What we talk about when we talk about digital detox

Why are we so attracted by the idea of a ‘digital detox’?

Many people can identify with the toxic feeling we get when we’ve consumed too much of something: alcohol, junk food, tobacco. We bitterly regret an experience we enjoyed at the time; we want to purge, atone, rebalance the scales.

This is exactly how many people feel about technology and media, and for similar reasons. The afternoon vanishes down the cracks between ‘just checking’ emails or catching up with Twitter or Facebook, and five minutes becomes an hour or two. We have the same number of hours in our days as ever, yet we all carry in our pockets access to more information — words, sounds, sights, people, opportunities, truths and untruths — than can be digested in a thousand lifetimes. Often, too, we feel either personally or professionally obliged to be contactable, engaged, ever-ready.

Like most problems of excessive consumption and unhappy habit, dealing meaningfully with this means acknowledging our and others’ roles in it, rather than conjuring up a world of endless ‘toxins’.

We have different, complex relationships with different kinds of technology. And understanding what it means to negotiate better and more fulfilling versions of these relationships can’t simply be achieved by detoxing. If you want to make an analogy with diet, my preferred metaphor is becoming a digital gourmet: filtering and making choices on the basis of what we relish and care about, rather than from fear of contamination.

Of course, there may be individual technological experiences with which we have a negative relationship, and which our lives would be better without. It’s important to be prepared to sever these bonds. I’ve uninstalled several video games because they weren’t good for me. I played them too much and they took up too much time. But this isn’t because they were ‘toxic’. It’s because my habits around them were destructive.

It’s the same when it comes to the question of screen time, and of how much is too much.

‘Too much’ is one of those weasel phrases that can lead us in circles. Anything is too much if it is having negative consequences. Too much for one person may be a requirement for happiness (or employment) for another.

What I try to be careful about is falling into a habit that cuts me off from other things I would be better off doing. I worry about habits like leaving a computer on all day, or having a phone permanently in my pocket. This isn’t ‘screen time’, but it’s still sets up technology as a psychological squatter in my day: always on, accessible, lurking in the corner of my mind.

I try to make sure I carve out a sufficient amount of time for the things I value that can’t be achieved through tech: reading a book, seeing friends and family, walking and exercise, reverie and relaxation, cooking, eating or drinking in company. I feel that at least half my waking hours deserve this kind of time and attention. But that’s just me.

Never forget that many clever people are being paid extremely well to keep us browsing and clicking, to get our eyeballs skimming across just one more advert or sponsored link. Our time is their money. So take a step back, but don’t call it a detox. You’re not trying to give up heroin — you’re trying to understand yourself a little better.

Examine your habits. Do you think they serve your needs — or preserve bad patterns? Connect with others, and build new, better habits together. Don’t forget that — one of the genuine wonders of a digital age — you’re never alone. Use good technology and good critics of technology to drive out the bad, or to expose the merely adequate. And be wary of anyone peddling one-size-fits-all solutions.

They say knowledge is power, but knowledge is a very different thing to information. I’m wary of most productivity apps, for example. People are constantly inventing new problems to which they just happen to be selling the solution.

Used well and highly selectively, technology is a gift to those looking to simplify, understand and cope better with the world. Used indiscriminately or with unrealistic expectations, it’s a prison. Look for a manageable, small number of tools — hardware and software — that address real needs or passions in your life, and that won’t simply turn your days into a self-improvement simulator.

My single most beloved hunk of technology? A piano, and the total escape that playing it offers me every day.

A version of this piece first appeared in Psychologies magazine

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