Phones and tablets have become a regular part of daily life — but what happens when they are taken away? We hear from Sophie Perri about why she decided to go cold turkey and give up technology.
IT started with an eye twitch.
“It’s just one eye and it won’t stop!” I told my editor over coffee, which come to think of it probably wasn’t helping the twitchy eye.
“You stare at screens too much,” she said.
“When I go home I try to put the phone away,” she continued, pointing to my phone sitting mere centimetres away from my hands.
“You should go on a digital detox.”
More and more people are embracing the digital detox — a period of time where one stays away from the smartphone, iPad, tablets, laptops and television.
It’s often used as a time to question your tech-use, develop more mindful tech habits and remember to look up, rather than down at the screen 24/7.
And so, I decided to try five days without my phone. It was hard. And, actually, kind of brilliant.
In Australia, figures suggest on average we spend almost one day every week online and our average social media use is higher than that of any other country.
Here, a digital detox is one of the four challenges of Feb Fast, a 28-day challenge to help raise money for youths with drug and alcohol addiction.
In America, there’s a digital-detox summer camp for adults called Camp Grounded. There’s also the National Day of Unplugging, which a Jewish cultural group started in 2010 so people could take a ‘Technology Sabbath’. In the UK, they celebrate National Unplugging Day on June 28.
But why do we need to unplug? Harvard Medical School scientists found that using a cell phone or laptop before bed can disrupt the body’s production of melatonin and negatively affect sleep quality.
Internet addiction disorder has become a recognised problem, with studies showing heavy users who turned off their devices encountered withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by drug users.
Other research shows digital addiction could contribute to depression and other mental health issues, poor concentration spans, anxiety, poor interpersonal skills, poor productivity and a constant state of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
Norwood hypnotherapist Clive Westwood said internet addiction tends to be an issue for people with anxiety disorders.
“People who have anxiety will come in and know (internet addiction) is one of their issues,” he said.
“They basically can’t stay away from the internet or social media because they’re getting worried they’re missing out on something, or something is being written about them. And that is starting to become more common.”
Even Facebook’s former marketing chief Randi Zuckerberg, whose brother Mark created the social media site, hailed the benefits of “unplugging to refresh”.
While in Australia in June this year, Zuckerberg told a story about how her son’s friend came over to play and referred to her laptop as “grandpa”.
“His mum said, ‘Oh, we Skype so much he thinks his grandpa lives inside the computer’,” Ms Zuckerberg said.
“So that’s when I realised, OK, our society really needs a digital detox when children think their family members live inside a computer.”
Someone who has become fed up with staring at screens night and day is Lauren Harper, make-up stylist, Mintcloud jewellery maker and co-owner of Regent Arcade store, Have You Met Charlie?.
She is in the middle of doing a digital detox of her own at Koh Samui’s Kamalaya Resort in Thailand.
After a hard year working on her phone, laptop and iPad for her three businesses, she decided it was time to switch off, and will spend four days without her digital devices in the hope it will help her use social media more productively in the future.
“The digital detox from my laptop, Facebook, Etsy, Instagram and the internet is to refresh my brain, stop me from thinking — massive over thinker here — and come back feeling refreshed and renewed not just in body but also in mind,” she said.
When I told Adelaide City Optometrist’s Paul Fotkou about my digital detox, he was surprised.
“Well done,” he said. “Have you got the cold sweats yet?”
He gave me the lowdown on eye twitches, stating that stress, dry eye, and screen use all play a role.
“It’s an involuntary reflex I see in a lot of people and on the whole, it’s both a stress and dry eye indicator,” he said.
“The main issue with the screen is the blue light that comes off it, the constant working distance and the lack of blinking, because when you concentrate your blink is reduced by half its rate.”
He added the Americans have coined the term “computer vision syndrome”, an eye strain caused by prolonged screen time.
The screens also omit a blue light, meaning it could mess with your natural body clock, he added.
“So if you’re looking at the screen at night, it tricks your body into thinking it’s daytime.”
I’m the kind of person who stupidly checks the phone five times in 10 minutes, especially at night. I’m constantly checking Instagram and Twitter, although I only use Facebook for work. So to outline my mission: I had to go from Monday to Friday without using my phone, iPad and all forms of social media. I couldn’t give up the computer, because if I did, this newspaper would be full of blank spaces. I was allowed to watch TV, because I was making the rules. Honestly though, I don’t remember the last time I watched TV without scrolling through Twitter on my phone and loading a YouTube video to watch in the ad break, so I was interested to see how I’d go.
I’m still seeing rows of smiling apples and oranges when I close my eyes because I’ve been playing Fruit Blast on the iPad too much. I use my phone calendar religiously, so I’ve jotted down all my meeting reminders on post-its and spread them out on my desk.
