Digital Detox Challenge: What I Learned & Why You Should Try It Too
Last month, I took on a digital detox challenge to see if it could help me make better use of my time. This is the story of why I did it, what the experience was like, and the lessons I learned going forward. I’ve also put together some quick tips to help you get started.
What is a Digital Detox?
A digital detox is when you restrict access to all your digital devices for a certain period of time i.e. smartphones, tablets, laptops, and computers. In recent times, it has more commonly been used in reference to abstaining from social media platforms.
We all know that spending too much time online can be detrimental. Yet more and more of us are becoming addicted to the online world.
Although internet addiction is notably absent from the current DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders created by the American Psychiatric Association), I theorise that it won’t be long before it becomes a diagnosable disorder. In fact, China already recognises internet addiction as a clinical disorder (IAD), with many young men now being taken to rehabilitation centres for their addiction to ‘electronic heroin’.
It’s not surprising that this is happening; we are being psychologically manipulated into spending more time online. If you’ve watched ‘The Great Hack’ documentary, you will be aware of the highly manipulative tactics used by some companies to keep us endlessly scrolling and engaging. The real world implications of which are staggering.
Consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica, used our data (often without consent) to successfully sway elections in Nigeria, Trinidad & Tobago, Malaysia, Romania, and America. They also played a key role in the narrative behind the controversial Brexit campaign. This quote from whistleblower Brittany Kaiser perfectly sums up their intentions: “We targeted those whose minds we thought we could change, until they saw the world the way we wanted them to.” In other words, they got us hooked, stole our data and manipulated our thoughts. And they’re just the ones who got caught. What are other companies up to?
In fact, according to the Economist, your data is now the most valuable commodity in the world. More valuable than oil, diamonds, and gold. A most precious resource in this new age of Information Warfare.
Physical, Social & Psychological Implications
Psychology Today tells us how our online addiction is also leading to numerous physical, social and psychological problems. We have become more sedentary, resulting in physical pain and musculoskeletal symptoms. Increased screen-time damages our vision and causes headaches. Using devices while driving or engaging in other activities causes more accidents.
Our sleep cycles are affected too as artificial light and brain stimulation keep us awake, unable to rest. Not to mention the wellbeing epidemic that can be causally attributed to excessive technology use. Things like lower rates of life satisfaction and emotional stability, hindered social skill development, and social withdrawal.
Tech addiction is also dulling our focus and attention spans. In his book ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’, Nicholas Carr tells us how online scrolling has led to decreased attention spans and lower levels of comprehension. Too much time online is hindering our focus and linear thinking capabilities, as we have become too accustomed to skimming information in order to find meaning fast.
Armed with this new-found knowledge, I was curious as to how much time I was spending online and on devices. Of all devices, I use my laptop the most (or so I thought). Sadly there’s no way to reliably check, however, as screen time reporting doesn’t currently exist on Windows 10. So, in my search for data, I looked to the screen time logs on my phone.
Flabbergasted, I saw that I had spent almost 24 hours of the week prior either on social media or playing games. Apparently that was a good week too, as my screen time had been 6% higher the week before.
There was more. It told me I spent most of my time in the Reddit app, scrolling through memes to my hearts content. I was constantly picking up my phone; over 100 times everyday. My phone pinged over 400 times that week too. That’s a rate of about 60 notifications per day.
This data shocked me into action, as I realised just how much time I was wasting. The next week, I was trying out a digital detox for myself.
I couldn’t give up digital devices entirely. Firstly, I needed my laptop to work on this website, and to write and research articles. As I’m currently travelling, I required the assistance of Google maps on my phone to find my way around new cities, and messaging apps to stay in touch with my friends and family. Access to accommodation and transport apps too, was essential. So, instead of an outright device-ban, I restricted what I could use them for.
The night before my digital detox, the preparations began. On my phone, I deleted all time-sucking apps. This included Reddit, Instagram, YouTube and all mobile games. I knew that I would try to cheat by accessing these websites on my phones browser, so I restricted access there too. (See the ‘How to try it for yourself’ section below to learn how).
To ensure maximum compliance, I also changed my app store password to a randomly generated combination of numbers and letters, and left it in a safe place until the challenge was over. This helped to avoid the temptation of just simply downloading the apps again. Once I had also blocked access to each time-wasting site on my laptop browser, it was time for the purge to begin.
What I Learned by Doing a Digital Detox
1. The Depth of my Addiction
It shocked me to realise just how much I was actually hooked. For the first seven to ten days, each time I picked up my phone, I would intuitively swipe to the now blank space where my favourite apps once were. The cycle was like this: “Ooh, let me check Instagram!” *Pick up phone, swipe to where the app was, realise I deleted it, put phone down again. Do the exact same thing again a few minutes later.* Over and over again.
