Digital detox: fact or fiction?

Anyone who’s seen my browser will know it looks like multiple tabs of doom. For proof, here is this morning’s selection (extra points if you spot the Metro article):

Multiple tabs Sexuality and the city blog Sam Miles.png

I know, I know, it all looks dire. How can I concentrate on what I’m doing with all those other tabs, and how can I hope to get through any of it? (answer: I can’t, and once a month when my laptop shuts down properly it loses the tabs. Ignorance is bliss, etc).

I’m talking here about digital detox to make better use of leisure time, rather than digital detox from the distracting tasks that slow down productivity, more on which next week. In my last post I wrote about the idea of digital detox – unplugging from the internet, social media, or your mobile phone for an extended break to maximise your chances for relaxation or concentration. Innocent drinks even ran a (free!) festival for it. The issue of digital detox has been around for a while but there must have been a real strength of feeling in the general population because the issue blew up in the media after this relatively solid survey by OfCom of 2,025 adults and 500 teenagers showed that 59% of respondents considered themselves ‘hooked’ on their technology device. 34% had disconnected from the internet for up to a month, meaning that nearly half of those surveyed didn’t change their behaviour despite themselves professing to feeling hooked. I know how they feel.

Through my time off in August I tried really hard to digitally detox myself, but it’s weirdly hard to do. On holiday, many of the places I stayed had rubbish wifi, and I didn’t have 3G data because I was abroad, which gave me a kind of automatic digital detox. But straight away I realised how useful Google maps is – whilst you can still use the map offline, the distance and route function don’t work. You can’t look up a bus timetable in the middle of nowhere, or check the sea tide times online, or what restaurants are good when you’re faced with hundreds in a row. Putting social media aside for the moment, I realised the internet is good at making my decisions for me, or at least advising me. What can I say? I like recommendations from other people, and they’re all there, ordered by usefulness, at the click of a button.

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That’s me in Croatia examining at a suspected spinefish. But we’ll ever know because there was no internet.

As for social media: it’s annoying but also addictive. Take Facebook – there’s something appealing about the intensely colourful experience of people’s updates, photos, music clips, party invitations, and videos of micro pigs running in grass that is like drugs to your brain: stimulation! Excitement! …and also jealousy that your nemesis from your first job has an impossibly glamorous life. Ugh. Everyone is having the best time. You’re sunburnt, bitten to sh*t and you just got royally ripped off by your taxi driver.

Of course, people aren’t actually always having the best time. They don’t publicly update when they have the runs from a bad dinner or they are arguing with their partner (well, some people do, but that’s something else entirely). But that’s not even the point. The point is that at face value, Facebook invites us to follow our friends’ progress and catch up with everyone all at the same time and at a glance. In a way I really like that – my friends have scattered all over the world and I can’t very well Skype them at work, so the next best thing is seeing their progress in having a baby or buying a new house – and that’s a genuine pleasure.

The problem is that Facebook helps you to follow all your friends on your feed, and all the interesting links and articles and websites therein (and not just me writing ragey pieces about Labour’s mess). Since 2014, Facebook’s ordering algorithm means you won’t see the same thing twice in a day without a long time scrolling (totally hypothetical. This has not happened to me.) With almost limitless scoping opportunities, why wouldn’t we waste our time on the platform? Whilst it irritates me when people say ‘I’ve got friends to see in real life, no time for Facebook’ (yes, we get it, but you’re overlooking its pretty impressive worldwide success as a good way to keep in touch), they might have a point.

One answer is to ditch the offending app altogether. My friend has deleted Facebook, moving their social network across to Instagram, where the more pictorial style discourages endless stalking or tedious wordiness. But social media is social media, and Instagram still shows us the curated highlights of our peers’ lives. After all, these glamorous specimens basking in the sun on their holidays do have office jobs for most of the year and are unlikely to snap a selfie with the photocopier at work. Maybe it’s more about being realistic with what these sites mean and what feelings they encourage in us, and using them accordingly.

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In my own research, participants have spoken a lot about their ambivalent thoughts on dating apps. They download an app, spend a lot of time on it surfing the prospects, have mixed success in dating and then, in what they see as a moment of clarity, they delete the app altogether, either because they’ve found a partner or because they’re sick of what they see as a time-wasting cycle. But those who are single tend to re-download the app or similar apps again in the near future. And why not? After all, these apps filter many more matches than we could possibly hope for in person, and they skip the barrier of knowing who is single (or so you’d hope). In the case of LGBT apps in particular, it gets past the awkwardness of hoping that the person you are talking to is also non-heterosexual. Yet the utility of these apps comes with a time commitment that participants found could take over other parts of their non-digital life.

It’s hard to know what the answer is because, even for those of us who think we have the balance right, there are more questions. Is the idea of a ‘detox’ unhelpful, because it suggests going cold-turkey on a behaviour that isn’t, all things considered, really bad? Are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater by denying ourselves those useful functions the internet gives us by trying to give it all up? In fact, we could see these questions as irrelevant if we change the debate: we could recognise that these days we really do need the internet to stay connected with our friends and family. Rather than giving it up, we could re-situate it as an efficient tool for helping us continue to connect with them.

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Digital detox: nice idea or unhelpful rhetoric? (Velib Paris 2016).


4 thoughts on “Digital detox: fact or fiction?

  1. My friend Chris has passed me this excellent piece in NY Magazine about digital technology addiction:
    Seems digital detox is everywhere at the moment!

    NB. It should be noted that the article author is Andrew Sullivan, who is in many ways not my favourite in queer/LGBT terms. Assimilationist views are one thing, but Michael Warner shows up some of Sullivan’s more conservative thinking in his counter-argument to Sullivan’s ‘Virtually Normal’ book (1995).


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