life connection with others and myself.

Can’t I exist alongside this virtual chaos without being plugged into it all the time?

And that’s the thing—it can’t be one or the other. There are retreats and even “adult summer camps” devoted to the art of unplugging; cell phones, Wi-Fi, and all forms of connectivity are typically banned. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider going cold turkey, either via one of these getaways or through a little staycation of my own.

So it only makes sense to remove the temptation altogether, right? But on the other hand, given that my job requires me to be online for most of the day, completely cutting myself off from technology would basically be the equivalent of a juice cleanse: unsustainable and impractical. If my ultimate goal was to find balance, I would need to learn how to learn how to practice moderation.

Thus, my challenge was cut out for me: For one week, I would quit all forms of technology that weren’t necessary for my job. No Snapchat, no mindless social media and no Netflix. Who knows? Maybe I would, like, read a book or something.

How the digital detox challenge panned out

For most of the day, I don’t even need to remind myself I’m on a detox—I’m working and travelling today, so I’m basically hustling as soon as my alarm goes off. I’ve spent the weekend at my parents’ house, and as my mum drives me to the airport late in the afternoon, she points out the sky—it’s absolutely gorgeous, littered with cottony, opalescent clouds. I automatically document it for Snapchat and Instagram and then post another snap alerting my friends that I am indeed headed to JFK because they definitely need to know what is happening in my life at all times.

Then I realize that I’ve already broken my own rules. Oops.

I get some more work done on the plane and then purposefully stow away my laptop and take out the book I’ve been working on for a few weeks now—Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I’ve resented myself for taking this long to finish it because I love it and should have theoretically torn through it within a matter of days.

But there’s this thing called Netflix, and lately, I am too easily distracted. Sure enough, I’m engrossed in the author’s words for about an hour before I become painfully aware that my butt is numb, the couple seated next to me is making out, and there are still two hours left on this goddamn flight. I turn on the TV screen in front of me, hating myself. And when I finally get home around 1 a.m., my apartment feels eerily quiet, so I turn on Netflix at low volume and fall asleep.

I wake up feeling enthusiastic about recommitting to my detox. Then, as I’m perusing headlines and breaking news for potential stories, I land on this fantastic article about the ethical and environmental implications of virtually everything on our grocery list. This technically qualifies as work since I often cover wellness and health. I cannot, however, justify the three-paragraph spiel I write about it on Facebook. Once again, I don’t even realize what I’ve done until after I hit publish.

Going home after a really long, rather stressful day of work—especially after getting minimal sleep the night before—is all the less appealing knowing that I’m not allowed to properly veg. But I surprise myself when I put on a record instead of Netflix and realize that I feel perfectly relaxed. Without my devices to distract me, I even manage to clean my kitchen before collapsing in bed and falling asleep almost immediately.

No joke: Last night was the deepest, best sleep I’ve had in recent memory. I wake up feeling totally refreshed, not to mention much better about my detox in general. I make it through the day only logging on to Instagram once—to post a work-related photo, promise!—and after clicking on the Facebook icon on my bookmarks bar a few times out of habit, I remove the button altogether. Out of sight, out of mind?

More significantly, Snapchat doesn’t even cross my mind—a true feat, considering I’ve always been pretty convinced that’s where my true addiction lies. When I make it home from work and a doctor’s appointment in a puddle of exhaustion and really painful period pain, I’m this close to reaching for the remote. Instead, I throw on a hot water bottle, grab my book and pass out in minutes.

When I embarked on this whole process, I figured that whenever I got bored, I’d just throw on some leggings and go hiking—my favorite way to work out and un-muddle my brain in one go. But my agenda hasn’t really allowed for that this week, so by the time today rolls around, I’m dying to get out on my favorite trail.

As I start climbing the hills at Griffith Park after work, I become frustrated for a moment when my Spotify playlist starts stalling due to the spotty cell service. Then I take a deep breath, wrap up my earbuds and stride on, allowing myself to be fully present in my surroundings. While I love the way music spurs me on during tough inclines, it’s really wonderful just to listen to the birds and crickets on this quiet evening. I feel completely peaceful and content as I take in the gorgeous, panoramic views, and though I’ve done this trek countless times, it’s never felt so beautiful or meditative. It’s not until I’m driving home that I realize I didn’t take a single photo. Coincidence? I think not.

(Well, there was the #tbt I posted to Instagram earlier in the day. But in my defense, I am French, and Bastille Day comes but once a year. #ViveLaRepublique!)

Another welcome side effect of the detox: By removing a few channels of screen-to-screen communication from my life, I’ve been craving some face time with real human beings. As a born introvert, I welcome time to myself and often need it to recharge and relax. But when things like Netflix come into play, it’s a little too easy to step into social hermit territory. This week, I haven’t flaked out on any plans with friends, much to their (vocalized) astonishment. I‘m even excited to brave rush-hour traffic in order to pick someone up at the airport this afternoon. Who am I?!

After running a bunch of errands this morning, I’m really not feeling well, and all I want to do is mindlessly while away the hot afternoon at home. “Yeah, a Netflix detox does not work when you’re bedridden,” says my fellow editor Amanda when I inform her of my predicament via text. But then, she has an idea: “Read The Girls!” she says—we’ve both been talking about the buzzy new book, which arrived on my doorstep a few days earlier. “That’s the perfect sick-day activity.” I take her advice and get lost in the (amazing) novel before falling asleep at a ridiculously early hour.

It’s the last day of my detox, and while I’ve certainly had a number of slip-ups this week, I can’t get over how great I feel (illness notwithstanding). I’m content and productive, and even though I’m still a little under the weather today, I knock off a dozen tasks that have been sitting on my to-do list for months. I even sit down and spend a couple of hours writing just for myself—and note that the last entry in my journal is dated January. I feel a flicker of disappointment with myself. How could I have neglected something that feels so good?

But in a way, I’m glad that I landed on Facebook and Instagram a few times this week, despite my best efforts. These instances serve as proof that I can still indulge in those habits without going overboard. And that realization alone leads to another: This ultimately wasn’t really a detox, but a lifestyle overhaul.

It isn’t until the following day that I fully understand just how true this is. After a productive day at work, I sit in bed catching up on social media and browsing the internet, half expecting to feel relief for being unrestricted—and instead, after just a couple of minutes, a wave of anxiety washes over me. I snap my laptop shut, throw on my sneakers and get ready to head out for a walk to clear my head. As I’m walking out the door, I instinctively grab my keys and phone.