Digital Detox: Why (and How) Many Now Unplug to Recharge

Do you unplug when you go on vacation? How about placing boundaries or time limits on your children’s screen time? What can be done to help? Is it time to schedule a digital detox?

by Dan Lohrmann / August 14, 2016

For years, families have searched for vacations that offered ample free Wi-Fi — even at campgrounds. Now the tide is turning, and the opposite is becoming true. Many vacationers now seek tech-free experiences.

For example, “Camp Grounded” offers summer camp for adults, while banning technology with a digital detox theme. How does this sound:

Enjoying arts and crafts, swimming, hiking, kickball, archery, Capture The Flag, color wars, talent shows, campfires and more. Although there are classes in analog photography, digital rules are rigid: No digital technology allowed. Period. No cellphones, computers, digital cameras, camcorders, watches, iPods, iPads, eBooks, Kindles, gaming devices or wearables.

A recently released report from Ofcom Communications revealed that 15 million people in the UK have undertaken a “digital detox” in an attempt to strike a healthier balance between online and offline life. Newsweek claims that more than a third of Britons have tried to take a digital detox in the past year.

This video explains how our ubiquitous technology opportunities can also lead to our unplugging challenges at both home and work.

Fast Company did an experiment to see the brain benefits to a digital detox. They studied 35 very successful people in the Moroccan desert and saw that after only a few days without technology, the group experienced:

  • Better Posture, Deeper Friendships: After three days without technology, people's posture noticeably changed. They began to adapt to primarily looking forward into people's eyes, rather than downward into their screens.
  • Google (Search) Is a Conversation Killer: In a connected world, when a general trivia question comes up, people immediately Google the answer, ending that particular line of questioning. 
  • Improved Memory: people were more likely to remember obscure details about one another, such as the names of distant relatives mentioned in passing.
  • More Efficient Sleep: The guests on the trip said that they did not have to sleep as long, but felt even more rested and rejuvenated.
  • New Perspectives: People tended to make significant changes to their lives when they were offline for a while.

What’s the Problem Again?

Americans admit to being in love with their smartphones and other technology, with millennials interacting with their smartphone more than anything or anyone else. Here are some other interesting 2016 survey results from a Bank of America study:

When asked about smartphone behaviors, respondents appear to be in denial, with less than one in five (17 percent) thinking they are on their phone too much and only 10 percent thinking they are tuned out to the outside world when on their mobile device; these perceptions are drastically different when considering the behaviors of others at 56 percent and 50 percent, respectively. …

More than half (55 percent) of adults say their mobile personality differs from their in-person personality. Respondents are most likely to say their smartphone makes them more confident (25 percent) and more likely to share (23 percent). …

Nearly half (44 percent) of Americans use their smartphone to escape a social interaction, with millennials most likely to do so at 71 percent. …

The majority (89 percent) of Americans want to capture important life milestones via their smartphone, with vacations (72 percent), holidays (63 percent) and weddings (53 percent) topping the list. …

Furthermore, technology addiction problems are becoming more widespread, according to many global experts.

Dr. Ramlakhan works at the privately run Nightingale Hospital, and is a member of its technology addiction treatment team.

Surely tiredness is a by-product of a busy modern life — children, work, hobbies etc. — rather than that relaxing time spent watching Netflix in bed?

"The thing many of my patients have in common is the fact that they are in front of screens all the time. Even when they try to sleep at night. It has become so pervasive," she says.

"They go to bed but can't sleep, or fall asleep exhausted and wake up tired. People started telling me they couldn't switch their brains off."

Are Kids Spending too Much Time Online?

And what about digital natives — the newest generation that was born with technology all around them? According to Ikeepsafe.org:

With kids ages 8 to 18 spending on average 44.5 hours per week in front of screens, parent are increasingly concerned that screen time is robbing them of real-world experiences. Nearly 23% of youth report that they feel “addicted to video games” (31% of males, 13% of females.) These are the results of a new study of 1,178 U.S. children and teens (ages 8 to 18) conducted by Harris Interactive (2007) that documents a national prevalence rate of pathological video game use.

Dr. Douglas Gentile, Director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University reports, “Almost one out of every ten youth gamers shows enough symptoms of damage to their school, family, and psychological functioning to merit serious concern.

But How Can I Possibly Unplug?

While the vast majority of us have no intention of giving up technology completely, there are steps that we can regularly take a few times a year. Jeremy Berke offered these three tips regarding a seven-day tech detox to Business Insider:

  1. Don’t sit around
  2. Read more
  3. Exercise more: "Exercise is probably the best way to reduce smartphone use because taking part in moderate exercise means it’s almost impossible to use your phone at the same time," David Ellis, a psychologist at Lancaster University, told me in an email.

Here’s a funny video take on the digital detox topic from Humordy:

The Huffington Post offered these digital detox retreats back in 2013. They also have an entire section dedicated to this digital detox topic now.

CBS News offered these tips on how to unplug smartly.  

I also found this (slightly off-topic) article from CNN to be fascinating regarding the need for Marines to turn off their cellphones for security reasons.

Finally, I really like these benefits of a digital detox from Business Insider:  

The best thing about my phoneless week was this: I felt way better about my self-control. ...

After only a few days, I felt way more relaxed, and much more able to appreciate the present. I didn't feel like I needed to fill every second of downtime with intellectual chatter from a podcast, reading breaking news push notifications, or Snapchatting my friends.

Personal Views on Disconnecting

I’ve been writing about the importance of finding “time to disconnect” from cyberspace for more than a decade. This broad topic, which has been labeled many different ways, is one important theme in my 2008 book Virtual Integrity, which broke new ground with the seven habits of online integrity. (Habit #5 is: Balance Online and Offline Life.)   

I’ve offered practical tips on family vacations and boundaries with technology, such as my 2009 “one-hour rule” for reading emails on vacation:

  1. No more than one hour of email a day on vacation.
  2. Keep number of "checking ­in" times to a minimum. (No more than three times a day.)
  3. Only respond to the most important (red) emails. Skip others or forward to another team member for response.
  4. Never interrupt important activities with kids or my wife Priscilla. (For example: No checking my BlackBerry at dinner out or during a family game/movie, etc.)
  5. Turn off my BlackBerry at other times. Reduce temptation to peek when hot emails or calls come in.

In 2014, I wrote this piece on work-life balance, and I try to write about different aspects of this vacation topic at least annually. No doubt, actions involving personal tech etiquette, such as turning off your cellphone at restaurants, have always made common sense. Most of these themes are not new.

But in 2016, this topic is starting to build a new sense of urgency for more in society. Disconnecting is becoming a new public health issue. Science is showing us the benefits to saying “enough” to tech. Public and private sector organizations need to take notice and adjust — especially when their staff is on vacation or enjoying company holidays. 

New apps, smartphones, smart homes, the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, smarter cars and our many media options have made connectivity a central component of living for the majority. But the pendulum has swung too far for others in society. Families are now making a conscious effort to turn off their technology for days or even weeks at a time. The term “digital detox” seems to be trending.

Is it time for you to consider a digital detox?