Digital detoxing is a thing. Really

Stressed? Can't sleep? It might be time for some R&R off the grid.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
Unplug Digital Detox
Michał Dziekan

What started with my wife and me looking for an escape from digital overload has completely changed the way we take vacations.

I'd been pulling all-nighters. Endless calls with my colleagues made me late for dinners with friends, tied me to my phone nearly all hours of the day and left me frazzled.

Then I read a survey by American Express that floored me: Nearly 80 percent of vacationers expected to remain connected to the net for some or all of their vacation. More than two-thirds of them said they'd be checking their work email.

That inspired us to seek out our first disconnected vacation. We wanted to find a place that was remote enough that even the vast wireless networks that deliver YouTube videos, Facebook posts and work emails to our handheld gadgets couldn't find us. A place without Wi-Fi or cellular.

We found it in Jenner, California, a slow-going village (population 136, according to the last US Census) on the California coast, about two hours north of San Francisco. It has a coffee shop, a gas station, a couple of restaurants and a bar. And practically no cell service.

It was heavenly.

Maldives, little island resorts

There's a lot to be said for putting down the phone, especially when you're away in a tropical paradise. 

Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It's almost impossible to detach ourselves from the digital world these days. We check our phones 47 times a day, on average. Almost half of us check our phone at least once in the middle of the night, says consulting firm Deloitte, and nearly two-thirds of us reach for our phones within 15 minutes of waking up. And an astounding number of us say Wi-Fi is more important than sex, chocolate or alcohol.

It's why off-the-grid vacations are becoming a thing, whether to remote locales in places like Africa and Asia (Gobi Desert, anyone?) or to spas that combine luxe accommodations with safes to lock away your gadgets. There's also a growing number of "digital detox" programs just to get you to turn off your devices for a while.

"There is this awareness of, 'I know I need to cut back, but what do I do?' " says Sylvia Hart Frejd, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Wellness at Liberty University, which helps students learn about the dangers of digital saturation. "Technology is rewiring our brains for distraction and, in turn, addiction."

Digital detox

Dr. Caitlin Smith has a hard time getting away from her phone. A pediatric surgeon at Seattle Children's Hospital, she's constantly getting text messages, emails and phone calls from colleagues. She's also eaten with a phone next to her plate and slept with a pager by her pillow. Her digital lifeline was starting to look like a noose.


Can't get far enough from your phone? You might want to consider a trip to the Arctic Circle for a close inspection of the northern lights.  

Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/Getty Images

So when a friend suggested a weeklong trip to Canada's Northwest Territories in February to see the northern lights, Smith was intrigued. After she heard it was a digital detox ("learn how to manage your technology, not the other way around"), she signed up.

"I had a little anxiety intermittently about what was going on at work," Smith tells me by phone. "But the farther I got from home, the more relaxed I got."

Her trip was put on by Folk Rebellion, which offers clothing, tchotchkes and trips that promote "a return of offline living" and a "more mindful use of technology." It was founded by Jess Davis, a former digital brand strategist who noticed her creativity was drifting away and her memory, which she'd prided herself on, was slipping. That was about six years ago.

Give it up

But Davis couldn't let go of her phone — until one day at the start of a holiday in Hawaii, her husband asked her to hand it over. "I need you to be on vacation," she remembers him saying. She was so anxious she started to cry.

It took eight days to lose the stress. She decided to help others with the same problem. "This was my cross to bear in life: to tell people about what happens with an overuse of technology," she says.

Which brings us back to Smith's trip to the edge of the Arctic Circle.

On the day she arrived, Smith's group of about 20 people turned in their phones and other internet-connected devices after acknowledging how important they are. Some of them teared up.

For the first few days, Smith noticed she'd check her back pocket for her phantom phone, anxiously wondering what was going on at work. After a while, she realized she was focusing on what was around her.

"I felt less tired and more alive — literally being there and present," she says. "I felt like a weight had been lifted off me."

No escape

As more people look to get off the grid for a while, my wife and I have encountered a new problem: Prices for remote getaways are going up, and the number of easily reachable places without cell service is going down. 

Norman Reedus cover

See more from CNET Magazine.

Mark Mann

A few years ago, a woman I worked with excitedly told me about an upcoming trip to Easter Island, one of the most remote places on Earth. More than 2,300 miles from Santiago, Chile, and 4,300 miles from New Zealand, it typically involves a day's worth of travel to get there, no matter where you start from. Cheap seats can set you back at least $1,500. In other words, you have to work really hard to get there.

Addicted to her phone (like I am), she was both psyched and nervous for the forced severing of her connection to the outside world.

Until she landed.

That's when she pulled the phone out of her bag, heard the familiar ding as emails began flooding in, and messaged us she had arrived.

Cell service and all. 

This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.

It's Complicated: This is dating in the age of apps. Having fun yet?