If you think that texting and driving is dangerous, you’ve clearly forgotten what it’s like to drive with a road map in front of your windshield. I’m an hour into my three days of digital detoxing – no screens whatsoever – and I’m unable to find the restaurant I’m supposed to have arrived at half an hour ago. I am stressed out, making illegal U-turns and feeling increasingly less sure of why I committed to turning off the iPhone tucked inside the car’s centre console: a device that could deliver everything I need in a calm, commanding voice. This can’t be good for me.
Science, however, disagrees. A university department’s worth of research suggests that our internet-enabled devices are making us more miserable. Blue light is suppressing our sleep hormones, social media is fuelling anxiety, and messaging services are eroding our empathy. Most of these studies are conducted on teens – those who have never known a life offline and the cohort we are most comfortable associating with so-called digital addiction. In this group, according to the US psychologist Jean Twenge, problems start to occur with just two hours of screen use per day during leisure time. That amounts to little more than a skim of the headlines, a few double-taps on your lunch break and a nightly Netflix fix.
Twenge argues that young people have more free time than ever before, yet they choose to spend it “on their phone, in their room, alone and often distressed”. An article in the Wall Street Journal goes a step further, claiming that teens are now so unaccustomed to any input not from a phone that even the sound of a doorbell “freaks them out”.
I have never had an issue with doorbells. But the rest? I’d be lying if I said I saw nothing of myself in these stories. Before my digital detox, I was fairly certain that I wasn’t an addict but – like someone asking a doctor how many drinks a day makes you an alcoholic – I wanted to know how much time on my phone was too much. If I discounted my job, I was pretty sure I logged on for less than two hours a day. Just to check, I downloaded Moment, a free app that tracks your active phone usage, not including when you’re on a call or listening to music. (I’m tech-addicted enough to believe that I can solve my app-usage problem with an app.)
Moment warns that most people underestimate their screen time by 100 per cent. I tried to lay off the phone a bit on the first day, probably because Instagram and Twitter had trained me to believe that everything is a competitive game, and I wanted to ‘beat’ Moment. But it turned out that I didn’t use my phone for the hour or so that I’d suspected. I used it for two hours and 32 seconds, picking it up 46 times and clocking 16 minutes immediately after waking. And that’s just my phone. I waste a lot of time on my laptop scrolling through Twitter, news, emails and – I admit – porn.
Moment estimates that people check their phones, on average, 50 times each day – and this figure refers to users concerned enough about their relationship with tech to download the app. It also discovered that they spend the most time on Facebook, followed by Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube and WhatsApp: websites and apps that, along with Reddit, people say leave them most dispirited.
I have tried to curb my tech habit before – and failed. Several years ago, I attempted a 24-hour detox as part of the National Day of Unplugging, an initiative organised by Reboot, a Jewish group updating the Sabbath. My wife and I assumed we’d be having sex by candlelight that night, but after getting lost on our way to a party and being unable to text for help, we ended up with no candles, no sex and – after giving up three hours in – no detoxing.
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To prevent another failure, I’m checking myself in for two days at the Restart Center for Digital Technology Sustainability, a rehab facility for online addicts located near Redmond, Washington – the home of Microsoft. Admittedly, I am taking a blister to a burns unit: the programme I’m auditing runs for 45-90 days.
One morning, at 9am, I drive up a remote, wooded road to a two-storey house that Restart uses to accommodate its clients. Hilarie Cash, the programme’s co-founder, takes my coffee away before I enter. No caffeine is allowed here, and neither is alcohol or refined sugar. I walk into the living room and join six men in their early twenties who are sitting in a circle for a meeting. They look exactly how I’d imagine online addicts to look: four are underweight, two are overweight, all have atypical facial hair and only one looks remotely awake.
Most of those who enrol at Restart are young, and nearly all have rich parents (staying here costs around £500 a day). Many will not return to their computer-based jobs, instead accepting low-wage placements until they can decide on a less dangerous career.
Gaming is the commonest form of addiction, and the majority of people here played for 6-18 hours a day, along with periods of binge gaming. There are simple reasons why it’s so easy to be seduced. Games are competitive, skill-building activities with clear reward structures. They have no real end point and are designed with a high level of psychological sophistication.
But the same could be argued for social media. The path to addiction is the same, whatever the crutch. Each time we log on, our brains release the chemical dopamine, which floods our nucleus accumbens – our ‘pleasure centre’. Each point scored or ‘like’ garnered gives us just a little bit more and, over time, this induces a craving. A scratch we can’t itch.
As the addiction specialist Beth Burgess explains to me later, “When we experience something that produces a high payback for little effort, our brain floods with dopamine, the reward hormone. Then our hippocampus, the ‘learning’ part of the brain, records this quick-and-dirty route to satisfaction, cueing us to seek it out again.
“The trouble is, the more we overload the brain with unnatural rewards, the more burnt out our dopamine receptors become. The rewards become less pleasurable over time, yet we pursue them, trying to experience the same high. At this point, we are compulsive and miserable – a slave to addiction.”
The men at Restart seem fairly depressive but, as I soon learn, they’re also smart and sensitive. They were once well rounded. The ones who didn’t drop out of high school went on to good colleges. They played sports. Many had girlfriends. One worked for a senator on Capitol Hill and then in venture capital overseas. Several play instruments; I hear skilful solo piano versions of Take Five in the music room later in the day. Their pop culture references are broad. It feels more like a college dorm than a rehab centre.
