Digital Detox

Our house has been taken over by builders for the past three months. I know it will be worth it in the end – new staircase, new kitchen – but meanwhile there is dust everywhere, our belongings are stored away, and cooking is on a single gas ring. After the initial shock and adjustment to camping inside my own house, to my surprise, I have found this (enforced) simple living quite liberating and enjoyable. Admittedly, I spend most of my waking hours at school and my husband, who is at home more, might have a different viewpoint.

One consequence is that I haven’t watched television since February, and I really haven’t missed it. In fact quite the reverse, it has reminded me of what life was like only a few decades ago, before the digital revolution and smart phones, and when the news was not 24/7. When correspondence arrived by post once a day, telephones were landline and fixed to the wall (no scope to get out of earshot of one’s parents), with faxes for urgent written communications. E-mails, texts, social and digital media had hardly been conceived.

I am not harking back to the ‘good old days’ in a ‘rose tinted spectacles’ way, but I am thinking about the amount of uninterrupted time and space we had without the pressure of being connected to digital news, correspondence and social commentary 24/7.

We do not yet know the long term effects of the continuous streaming of media and social interaction but there is mounting research evidence that shows a strong link between this and the increasing levels of stress among young people today, and there is a worrying rise in levels of depression and mental illness among this age group. This not only comes from the pressure of social interaction 24/7, but also the sometimes devastating impact of being on the receiving end of a viral ‘bullying’ campaign, after the ending of a relationship for example.

Given our evident addiction to smart phones, gadgets and continuous connectivity, it would not be surprising if the impact was very significant. I have started cutting out articles (paper not digitally) and collecting information on this subject.

A new study by Deloitte on UK mobile usage habits revealed that the average Brit checks their phone 50 times in one day.

Unsurprisingly it is young people that are the most intensive users with nearly half of 18-24 year olds checking their phones every 15 minutes. The Deloitte research also informs us that the waking routine of most smartphone owners now starts with checking who has been in touch with them overnight. Apparently, most smartphone owners first check their text messages (33 per cent), followed by email (25 per cent), and then social networks (14 per cent).

Results from a recent research poll conclude that although we like the advantages of this new digital technology, there are also signs that some of us are looking for ways to take a break from it too. Almost two-thirds of adults in Britain already resent how much time they spend using their phones. Here are the reasons they gave:

  • It’s taking over my life – 36%
  • It causes arguments with my partner – 22%
  • I can’t live without it – 18%
  • It prevents me switching off from work – 14%
  • It stops me spending time with my family and friends – 9%The results are alarming, although it is encouraging that some people are starting to look for ways to take control of their gadgets rather than vice versa

So, what can we do?

One option is to limit our interaction. There seems to be an increasing expectation of an immediate response to any communication. I am fortunate in that school life largely protects me from this, however I would like to be able to manage expectations by putting messages such as ‘I check my telephone once a day’ or ‘at weekends, I will check texts/emails once a day’ or ‘in meetings all day’ on my phone.

Another option is to disconnect completely from time to time – a ‘digital detox’. Apparently there are now digital detox camps in the UK, following the trend in Silicon Valley where you surrender your phone to experience ‘life off the grid’. Also, I read (another article in the Huffington Post) that Innocent (smoothies and fruit juice) have just put on a digital detox music festival in the UK. On their website it says:

unplug. recharge.
Life’s a bit too connected these days, so we’re switching off for the weekend. Innocent un-plugged is a festival for grown-ups in Kent.

No wifi, no 3G, no traditional electricity. We’re unplugging for real. Any power that we need, we’ll generate together (with a bit of solar to help us along).

So leave your phone at home. Forget about Facebook. Turn off Twitter.

We’ll see you in the woods.

It sounds fantastic to me, although I won’t go to the music festival or to the woods! But the point is a serious one: that we can all organise our own digital detox and need to help our children and teenagers get in the habit of doing the same from time to time…


Hilary French, Headmistress, Newcastle High School for Girls, GDST

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