A Study in Anti-Tech: The Value of a Weekly Digital Detox

What is your reaction when your internet goes down? Better yet, how is your relationship with technology overall?

Not sure how to answer? Or better yet, don’t want to?

Here is a useful proxy instead: How far away is your phone from your hand right now?

According to a 2019 Nielson Report, the average US adult spends around 11 hours each day listening to, watching, reading, or interacting with the media. Doing the math, if the typical adult sleeps for 8 hours a night, this means that on average, we spend almost 70% of our waking hours watching, reading, consuming, and interacting with digital and online media.

All in all, whether this be a digital or human relationship, this percentage does not sound healthy.

When I imagine a health relationship, with technology or otherwise, I think of a respectful relationship: where I can live my own life, where the relationship is more of an asset than a liability. My dream relationship with technology would be a scenario where I can wield tech as a tool, not as something that absorbs my attention without my control and squanders away the precious little time I have. And definitely not something I spend time with 70% of the day.

A girl’s gotta have some me time, after all.

I currently tend to have a love/hate relationship with social media, as I am sure we all do at some point. While we can learn from and connect to many inspiring people on these platforms, it’s become common knowledge that the format and experiences of these products produce brain responses similar to addiction.

MRW I just spent 10 hours scrolling Instagram and Twitter.

Not to mention, multiple studies have proven that social media negatively impacts mental health.

In fact, there is an entire center dedicated to the psychosocial research of cyberspace and its effect on users.

Many studies on social media usage and mental health have shown that the prolonged use of social media such as Facebook is positively associated with mental health problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression and negatively associated with long-term well-being.

Social Media Addiction: Its impact, mediation, and intervention

And so I am forced to ask myself: How productive is Instagram and Twitter, really?

My own form of social media rehab

When I looked at my current screen time, it averages around 3h 55m. Not the best, but I’ve been worse. At the height of COVID and quarantine, I was averaging 8 to 9 hours a day on my phone.

As someone still looking to improve this metric, I joined an experiment within a new community for the past few months: Basis. Every Sunday from 10–7 we committed to a digital fast with different ranges of intensity.

This meant every Sunday we would consciously reduce our use of tech devices and digital consumption to calm the chatter in our brains caused by constant connectivity.

Easy mode meant no social media.
Hard mode was a full on dopamine fast:
- No TV, computer, or phones.
- No reading, shopping, or socialization.
- No consumption of any kind. Including food.

Every fast ended with a group text where we exchanged notes on the experience as an exercise to reflect — we would update the group on observations from the experience: what was hard, what went well, lessons learned for future sessions, etc.

Some days were a success.
Some days were a struggle.

But every Sunday, I attempted to slow down.

My husband and I would read, play with the dog, clean the house. Talk. Play chess (poorly). Go on walks. We’d put our phones away in a lock box. I napped more than ever before during this period. It was glorious.

But as we all know: tech addiction is real, my friends. At random hours of the day, I’d find myself subconsciously swiping to social media, the muscle memory so ingrained that my flustered thumb would roam about the screen for a few seconds before realizing I’d deleted the application for the day.

I didn’t have the willpower to stay away from the application. I had to remove temptation entirely.

The alpha versions of Basis community ended with 2019. Since then, I’ve been thinking considerably about how this experience has helped my relationship with technology. I used to deactivate my accounts in a fit of rage for months at a time, only to begrudgingly sign back on once my willpower gave out — much like the woman who returns to the toxic relationship all while whispering to herself that “next time, I’ll leave for good.”

I’ve come to accept that social media will not be going away anytime soon.

It’s become the primary way many of us stay connected to people outside of our physical network. Doing a “social media rehab” once a week via a format like Basis was much more sustainable than going off the deep end for months at a time — I was also able to leverage the productive aspects of social media and stay connected to people I cared about near and far while simultaneously avoiding its pitfalls by allowing myself a weekly reset. A single day of more intentional living really does help break the dependency on my phone.

Boredom is not an enemy, it is a friend

When I attempted hard mode where zero consumption was allowed, not even reading, I failed at every single attempt. I simply could not manage the feelings of boredom and restlessness.

I haven’t felt bored in such a long time — it was so foreign. And so uncomfortable.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, explains:

Much in the same way that athletes must take care of their bodies outside of their training sessions, you’ll struggle to achieve the deepest levels of concentration if you spend the rest of your time fleeing the slightest hint of boredom. Cal Newport, Deep Work

This is social media’s inherent purpose: to distract from boredom.

In fact, if you continue to spend your days fleeing boredom to exist in a steady state of distraction, Cal Newport warns that eventually, you will lose the ability to perform deep focus work: the kind of work that impacts society in the long term.

This is, perhaps, one of the key benefits of a digital detox: resisting the quest for constant stimulation.

According to Dr. David Greenfield, Founder and Clinical Director of the Center for Internet and Tech Addiction: “The idea that you would sit for a minute and not pick up a screen is almost unheard of in our society today. The idea behind doing a digital detox is to redevelop that tolerance for boredom.”

When you are bored, your mind begins to wander.

Mind wandering is an interesting cognitive phenomenon: it unleashes the power of diffused thinking. Popularized by Barbara Oakley from the popular Coursera course Learning How to Learn, diffused thinking is one of the two primary modes of thinking and happens when our brains are in a relaxed and focused state.

During the diffused mode of thinking, our brains wander freely, making connections at random in our subconscious and unconscious minds. It is this type of thinking that exists in the Eureka! moments in the shower, and how we piece together the bigger picture of an abstract concept, or come up with an ingenious way to solve a problem we’ve been stuck on.

Allowing my mind a dedicated space to wander gave me the free space to think that I never prioritized during the week. I found myself coming up with a host of exciting ideas and projects I wanted to delve into, concepts I wanted to explore, or even just finally remembered where the hell I put that misplaced item I’d been searching for all week.

When there is no access to external stimulation, our minds turn inward and allows us to use our imaginations to think in different ways.

Research has proven how boredom promotes creativity. In a study by the Academy of Management Discoveries, people who were asked to do a low stimulation task — to individually sort a bowl of beans by color — out-performed on idea-generation than the alternate group that did a high stimulation activity instead.

When ranked by objective scorers, the low stimulation group were able to come up with better examples of excuses for being late that wouldn’t make someone look bad when they were scored across idea quantity and quality.

Lessons Learned from a Digital Detox

  1. My clarity of thought improved when I wasn’t constantly consuming content.
  2. With less distractions, I lost my train of thought less and improved my focus.
  3. Most importantly, I learned to sit with my own thoughts and resist the urge of consuming mindless content, to reject the need to be entertained all the time. It was sobering to realize just how much I craved constant stimulation and external distractions.

Despite the many, many mental struggles with this challenge, doing a weekly digital fast taught me many things:

I learned to welcome boredom and appreciate the value it brings to an unstimulated mind.

Now, when I wait in line or wait for the elevator, I resist the urge to grab my phone and instead, I consciously try to give my mind the space to think freely for a few minutes. Even if the only thing I’m thinking about is how to resist grabbing my phone, I hope it still represents progress.

For more information on the Basis community, check out basiscommunity.com and the founder’s personal reflection of his own digital fast experience.

Originally published at https://yinahuang.com on January 14, 2021.