BZZZZ. My phone lights up and makes its first vibration of the day. A small pang of anxiety hits as I force myself not to check it.
I get over the stress until my colleague gets out our communal Haigh’s bilby, who sits on our desk partition. We’ve found a mini trolley for him and decide to stick a can of tuna in the trolley so it looks like he’s shopping. I can’t take a photo of it. This eats at me.
For lunch, I visit The Coffee Club. Usually I’d take out the iPad to check emails and do some work, or scroll through Twitter on the phone. The sounds of people talking and music playing is usually background noise as I stare at a screen, but today I am completely present. My sandwich arrives with a napkin that has the words “take a moment, not a selfie”. My first thought is to post a photo to Instagram. My second is to feel slightly creeped out The Coffee Club seems to know more about me than it should.
Later that night, I come home to find my cat curled up asleep under a blanket on my bed. I can’t take a photo of him, and the internet misses out on another cat picture.
I hit the pillow without streaming a podcast on my iPad and scrolling through my phone. At this point I realise how clear my mind already feels. Usually, my brain is like a crowded bus. The road is bumpy, everyone’s talking, and passengers keep pushing the button to get off at the next stop. Right now it feels like I’m the only passenger, and the bus is cruising along the expressway at a gentle hum.
I hop out of bed to write this analogy on paper.
Feeling: Relaxed and refreshed.
Usually, I wake up to my iPad alarm, but last night I made the risky decision to let myself wake up naturally. Due to the lack of screen time, I get a great sleep and wake up to chirping birds like I’m in some damn Disney film.
I get to work and my colleague asks if I received her picture message of a brown pigeon. She has forgot about my detox, but eventually I succumb to the pressure and … I open it. But I’m telling you about it (I’m a cheater, not a liar). I shouldn’t have done it though, because I see all the Twitter, Instagram and text notifications I need to check. Then I glance at my news feed and see a gossip headline “why is Demi Lovato jealous of Miley Cyrus?” I don’t know why I care, but it is killing me that I can’t find out.
I’m on time for a 10am meeting at a café, but I can’t find the person I’m meeting. I spend 15 minutes wondering where she is and getting annoyed that I can’t use my phone to text her. Turns out she was sitting further down. I feel frustrated again when it’s time to head home and I can’t check my bus timetable app. I end up waiting at the stop for 20 minutes, bored. On the bus, I’m forced to listen to the guy behind me blast awful heavy metal music in his earphones. Why is it always crap music that people listen to the loudest? You never hear Justin Timberlake on full blast. I cannot tweet this thought (that would have got at least one like and two unfollows).
I’ve had another good sleep and my eyes are feeling more relaxed by the day. I’m doing well without my beloved devices, and today I’ve surprised myself by how little I’m missing it. I’m feeling a lot more connected to myself. At the bus stop, I have the audacity to feel a bit smug as I look around and see every second person staring at their phones. I look up at the sky.
The phone is buzzing hard today but I’m not too worried. The real test is the social event I have to attend after work. I get there alone, and my first instinct is to whip out my phone. I resist, and keep walking, taking it all in before I bump into a familiar face. As I head to my car in the dark, I realise I’m starting to feel lonely. I can’t text or call my loved ones who I don’t see during the week.
I wake up feeling better than yesterday, and more relaxed. A busy day at work means I don’t have time to care about my phone today. Usually, I like to curl up on the couch watching YouTube with a Cheezel on each finger (because I let loose on Friday nights), but tonight I watch The Great Australian Spelling Bee. I’ve enjoyed watching TV this week – it feels like years since I’ve paid attention to a program. My impatience does get the better of me when the kids can’t spell “accelerator”. He doesn’t know if it ends in “er” or “or”. I know its “or” but then I start freaking out with the kid and start questioning myself. I want so badly to look it up on my iPad. Instead, I find an ancient dictionary which has been sitting on my desk for years, cough a little as the ancient fluff flies into my face, and flick to the page. The boy gets it wrong, and bites the dust. I know how he feels.
Saturday – that’s it
I must admit, the first thing I do on Saturday is check my phone. I have about eight messages, 10 Twitter mentions and dozens of Instagram notifications. I haven’t missed much. The funny thing is, being able to access my phone again makes me feel like I’m somehow back in control. It’s only when I check my phone obsessively for no reason, or browse the net mindlessly on the iPad, that I feel like my devices are controlling me.
I love my phone and iPad – they keep me entertained, in the loop, and connected. But taking a break from them has done exactly what I’d hoped it would and helped me recognise my bad habits. I feel healthier, in control and more in tune with myself. Truly.
And it’s nice having a twitch-free eye.