Guest Columns Interesting and Timeless
4 mins read

Digital detox offers new perspectives on our relationship with technology


In times of crisis, we turn to the media for comfort and company. We hang on to the news for updates and vital information. We facetime each other and use social media to ensure that our nearest and dearest are well.

In calmer times (and even in crisis) many feel invaded by media and digital tools. A significant proportion of the population in digitally advanced countries report in surveys that they are “too much” online. Advice is frequent on how “to wean you off your device” (The Times, January 4, 2020). In Sweden, the “mobile box” (a box to put away your mobile) was deemed the trendiest Christmas present of 2019.

Ambivalence and digital detox

Taking a break – or talking about how much we are online – testifies to our ambivalence towards our gadgets.

There is nothing new in people feeling overwhelmed by new tech; books, telephones, television and many other inventions left users feeling invaded and overloaded. The significant difference today is the experience of 24/7 connection and a more intense and personal relationship with our devices. Getting offline is more of a struggle. Partial or temporary disconnection is a response to digitalisation in society and software designed to drive engagement and time use.

Presence, productivity, privacy

So far, we know little of how many people take digital breaks, how successful they are, and what they get out of it. However, we are starting to know more about why people want to self-restrict.

The most important is that people want to be more present in their lives, more attentive in conversations and more observant of the world around them. They want to replace FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – with JOMO – Joy of Missing Out. Taking an offline holiday, switching to flight-mode or using a “mobile box” are ways to increase here-ness.

A second reason is productivity: to waste less time, read more books, be more creative and focused at work or in school. Time and space restrictions – no smartphone in bed, only short breaks during office hours, designated offline areas in the house – are ways to avoid being interrupted. Using detox apps, turning of push-notifications and avoiding constant news updates are other methods.

Privacy is a third reason: self-restricting smartphone and social media use can be a way to share fewer data and also to know less about others’ private lives. Deleting apps and platforms and changing to more restrictive social media settings are other ways to take control.

Not just a lifestyle issue

In my book on digital detox, I show how digital detox is framed as a lifestyle issue. The growing number of self-help sites, blogs, consultancies, apps and retreats define the problem with invasive technology as one of individual self-control. The framework is borrowed from other self-help trends: well-being, mindfulness, de-cluttering and time-management. Corporate actors and self-help authors offer solutions to those in need.

Self-help may help, but there is no reason to believe that improved self-control will solve the problems of invasive technology. By placing responsibility on individuals, the handling of digital intrusions is reduced to a moral issue where users are either “good” or “bad”. In addition to all other “shames”, we now have “smartphone shame”.

To move beyond individualisation, it is crucial to understand how digital detoxing take on a different meaning in different contexts. Decisions to take a smartphone break is affected by more than our individual media habits. It is moulded by a diverse mix of ideologies, situations and social features – age, education, family situation, professional affiliations, roles and responsibilities, values and beliefs.

Skepticism, dislike and resistance in the 21st century

Taking a digital media break can be a way to survive work, protect moments of silence, increase reflection in classrooms, strengthen intimacy in relationships, or engage in “real life” community-building. It can also be a form of political activism, protesting global tech giants, or a measure to obtain a more sustainable lifestyle. Hence; studying digital detox offers new ways of understanding how people express ambivalence, skepticism and resistance in the 21st century.

Trine Syvertsen
Professor of Media Studies, University of Oslo

About: Trine Syvertsen is Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oslo. She has published extensively on topics of online media, television, media policy and media history, and is the author of several books including Media Resistance: Dislike, Protest, Abstention, and co-author of The Media Welfare State. Her forthcoming book is entitled Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting (Emerald Books, 30th March 2020), which is a guide to why digital detox and disconnection has become an important topic, how it is practised and what it says about the state of global media industries. It also illustrates how this form of disconnecting has much in common with other forms of self-help such as mindfulness, decluttering and simple living.