Why the Digital Detox Should Die
And what should take its place
Who amongst us hasn’t heard of the “digital detox”? In essence, the digital detox is the process of ridding oneself of toxins and unhealthy substances generated by prolonged technology use. In the past few years, digital detoxing has grown from an idea to a brand to, for many, a guide for how to think and live.
Today I’m writing to note that the digital detox should die, and for good reason.
Let’s get to the facts: There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that in our current era of TVs, computers, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, we overuse technology. These tools of technology have fundamentally changed how we communicate. Today, these tools function as essentials for completing everyday tasks at home and in the workplace.
The usage figures themselves are more than a little shocking:
- In the U.S., 87 percent of people in their twenties use two or more digital devices simultaneously.
- 67 percent of people in their thirties spend more than five hours each day on a digital device, also in the U.S.
- 90 percent of adults in the U.S. aged from 18–29 use social media — this is a seven percent increase over a 10-year period.
- 99 percent of people in the U.K. between the ages of 16 and 24 use social media weekly.
- The majority of Norwegians between the ages of 13 and 39 spend 46.6 minutes using technology in bed every night.
For personal research, I’ve even used an online survey to assess how much technology people I know use per day, with over half of my participants reporting a daily use of over five hours.
This technology overuse is increasingly, though often indirectly, linked to conditions including stress, anxiety, social isolation, depression, and insomnia. All of these are known to contribute to burnout, but I predict that the digital detox is just the wrong solution to this problem of technology overuse.
Personally, I’m not addicted to technology per se, but I do use it to work remotely, stay connected with friends and family, and stream movies, which, in hindsight, may seem like a lot. I had noticed not long ago that through my technology use I had unknowingly developed a pattern of bad habits, a few of which I have listed below:
- I would reach for my phone as soon as I woke up (about 8 a.m.) to check Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, emails, and LinkedIn.
- I’d then grab my laptop from under my bed where I stashed it the night before, head to my desk, and start working. First, I’d respond to emails and messages, then make plans for the day, and finally begin my work (I do work from home quite often).
- By 6 p.m. I would try and finish for the day, sit on the couch with the TV on for background noise, and then scroll through Facebook on my laptop while chatting with friends via WhatsApp on my phone.
- At around 8 p.m., I’d grab dinner with some friends before getting into bed at about 10 p.m. Since I’d often struggle with getting to sleep, I would end up watching Netflix until my eyes were sore enough that they’d close on their own.
- Almost every night for about a year on end, I would wake up at 3 a.m. and struggle to get to sleep again. This would mean that I’d watch more Netflix until my tiredness overwhelmed me, and fall asleep at about 5 a.m., ready to repeat the whole process for another day.
In short, I was exhausted all the time.
The image you probably have of me in your head right now is someone who looks a little like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and my friends may jokingly argue that this is a pretty accurate representation! But in reality I am a healthy, exercise-conscious person, and always have been. My current lifestyle contrasts with the 10 years of my life which I spent in an elite military unit where my office was the outdoors, and I would literally live for weeks at a time directly under the stars in places all over the world. It wasn’t until I left that career and became a full-time student at a prestigious U.K. university that I began to use technology for hours on end without a break, every single day.
In short, I developed these bad habits during my time as a student, and left them unchecked for so long that I carried them with me into my work life.
S o what were the physical and mental effects of all this technology overuse? Well, physically I lost weight. The lack of sleep affected my eating habits and decreased my energy levels. My eyesight, which had always been 20/20, deteriorated. I began to struggle to see objects that were far away, simply because I was spending long periods staring at a digital screen only a few inches from my face.
Mentally, the effects were much worse. My confidence plummeted, and I stopped seeing friends and spending time with my girlfriend. I was exhausted all day, everyday, and used the little energy I did have just to stay on top of my work. I gradually became depressed without even realizing it, which only prevented me from stepping outside more and being around other people. In short, I came dangerously close to being burnt out.
