What is a digital detox, and why so many times it simply doesn’t work?
Let’s start with the definition – “digital” might be obvious, but in the context of detoxes, it usually means screens and devices while “detox” stands for the process of getting rid of toxins from our body – so again in the context of digital detox we usually mean “unplugging”, “disconnecting”, “retreating offline”.
Why do we do it, and does it work?
I would say sometimes. If done wisely, it does if we are planning a digital detox – just like with a good diet – to improve our future habits. If we chose a digital detox simply to feel better right here and now, it might backfire and here is why:
- Digital is not simply screens and devices – this is obvious but often forgotten: our digital habits, activities, lives are complex, and thus we cannot simply switch them off. The content we consume or share online, the people we connect with and the activities we conduct online remain active in our headspace whether we are online or offline. The divide between offline and online is not so clear. If you disagree, please take a moment to consider the complexity of your identity: who you are offline and online, and where is the clear cut between the two?
- A digital detox does not improve our health – screens and digital devices are not harmful, or at least their impact is complex and depends on the context, the individual and what we actually do online. We know those vulnerable people might experience that the digital spaces amplify their challenges (bullying, poor body image, stress, anxiety). But we also know that resilient individuals thrive online. And even the line between those two groups is blurred. It really depends. So if online is not clearly “toxic”, how can we feel better if we unplug all together?
- People seek digital detox when things get bad – and I mean, really bad: when there is too much work, too many commitments, too much content and too many unpleasant online experiences; yes, cutting down on online time, moderating the sources of our news, avoiding bullies and building supportive online tribes is more accessible in “good times”, but it is should be an ongoing intention, we can, and we must curate our online reality to avoid such burnouts
- People seek digital detox when work/life is too much – this is a sad reality for many of us, but the modern economy expects us to be online more and more, and with the new pandemic reality, many employers use the move to remote work without much awareness about digital wellbeing. It can be hard to negotiate transition, and offscreen (or at least offline) work time and fewer Zoom calls, but this approach might just be more effective than escaping into the woodland for a few days. Digital detox won’t fix the reality.
I am aware of the negative sentiment of my post, and I apologise for it. I am astonished to see how attractive is the idea of digital detoxes and how many companies focus on this in their offer. At the same time, the challenges we face in our daily reality remain and often have not much to do with digital technologies. I hope that in those few points, I have at least opened up new avenues to think about small (or big) adjustments we can make to avoid needing a digital detox.
If we could live in a digital age where digital is not a toxin, how would our lives look like then?