When digital detoxing goes hardcore

When digital detoxing goes hardcore

On New Year’s Day, at approximately 1am, my plan for a January Digital Detox got very real.

I plunged myself into the digital detox equivalent to walking on hot coals (which I have done, incidentally, although that’s another story for another day).

I was way beyond my comfort zone – so far out that my comfort zone was a speck on the horizon and I felt physically nauseous as I bobbed about in the ocean of Unforeseen Uncertainty.

I dropped my iPhone down the loo.

Or rather, my iPhone slipped out of my jeans back-pocket and  submerged itself as I stood there thinking, ‘what was that noise?’. Until I put two and two together.

Blame those less than lightning reactions on the two and a half glasses of cava I’d drunk while watching back-to-back episodes of The Detectorists at my friend’s London flat. Yes, I know, but that’s as colourful as my New Year’s Eve gets.

My attempts at resuscitation were frantic (pushing all the buttons and dabbing with a towel) but they proved fruitless as the lights went off completely, just after ominous black and white stripes rippled across the screen.

As I climbed into bed, iPhone wrapped in a towel on the radiator, I looked up at the ceiling, I felt a stark, sobering, feeling of anxiety. As my partner snored I stared out into the dark, contemplating what felt like looming disaster.

The original digital detox plan

My idea was to take ideas from computer science associate professor and study hacks author, Cal Newport’s January Digital Declutter e-newsletter. But I was adding a few ideas of my own. My goal was to:

  • Only engage with social media apps for work purposes, with once a day socialising for no more than 30 minutes
  • Delete apps that serve no work purpose so they’re out of sight/temptation
  • Check my emails twice a day only
  • Spend an hour a week unsubscribing to what feels like a gazillion e-newsletters that I do not read, but can’t seem to shake off.

Decommissioning my mobile was not part of the plan.

Now fortunately I had my laptop with me, so not the end of the world. I was down in the capital to write, so everything should be reasonably fine, shouldn’t it?

Diary of an (unintentionally) extreme digital detox

Day 1 – No iPhone

I still feel anxious and it’s fair to say I was pretty irritable. I found a shop nearby that mended phones and sold them second hand. But it being New Year’s Day, the shop was closed.

Day 2 – No iPhone

I’m travelling early that day to visit a friend out in the wilds of Hertfordshire and staying overnight, so there’s no time to begin sorting phone fiasco. I text my partner from my laptop before I leave, giving him my friend’s phone number, in case of emergencies. I email my friend to explain what’s happened and that we’ll have to do this old school. If I’m not on the expected train, it’s been cancelled, so I’ll be on the next one.

When I get to Kings Cross I buy my tickets and then wander over to St Pancras to buy a book for the journey. As I sit on the train, rattling through winter’s veiled daylight, I see how absorbed people are in their phones. Heads down, or talking into space on their hands-free. I’m the only person in the carriage reading a book.

I find the book absorbing, but not just because of the subject matter… there’s the texture of the page, the smell of ink and glue. Audio books are useful in many ways, but they are not a multi-sensory experience in quite the same way. I realise I’m reading slowly, soaking in the words. There is no sense of rush. I feel calm. A stillness.

I arrive. My partner has already texted my friend to see if I’ve got there in one piece. As a couple, we’ve been playing text-tag several times a day for years. Not being able to communicate with each other whenever we want to feels weird for us both.

Day 3 – No iPhone

Back to London and taking my iPhone in to the phone shop. Apparently it’s 50/50 whether it can be brought back to life, and it will take at least two days. A recon replacement in the window is £150. Not the end of the world for worst case scenario.

Day 4 – No iPhone

Life goes on. The feeling that I’m missing part of me has subsided. Who knew you could have separation anxiety over a phone?

Day 5 – No Phone

I am actually beginning to enjoy not having a phone. I find my digital detox rules reasonably easy to follow. The anxious feeling in my stomach was gone and I notice I feel more I control, more balanced.

Day 7 – No Phone

iPhone is alive! I pop to the phone shop (I’ve started thinking of it as the phone hospital) and there it is. It pings back to life and I virtually skip about, cheerfully handing over £45, and immediately text my partner to tell him the good news.

So what is going on here?

Cal Newport agues that while digital activists target iPhone, the iPhone wasn’t meant to be addictive when it was designed; he argues iPhone is the wrong target. 

I think he’s right. Partly right.

Cal claims it’s not the tool alone. It’s the apps. Yes, there’s plenty of evidence now linking social media apps like Facebook to addiction but when they are on your phone they’re so immediately accessible. Your dopamine-triggering gateway is in your hand – instant gratification time.

What I discovered loading up my laptop and using Facebook, or any other social media platform, was a completely different experience to accessing them via my phone. Logging on and opening the platform via your search engine is not like tapping and stroking your iPhone screen in front of your nose.

Trying to digital detox with all those social media apps immediately to hand is like trying to cut back on eating sugar with a cookie jar out on the kitchen counter. It’s not the cookies that are the problem, it’s the sugar that they’re full of and the fact that they’re within easy reach and constantly in your eye-line.

Smart phones and social media apps together create a perfect storm for addiction; the lure of immediacy amplifies temptation to ‘just have a quick look’. iPhone may not be the source addiction, but it’s the friend sitting next to you in the kitchen going ‘Go on, just one cookie… you know you want to. And another… and another…’

I’m nearly three weeks in now.

It takes a minimum of 21 days to change a habit and instil a new one that feels natural, so there’s plenty of time to go yet before I feel comfortable with my detox framework. Will I stop talking about my iPhone like its alive though and stop feeling that sense of panic when I can’t find it?

Does this story sound familiar?

I’m sure I’m not alone in my anthropomorphism of objects. We’ve all shouted at our laptops or our cars in moments of frustration. But is our ‘relationship’ with our smartphones different. We take them everywhere with us, don’t we? Or we’re certainly encouraged to.

The iPhone wasn’t launched until 2007. No one can have much more than 10 years of smart phone use behind them. Although doesn’t it feel like forever..? How will smartphones change behaviours for today’s teenagers? They have decades of smartphone use ahead of them.

Research into smartphone addiction is in its early days, but a small study from Korea University published last year showed the teenage addicts’ brain activity was different. Less able to focus, more prone to anxiety and depression, insomnia and impulsive behaviour.

Much more research needs to be done before we can evaluate the long-term affects of smartphone over exposure.

But one thing’s for sure, if you feel you’re not in control of your behaviour then it’s very difficult to remain balanced, calm and happy.

If you think you might have an out-of-control smartphone habit, try this:

  • Turn off your phone a certain times of the day, like when you’re in a meeting or eating dinner. Not just on silent – off!
  • Take Twitter, Facebook and Instagram off your phone. Only access them from your laptop.
  • Leave your smartphone outside your bedroom – get a proper, silent alarm clock.
  • Use the time you’ve freed up to do something you ‘never have time for’ that’s fun and maybe even involves face to face socialising.

Let me know how you get on. Me and my iPhone can’t wait to hear from you!!