It was at this point that I knew something had to change, so I reflected on my bad habits and tried to begin addressing them; not by detoxing from technology use altogether, but by trying to be more careful about my use.
Be in control of your technology use — don’t let it control you.
Gradually, I began to set boundaries and stick to them. I started going to the gym every morning and didn’t check my phone until I was done with my workout, learning in the process that the world is not going to end if I don’t reply to every email right away. I made a point of meeting and spending time with friends, just chatting and drinking. I now have a definite cutoff time in the evenings for when I stop using my laptop. I also only read in bed now, which has led to deeper, longer, and unbroken periods of sleep.
Very quickly I started noticing myself becoming healthier, happier, and having much more energy. This period of change differs from a “digital detox” the way we understand it today because I didn’t lock all my devices in a box and abstain from technology use altogether, or delete all my social media accounts entirely, or put myself at the metaphorical top of a mountain for longer than a weekend.
M y experience teaches me that the “digital detox” needs to die because it is a fundamentally flawed concept. Three reasons explain this: First, the term “detox” has several negative connotations. It implies addiction and dependency, which removes your agency in decision-making and practicing sound judgement over your health and happiness. This, in turn, renders you subject to your digital addiction, unable to make clear decisions and take control without outside support.
Secondly, the idea of surrendering your devices, or deleting your social media and going cold turkey, is actually a rather oppressive and unnecessary approach. It almost creates a prison-like environment in which you can only control your behavior when your distractions are taken away.
Ironically, this in turn creates a situation in which you are rewarded with your devices or apps at the end of your detox period if you are good and obey the rules. If you delete your social media and abstain from using your devices, you get to use them once the detox period is over. It just doesn’t make any sense at all.
Thirdly, it implies that without outside support to motivate you, a detox is, by definition, difficult to achieve. This is wrong, and belief in this prevents most people from managing their technology use much better. For example, 65 percent of Americans somewhat or strongly agree that periodically unplugging is important for their mental health, but only 28 percent of those actually report doing so.
Now, spas and boutiques offer more affluent clientele opportunities to digitally detox while partaking in their services, and companies prioritizing employee health have started treating their staff to bespoke packages or retreats in order to get them away from their devices for certain periods of time.
A more practical approach to the digital detox is to work with the simple fact that most of us do not suffer from a severe addiction to technology and do not actually need, or are not realistically able to, engage in a hardcore detox from it. For those who do suffer from an actual addiction to technology, help can come in the form of professional behavioral therapy, or a rehabilitative experience that promises the necessary services and support to address issues of addiction.
Instead of detoxing, many of the rest of us should get comfortable with the idea of detaching from our technology periodically.
Instead of detoxing, many of the rest of us should get comfortable with the idea of detaching from our technology periodically. Detaching means keeping our devices and social media apps, but using them only when necessary or within an ordained limit. Many of us, for example, don’t need to aimlessly scroll through our phones on a bus or train to help pass the time, since it is bad for our eyes and is almost always unrewarding. Instead, read a book and expand your mind. I’m currently reading The Worst Journey in the World — a true story about the early Antarctic explorers and Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated final expedition — which is pretty fascinating and inspiring stuff.
Unlike a digital detox where you either surrender your devices, delete all your social media apps, or, ironically, use an app to block all your other apps (a digital response to a digital problem?!) a detach requires you to make conscious decisions about when and how you use your technology. In this is a more powerful lesson which gives you the power to pull back at any time or context.
When you detach you are in control all the time. It is a mind game in which you play against you, and in which there can only be one winner in the end.
I challenge you to forget about detoxing and embrace the concept of detaching. Choose a time when you would usually use your device; for example, just before bed. Rather than pulling out your device to watch Netflix or scroll through the news, make the choice to read a book in bed. Instead of taking your laptop to a café to work or catch up on social media, make the choice to go for a coffee with a friend, leaving your laptop at home and putting your phone on silent, so you can really be in the moment without any digital distractions.
In short, be in control of your technology use—don’t let it control you. I think you’ll find, as I did, that you’ll be much healthier and happier as a result.