Going Offline: What Really Happens During a Digital Detox

by JASON LUNA

Most of my life takes place online—and I’m almost certain yours does too. Whether we’re playing video games, writing articles, or even studying, we’re almost always plugged in. Though I no longer have Snapchat or Instagram, my world, like many others’, still revolves around the digital sphere. In fact, even my conversations happen online too—I have an Android, so my friends won’t even message me unless it’s through Messenger.

I try to limit my use of technology whenever possible but when I can’t get through a class without checking my phone every two minutes or can’t walk to campus without tuning out the outside world with my headsets, I feel like there’s a problem.

What’s the problem?

Research demonstrates that my problem is all too common in our generation. A 2015 study on Turkish university students found that 100% of students brought a mobile device to class and 62% used their phones during class for non-educational purposes. [1] The mere presence of a cell phone can also lead to reduced cognitive capacity and focus, even when it is not in sight. [2] In that sense, phones and even their absence can distract people from their current tasks.

Furthermore, researchers found that students with phone addictions were subject to distorted perceptions of time: participants at-risk for addiction estimated tasks to take longer than average and those with low likelihoods of a social media addiction marked much lower estimates. This demonstrates an inability to maintain a sense of flow and concentration among those with digital addictions. [3] Other possible adverse effects include a lack of capability for empathy and skill in face-to-face communication. [4]

Is there a solution?

A digital detox—from a small reduction in phone usage to blocking out social media to a complete removal of any electronic technology—is meant to tackle the root of these problems. Unplugging from technology means hitting the reset button and returning to a state of focus. Common suggestions include deleting social media accounts and excising most to all low effort media consumption, like watching videos through streaming services.

I wanted to go on a complete two-day detox to increase my productivity, mainly with respect to my upcoming exam, and figure out how I would function without the use of messaging apps. Often, the prescribed time is 30-days, but I decided to shorten it to two, due to the need to use a computer to complete my assignments.

Generally, a digital detox isn’t for testing the waters but is instead a panacea meant to disconnect you from social media or technology completely. So, instead of attempting a full detox, I was entering with the mindset that I wanted to specifically reduce my use of messaging apps and next find areas of my life where I don’t even recognize an addiction. I was not looking for an across the board reduction to my dependence.

What happened during the detox?

Day One: Saturday

Since I planned to go to the gym with my flatmate at 8 a.m., I woke up around 7 a.m. Naturally, I stayed in bed until 7:50.

Later, when I checked on my flatmate, he was still in bed. Because we were off to a late start, I told him we could leave at 8:35. I got a quick breakfast and sat on the couch, just waiting. After 40 minutes, I felt a little impatient but was still on the couch because I was expecting him to come out any minute.

What I didn’t know was that he had sent me a Facebook message letting me know he had stomach problems and that I could leave first—In the end, it was my fault because I had failed to notify everyone in my apartment. Since going to the gym wasn’t a time-sensitive situation, I brushed it off. He finally came out, surprised I hadn’t received his message, and we left for the gym an hour later than planned.

Is my phone making my workout easier?

At the gym, I actually got tired much more quickly. Because I was focusing on my workout and didn’t have a phone that would unintentionally extend my breaks between sets, I went from set to set with little to no turnaround. I was also forced to listen to the gym’s varied selection of sad songs and EDM, which wasn’t exactly the right mood for exercise.

Would I have checked the forecast?

On the way back, we decided to stop by Trader Joe’s for groceries. Halfway there, it started to rain, so we hid at a bus stop arguing about whether we should still go. I wondered if I would have brought an umbrella if I had checked my phone earlier in the morning. It didn’t matter anyway—my flatmate checked the forecast, and it said there was a 0% chance of rain. We decided to head home while it was still raining, but it stopped after five minutes. We could’ve waited it out.

Does the internet simplify cooking?

For breakfast, I wanted to cook with mushrooms because they were about to go bad. Even though I knew how to prepare them, I didn’t know any recipes by heart so I went with a basic omelette. While cooking, my roommate kept joking and taunting me to “just Google a recipe”, which actually made me laugh at my predicament. Another flatmate was watching Brooklyn 99 during his meal, and I was tempted to sit in and watch with him. Instead, I resisted and occupied myself with my meal.

What is there to do?

To be honest, I did spend four hours napping that afternoon because the day felt so much longer—it was as if I was hyper aware of every moment. Other than that, I also finished reading Lord of the Flies, which I surprisingly had not read in high school, and used my new pressure cooker for the first time. It was nothing fancy, but it was a decently productive day.

Day Two: Sunday

Adjusting to Daylight Savings time set me off on another rocky morning. I woke up at 6 a.m.—I think. While the jump back an hour meant an additional hour to push through for my detox, I was just worried about being confused about what time it was! Even though I had two digital watches, I wasn’t sure which one was reliable. And after cooking breakfast, I still wasn’t sure if it was 7 or 8 a.m. Was the gym already open? I decided to trust the first watch because leaving at 7 a.m. would mean being stuck on the Hhill with nothing to do and luckily, I was right.


How do you study without your computer?

For the rest of the day, I finished another book, The Spirit of Kaizen, and had to study for my Wednesday midterm. Luckily, my roommate is also in the class, so I took some of the materials he had printed out and ran through a practice midterm. However, whenever I’d encounter a problem, I was on my own—my roommate was studying for another midterm and I didn’t have access to my online notes. I struggled through and decided instead to start on another book before heading to bed.

Is a detox the solution?

While my detox was successful—with me having no temptation to check my phone—it also taught me that even though I can live in a world without the internet, I probably shouldn’t. I was extremely focused on my reading, using my newfound time to focus on books that I had put on the back burner during exam season, but I was handicapped in terms of actual studying. I used reading just to avoid feeling unproductive when I couldn’t solve a practice problem.

When I finally returned to my phone, I felt anxious and even had a bit of a headache using it again for the first time. It seemed like forever since I had last used a screen and I was worried about whether the detox worked. Though I believe my headache marks the detox as a success—In a way, my body was reacting and rejecting technology because it was newly unaccustomed to it. However, I don’t think a two day detox is a long-term solution. Future research can reveal how effective detoxes are, but I feel that detoxes are short, feel-good fixes to prevent excessive use of technology, but are not practical when it comes to facing the world’s digital demands.

Still, I would recommend going on a digital detox if you feel that some parts of your life could do without constantly being on your their phone. The question is always to what extent you are willing to unplug. The short answer for me is that I could possibly go the rest of my life without being beholden to my smartphone. My longer answer is that I shouldn’t because, in the long run, it would hurt me more to miss out on the opportunities and advantages of a life enhanced by the digital world.

References

  1. “Time for Digital Detox: Misuse of Mobile Technology and Phubbing.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. (2015).
  2. “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. (2017).
  3. “Time distortion when users at-risk for social media addiction engage in non-social media tasks.” Journal of Psychiatric Research. (2018).
  4. “iGeneration: The Social Cognitive Effects of Digital Technology on Teenagers.” Graduate Master’s Theses, Capstones, and Culminating Projects. (2013).

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