A Mormon from Utah tells me that porn addiction is a huge problem in his community because of the shame – church leaders will shun anyone who admits to it. He checked himself in after his last porn marathon. “Capitalism is all about controlling your attention. I want to better know how to defend my mind against the people who want to exploit it for money,” he tells me.
Meanwhile, a redhead who cannot weigh more than 55kg says he managed to log 2000 hours on the online game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds over a period of a few months. He briefly became number two in North America. Another guy spent his days gaming in a PC cafe and his nights in a homeless shelter after his parents threw him out. “I’ve noticed my ability to sit through long movies has diminished,” he tells me. “We’re not talking Tolstoy adaptations. We’re talking Star Wars – I’m unable to sit through popcorn movies.” He wishes his parents had confiscated his devices when he was 16, though he admits he would have raged against them. After so much time online, his interpersonal skills have atrophied. “When I got here, it was really hard for me to make eye contact with people,” he says.
Even with this new group to talk to, the lack of digital stimulation makes my day crawl. I don’t have FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) as much as FOBIT (‘fear of being in trouble’). It’s my son’s first day of his new school term, and something might have happened. My mother is at the doctor’s to find out if she needs an operation. My lawyer might need a form to transfer my book rights to my new company. My column in Time magazine is running in four days and there will inevitably be questions from my editor.
This is the trap we’ve landed ourselves in. Excessive stimulation – whether in the form of rolling news or email push notifications – impacts upon the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, making us impulsive and irrational. But without it? Well, without it we feel anxious.
To pass the time, I try to focus on the present and talk to the guys. We go to a meeting with a sex addiction counsellor and I share my experiences of using porn to escape writer’s block. Afterwards, we do a hard CrossFit workout in the garage, then go to another meeting. Later, we clean the house and cook dinner. The only assumption I’ve had confirmed all day is that you do not want to eat meals prepared by gamers.
At dusk, one of the counsellors – a former addict featured in the 2016 documentary Screenagers – leads a meditation session in a small cabin in the vast backyard. Staff here teach
you tricks for dealing with internet-use triggers, most ofwhich you will have heard. (Go outside! Exercise! Keep your phone at least an arm’s length away from your bed!) But the main thing we’re learning is how to deal with boredom.
It’s too easy to set myself apart from my fellow patients with their addicted brains and destructive compulsions. But they game for the same reason we pick up the phone every 20 minutes. We are uncomfortable with our feelings – anxiety, anger, shame, self-doubt, loneliness – and want to self-soothe. This impulse is normal, says Burgess: “Many people try to use their phones to distract themselves from negative feelings. You can get near-instant validation of your self-worth when other people like or share your social posts.” But, as she points out, this can backfire. “What if you receive no positive feedback? It’s a really unreliable method of making yourself feel better.”
One way of dealing with this, we learn, is to use natural periods of boredom – your morning commute, say – to practise stillness. It’s not meditation as such. It’s just allowing yourself to be, to exist unentertained. At Restart, the counsellors encourage us to use what they refer to as ‘the six Rs’. First, you recognise a negative emotion and know that it doesn’t define you (“I’m feeling angry” instead of “I’m an angry person”). Second, you release the thought. Then you relax by focusing on your breath, ‘re-smile’ (presumably what it sounds like), return to your mind by recalling a happy memory, and repeat. In short, they teach us to calm down.
Online addiction, like any other kind, often masks deeper personal problems. Restart addresses this through something called ‘impact letters’. These are from loved ones who detail how the addict’s behaviour has affected their lives. Each person has to read his letter out loud to the group, the first time he reads it.
The one we’re gathered for tonight is from the recipient’s father, who describes how he couldn’t make his son leave the sofa for basic hygiene, and how his body odour was so bad that his mother couldn’t be in the same room with him. The group is silent. Eventually, one of the guys asks if his hygiene has improved since he arrived at Restart. He looks down and says he hasn’t showered in his five weeks here. A former high school football player offers to wake him up at 7am every day and stand guard outside the shower. The young man responds that being seen naked by his room-mate panics him.
Then he makes a confession. His addiction, he says, isn’t really about Twitter and YouTube. The problem is that he spends six hours a day watching furry porn, which involves people in animal costumes. We applaud his honesty, assuring him that he is too young to have wasted his life. As we get up to leave, he asks if it’s too late at night to shower. He returns holding a towel aloft to make sure it’s not anyone else’s. Then we hear the water run.
The next morning, a wake-up call at the hotel gets me out of bed at 7am and I spend another day with the guys in meetings, working out, reading, cooking and generally being bored. But after 24 hours, my mind has started to adjust. I’m reaching for my phantom phone less frequently. By the time I leave, my FOBIT is easing.
When my flight home lands, I switch on my phone to get a cab. Over the past three days, I have amassed four voicemails, 16 texts and 136 emails. I sort through them in less than an hour on the drive. The experience isn’t uncomfortable, since responding is a conscious task and not an interruption of one. And although all of those things I FOBIT-ed occurred, being a little late in responding hasn’t done any harm. No one noticed my digital absence. I erase Twitter and Facebook from my phone. (I’ll save those for the laptop.) I put everyone but my wife, parents and sister on ‘do not disturb’.
Soon afterwards, as I’m getting my eight-year-old son ready for school, he asks me if I learned how to use my phone less. I say I did. He tells me about a time we were playing the board game Catan, and I was running back and forth between turns to answer emails. I promise him that I know how not to do that any more. I will embrace the analogue detachment of parenting – which makes sense, since being with my son is what I visualised as my happy memory in the meditation. I’d grown so bad at feeling real emotions that I’d become bad at feeling happy, too.
Words by Joel Stein