What I learned about digital addiction by going swimming with my cellphone

There’s been a fair bit written recently about the need for a “digital detox,” or taking time away from the online world and our digital devices to reconnect with each other, whether through a special event like Camp Grounded or via a self-imposed fast like the one author and comedian Baratunde Thurston wrote about. Coincidentally, I conducted my own unofficial experiment in digital detoxification last week, and it came about in an unusual sort of way: simply put, I jumped into a river with my cellphone in my pocket.
As a result, I was without my phone for most of the week, and I also happened to be in a remote area with very little internet access. The combination of those two things made for a self-enforced — but at the same time, not entirely voluntary — vacation from the internet. And while I didn’t experience any life-changing epiphanies of the kind imagined by people who attend things like Camp Grounded, I did discover a thing or two about my internet use and its effect on me.
For the better part of the week, I couldn’t do anything on the internet without a lot of hassle, which involved either walking up a large hill and holding a device at a specific angle in order to get a weak cell signal (which reminded me of the days when people had to hold their “rabbit ear” TV antennas at a specific angle to get a TV signal), or going up to a room in our cabin with a dedicated USB modem and paying heavily for the privilege of getting a low-bandwidth connection.
social media

It was the little things I missed most

The upshot of all this was that I spent the week more or less without Twitter, without email, and without all the other services that I am normally connected to virtually all day and all night, from Instagram and Facebook to Flickr and our internal GigaOM chat client, Socialcast. I also didn’t have a camera with me at all times — or a calculator, or an encyclopedia, or a game machine — the way I normally have with a smartphone, and in some ways I noticed that lack even more than the lack of Twitter or Facebook access.
I wrote about Camp Grounded recently — as Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic did in his own piece — and argued that such forced detox programs, like the year-long vacation from the internet that Verge writer Paul Miller took, don’t really transform us in the way we sometimes wish they would. We don’t become dramatically different or better people without the internet, or spend our free time doing the intellectually fulfilling things we dream of doing. Sure enough, I found plenty of ways to waste time and ignore my responsibilities without requiring the use of social media or my cellphone.
Of course, it helped a lot that I was on a lake during a massive heat wave, with plenty of people around and lots of fun things to do, like kayaking or chainsawing up trees that fell during a mini-tornado that went through the area. I wonder whether my detox would have gone so well in the depths of winter with nothing much to do other than shovel snow, and not many people around. As with so many things, one of the most powerful sources of my social media or online addiction is plain old-fashioned boredom.
Like my friend and former colleague Melanie Coulson, who conducted a more traditional experiment in going without the internet recently, I found I missed a lot of news and that troubled me — but not as much as I expected, given my reliance on Twitter as a news source. To be honest, what I missed most were the small things: the comments from friends after posting a photo on Instagram, the status updates on Facebook about important events in the lives of family members, the casual jokes or spirited debates on Twitter, etc.

Not a detox, but a series of small steps

In the same way Baratunde did, I started to think about whether I am too obsessed with getting real-time information not just about things that really matter, but about everything. Is that really necessary? Probably not. I’m willing to admit that sometimes I too get wrapped up in how many clicks my blog post got or on checking the retweets of something I thought was particularly insightful. And I’m also guilty of allowing what I would like to think of as a boredom-killer to take over much more than just my spare time.
So what is to be done? Do we all have to go on digital detoxes and special technology-free weekends or spend days arranging things with our assistants so that we can disconnect? To use a technology term, that doesn’t really scale. Is it good to disconnect for awhile? Sure it is, especially when we are with friends or family. But the answer isn’t to try and get rid of technology — it’s to figure out how to manage it better as a part of our lives.
For my own part, I’m trying to find ways of reducing my reliance on the phone and a constant real-time connection, whether it’s deliberately leaving the phone behind when I go somewhere or turning off the notifications I get from apps and services (which I wrote about earlier this year as being part of the reason I chose to switch from an iPhone to an Android). I’ve also started using Twitter’s website instead of a Tweetdeck dashboard with multiple columns, because — ironically — the website is so user-unfriendly that it actually makes me use it less.
Maybe if I take those small steps now and then, I can disconnect just enough to not feel guilty about being connected all the time. And then I won’t have to jump in any more rivers with my phone in my pocket.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / conrado and Shutterstock / nopporn