The scary thing was that this constant repetitive behaviour had only been brought to my attention because I deleted the apps. Now that the subconscious loop was interrupted, my brain was forced to switch off auto-pilot and take control once more to assess what was wrong. So not only was it a compulsive action, but a mindless one. Once I could see it for myself, I hated the powerful influence that these social and gaming apps had over me.
2. How I use my Time
During this three week challenge, I went from wishing I had the time to do things, to just actually doing things. It’s funny what true boredom will do to a person, and how it can urge them to make moves towards their goals.
In fact, after six entire months away from this website, the mountains of work that I got through during ‘The Purge’ meant I could get back on track and post regularly again.
I also spent more time doing things that were beneficial to my mental health i.e. walking more, writing more and indulging in lengthy baths. I even read two whole books. Two more than I read all summer, I tell ya.
3. Feeling Out of the Loop
The only bad thing about a digital detox is that, at first, it can leave you feeling a little lonely and cut off from the world. Not being able to see what people were up to or talking about online, definitely made me feel isolated.
This is exactly what social media is designed to do. I’ve learned how it wants us to keep coming back, and to feel like we’re missing out on something if we don’t. During this journey I realised too that most of the time, the things I spend time on online, don’t add very much value to my life.
Besides, if someone brings up something that I have missed out on, it isn’t the end of the world. I can just Google it, or even better, have them tell me about it. Being the person who has already seen every single meme takes the fun out of it for everyone else anyway. No more spending hours typing, “lol, seen it mate”.
4. Quality of Relationships
The funny thing about not being able to see pictures of other people’s lives everyday, is that you become curious about the lives of the people you are actually missing. I talked to my parents and siblings more, and touched base with friends I hadn’t reached out to in a while.
Focusing on just being in the present, I spent more quality time than ever just hanging out with my boyfriend, without playing games or watching Netlfix. This was something I hadn’t realised we were not doing as much, and I’m super happy to have it back. 🙂
After being away from social media for a while, the whole concept of it actually started to feel a little creepy. In a weird way, we just spy on each others lives, entranced by the illusion that we are maintaining relationships by liking a few posts. Compared to the quality of communication I was now having, it all seemed so artificial.
5. Power of Attention
The biggest thing I learned was the power of my attention, and how I had been wasting it on things that wouldn’t bring me value in the long-term. Or even the short-term, for that matter. Why had I been putting all my focus into things that I wouldn’t even remember in six months time? Such a waste.
At the end of the three week detox, I could think more clearly about my life and the direction I was going in. In general, I felt better about myself, and was happier. I was more sure of my actions too, because I had given them the required amount of attention.
It’s true what they say, you know. Distance really does make the heart grow stronger. Now, I do not have the toxic love-hate relationship with social media and games that I had before I went into this experience. I can appreciate their benefits and continue to use them in moderation, without them taking over my life.
Actually, I enjoy posting things on social media now because I want to keep people in the loop about what’s going on in my life. Yet, I don’t feel any pressure to do so. I love seeing what other people get up to, while reminding myself that I’m only seeing the highlight reels of their lives. These days, I take care not to compare.
Seeing things with a fresh perspective, I have become more aware of the little things that suck me back in. Notifications are a big trigger for me, so I took some measures to avoid being bombarded by them. Now, I have zero non-essential desktop notifications, and reduced the notifications on my phone to just email.
I also spent two hours one night unsubscribing from all the shitty emails that I got. If you don’t have that kind of time, an easier way to do this is to simply unsubscribe one by one as they arrive in your inbox. Next time you get a notification, it’s worth taking an extra second to question whether that pop-up really deserves to demand your attention like that. The cheek of ’em.
How to Try it For Yourself
Before The Detox
1. First, make sure to tell people what you’re going to do, and how they can reach you.
3. Manually block all time-wasting websites in your phone and laptop browsers. Alternatively, use a trusted browser extension to do this for you. Always be careful when using browser add-ons. Take precautions by clearing your cache and deleting your cookies first (provided that you know what your saved passwords are), and always always read the permissions and user reviews about them first. Find a list of the most popular ones for all devices here.
4. Make a list of all the things you want to get done during this detox. Write a list, put some books on your bedside locker, and sign up to the gym. Put yourself in the best position to ensure that you do not simply end up replacing one detrimental behaviour with another.
After The Detox
1. Set app limits on your phone so you don’t get all addicted again. Follow these instructions for iPhone. Android doesn’t have the screen time capability built in yet, however you can try ‘Stay Focusd’; it seems to be the most popular and trusted app blocker. Find a quick video on how to set it up here.
2. Use browser limiters on your devices if required. A quick Google will give you the right instructions or extensions for your individual browser and device.
3. Congratulate yourself for being a bad-ass human and bask in the glorious realisation that you can do difficult things once you set your mind to them. Enjoy your newfound vigour for life, and time well-spent.
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