Let's get real about 'digital detoxing'

A new study hints that the perpetual multitasking enabled by always-on technology may be dangerous, but advocating self-imposed "digital detoxes" as a solution is like putting a Band-Aid on a broken wrist.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read
Technology addiction might be subject to a lot of media hype, but on the other hand, this really does sound disturbing. Twitter

We should all be panicking, obviously: the omnipresence of glowing, wireless gadgets giving us constant access to an unlimited amount of news and social-media toys is bad for our brains.

To be more specific, earlier this month a team from the University of California at San Francisco published research that claimed digital information overload, from the onslaught of Twitter updates from the site of the latest natural disaster to your mom's FarmVille updates to that YouTube video of the baby raccoon freaking out in a bathtub, can impair mental performance. Appropriately, the results come right around a week designated by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood as "Screen-Free Week," a "time to unplug and play, read, daydream, create, explore, and spend more time with family and friends.

It's geared toward kids, but the potential relevance of a "digital detox" is hardly restricted to the younger generation. We're all texting. We're (mostly) all on Facebook. And some of us will never be satisfied until we've read every last news story about the "Three Cups of Tea" scandal in the event of coming across some interesting new tidbit written about it.

The UCSF team's conclusions, therefore, are completely unsurprising. I don't think many people actually believe it's good for you to be relying on tweets and Facebook messages as your primary form of communication. I also would reckon that the average person would agree that there's something disconcerting about each person at a hypothetical dinner table being more fixated on his or her iPhone than on conversations with those physically present. And it really isn't too hard to see that the constant access to news and communication afforded by a smartphone with a Twitter client installed on it could turn into a psychological addiction. I have been accused of said addiction myself. Trust me.

But drawing a line between "good" and "bad" media has never been an easy task. Screen Free Week has its roots in an earlier campaign, TV Turnoff Week, that promoted the unplugging of television sets in order to encourage kids and their families to spend time outside, read books, and partake in meaningful human interactions. It's an honorable aim for sure. But even in a world without iPads or smartphones, the black-and-white assessment of onscreen entertainment as trashy and detrimental was a fuzzy one. Going by the letter of the law, it would have advocated ditching an episode of "Mad Men" or a PBS documentary about astronomy in favor of the latest teen-vampire drivel or the recent novel "authored" by reality star "Snooki." That probably wasn't the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's goal.

Now, looking at the current landscape, we live in a world in which the dual force of personal gadgets and social media have opened up countless new possibilities--to read books, to keep abreast of global news that doesn't make it to the local paper, to reconnect with old friends. The books we read, the human connections we make, and even some of the most popular in-the-flesh social activities (I'm thinking of the party video game trend kick-started by Wii Sports) have gone digital. Dealing with technology's potential detrimental effects is not about simply shutting things off. It's about finding a well-thought-out, nuanced lifestyle balance between the promises of technology and its potential to bring on a total information overload. Instead of encouraging people to ignore "screens" for a week, maybe we should be talking about these issues.

The plain truth is: we pick and choose our media, and if we view our electronic impulses as something to manage the way we do with diet and exercise habits, we can make a change. The mere presence of always-on, constantly flowing news and media doesn't mean we have to tune into it. Just because someone sent you a Facebook friend request doesn't mean you have to approve it immediately. The fact that KFC makes those "Double Down" sandwiches doesn't mean you have to eat them.

But falling victim to tech excess is a little more complicated than giving up fast food. It's going to take the adoption of real social norms, not just efforts on behalf of individuals. Turning off your smartphone after you get home from work? That's admirable, unless you're one of the many professionals whose bosses insist that their BlackBerrys be turned on and accessible at all hours. Encouraging the kids to stop filching your iPad to get in another few rounds of Angry Birds? Sure, but there's a chance now that there's heavy iPad use going on in their classrooms--talk about mixed messages. And many of us know all too well that we'd like to put our phones away more, but that our friends and colleagues have come to expect quick responses from us. If we don't respond to e-mail, they'll text. If we don't respond to the texts, they'll call. If we don't pick up the phone, then they expect we're really up to no good. It's a vicious current that we can get sucked into all too easily.

If gadget or social-media addiction is a real problem, which I believe it is, it's an addiction that we should understand the way that we have a general grip on what constitutes alcoholism, overeating, or overexercising. Considering how long it's taken to identify and figure out how to deal with video game addiction, something which I think is very real and far more problematic than your inability to stop checking into bars on Foursquare, it may be a while for acknowledgment of general tech addiction to follow suit.

But a "digital detox," for most of us, is the equivalent of a fad diet or workout gimmick. It's probably not going to do much to affect our lifelong habits or well-being, and to use a cliche, it's like putting a Band-Aid on a broken bone--if it's even helpful at all. But proponents of a "Screen-Free Week" could acknowledge that it's an unrealistic lifestyle experiment, and instead use the soapbox of media attention to promote the genuine, more complicated issues that come with our gravitation toward a life gone digital. It'd involve tackling complicated issues of communication, etiquette, and family dynamics head-on, like flagging parents to the examples that might be set if they're trying to teach their kids to stop texting their friends during dinner while they themselves are chained to their BlackBerrys.

Meanwhile, my screens are staying on this week, but I'll put them away while partaking in dinner or drinks with friends. Except when somebody says something that's hotly contested and I absolutely need to grab my iPhone and Google it to find out who's right and who's wrong. It's a great way to settle an argument. One of technology's great possibilities: Arbiter of the truth.