Why Digital Detoxes Don’t Work

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 we are powerless to do much about 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 travelling 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. The phone will always keep trying to induce it in us. We want to step away — to detox but when we go back, we will feel it again. There is no healthy, anxiety-free way to use a smartphone.

Phone addiction is not an individual problem, and we are fools to think any personal action is going to make a dent in the issue. You can’t change your relationship with technology because the technology and the world are still the same as they were.

It would be great if we could be more intentional about the way we use our phones, but the apps aren’t on board with this plan. Facebook doesn’t want us to be able to check the location of a party we RSVP’d to without showing us 10 other events and a hundred other snippets of our friends’ lives.

Twitter doesn’t want us to tweet something without seeing everybody else’s tweets first. 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. Your phone shows you either your home screen or your most recent app when you pick it up; neither Apple nor Google has any interest in putting, say, a to-do list on the screen by default and hiding all the distracting apps. It doesn’t benefit them.

So you can stay away from technology a little bit at a time, for now. You can be all high and mighty about eschewing Facebook while you leave all the emotional labour to your wife. But there is no healthy way to use your phone, and nothing you can discover during a digital detox that will change the fact that mega-corporations use your attention — yes, yours — as fuel for stockholders. So take a “detox” if you like, but be honest with yourself: It’s just a vacation.

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