Why Digital Detoxes Don't Work

(*)(**)(***)(****)Being without your phone is a luxury these days. If you can manage it, you are either on vacation, or you have a staff to handle all your digital grunt work. For the rest of us, tech is both a distraction and a necessity. And a digital detox doesn’t do much to change that.(*****)(******)What is the point of a detox?(*******)(****)The original point of a detox was that if you literally have a toxic substance in your body, you need to get rid of it. Our bodies do not accumulate a substance called “digital,” so this concept does not apply. (*****)(****)A digital detox is more like a crash diet. You eat nothing (or, like, just juice) for a time, with the hopes that you get skinnier during that time. You may hope that you’ll get out of the habit of eating high-calorie food (or checking your phone all the time). But really, it’s just a way of assuaging guilt before you go back to your old habits. (*****)(******)“Detoxes” only feel good because they’re vacations(*******)(****)There are two ways to do a digital detox. One is to simply use your phone less while living your normal life, which is basically impossible, because your normal life probably depends a lot on your phone. (*****)(****)If you are rich, you can detox by taking a special digital detox vacation. If you are not, you may still find that a regular vacation leaves you without the use of your phone (shout out to that campground in the mountains last year where my phone had no signal all weekend). And for the rest of us, there’s always the staycation option: tell everybody we’re going offline, uninstall some apps, and try to keep busy in other ways. Invite people over for board games. (*****)(****)If you enjoyed your digital-detox resort, or your weekend of board games, you may come back with stories about how (********)present(*********) and (********)connected(*********) you felt, how much better you slept. News flash: You had fun because you were on vacation. You gave yourself a bunch of things to do that were more fun than scrolling through Twitter on the toilet. There’s no way to apply this in real life: You can’t transport yourself to Aruba for ten minutes when you’re waiting for the bus. Your friends will not come over for board game night every time you decide you are bored.(*****)(******)You can’t return to a phone-free life(*******)(****)During the food/juice type of detox, the allure is that you’ll feel so great you won’t even miss the junk food; you’ll eat cucumbers for breakfast every day for the rest of your life now that you’ve pushed the reset button. (*****)(****)But there’s no equivalent way to return from a digital detox. You can turn off most of your notifications, and get in the habit of putting your phone down more often, but it’s not like you can actually live a phone-free life.(*****)(****)“But people used to!” say the naysayers. Really, though. Are you going to buy fold-out road maps and only know if there’s a traffic jam if it’s bad enough to get reported on the local news? Get a paper dictionary? Buy an encyclopedia from a traveling salesman? Rescue the next Yellow Pages that gets dumped in your front yard, and hope that the businesses you might need to find actually still pay for advertising in it? Give the babysitter the number of the restaurant where you’ll be on date night, so they can ask the staff to get a message to you in case of an emergency? This isn’t a sustainable solution.(*****)(******)FOMO is a feature, not a bug(*******)(****)The anxiety we feel from constantly checking/wanting to check our phone is the FOMO (fear of missing out) that’s built in to the app and phone experience itself. It’s a design feature, not a flaw. There is no completely healthy, anxiety-free way to use a smartphone. They wouldn’t have become so ubiquitous if we felt we could take them or leave them. (*****)(****)And so we are captivated by the fantasy of the detox. When there is a big systemic problem, we start looking for individual solutions: I’ll just take a break. (*****)(****)But detoxes don’t work because they are an action that individuals take, and phone addiction is not an individual problem. (*****)(****)Instead, the best we can do is to negotiate with our devices on an ongoing basis, and recognize the ways they try to shape our behavior. Facebook doesn’t want us to be able to check the location of a party we RSVP’d to without showing us (*************) other events and a hundred other snippets of our friends’ lives. Even checking messages from a boss or co-worker, you can’t do that without Slack stage-winking at (********)all these unread messages over here(*********).(*****)(****)So we can tell our phones to block certain apps at certain times. We can limit notifications, and turn off raise-to-wake. We can put our phones down during dinnertime, or tell co-workers we won’t be answering messages after 5 p.m. Setting up all these little boundaries can be exhausting, and no tech company has much of an incentive to make it easier, but we do still have some options.(*****)(****)In a sense, it is a hack to quit Facebook and leave all the emotional labor to your wife. But there is nothing you can discover during a digital detox that will change the fact that mega-corporations use your attention as fuel for stockholders. So take a “detox” if you like, but be honest with yourself if it’s just a vacation.(*****)(****)(********)Updated 3/(************)/(***********) shortly after publication to add more suggestions for ways to manage our relationship with our phones. (*********)(*****)(**********)

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