Digital tools give us a lot more flexibility, but they also lead to stress and anxiety. Tech entrepreneur and author Baratunde Thurston, the “world’s most connected man,” left the internet for a month to rediscover life and relationships. Here is a perspective on Thurston’s digital detox.
For over a year, I have used what’s called a digital detox — time spent completely disconnected from the internet — to refresh and relax. Sometimes, it’s just for a day, other times it’s for a couple hours.
I spend that time getting away from work and setting boundaries between my digital life and my personal life. That’s why I was happy to read Fast Company’s latest issue, which features this article from How to Be Black author Baratunde Thurston (“#Unplug: Baratunde Thurston Left The Internet For 25 Days, And You Should, Too”).
In the article, Thurston describes the loneliness and anxiety he felt from being over-connected. This led him to go on a digital detox for an extended period.
It wasn’t easy for him: after all, he is a media entrepreneur who owns a technology company. But through the process, he acknowledged what he really sought was to “be mentally free of obligations, most of which asserted themselves in some digital fashion.” And with this, he began to disconnect from social media, email, and other digital tools that had gone from fun diversions to obligations.
As Thurston begins to disconnect, he starts doing things he hadn’t done in a long time: reading long books, talking to friends without sharing the conversations on social media, and enjoying Brooklyn, his hometown. In the midst of his digital detox, he realizes that living a life through social media, apps, and digital tools is unsustainable without time disconnected from the internet.
Detox, not vacation
It’s interesting the word we’ve used to describe disconnecting isn’t “vacation” but “detox.” I’m not that old, but even I remember a time when a vacation meant just that: full disconnection from the world. There was no email, no immediate sharing with friends or family via social media, no connection with the outside world except maybe the occasional phone call or a quick read of the newspaper.
“Detox” suggests an addiction. A cure is needed. It is a cleansing of toxic substances. Why is it that all of this connection causes such turmoil? Why is it that we see it as an illness?
To me, it shows how over-connection affects our psyche. We start to live our lives through the tools that are supposed to make our lives easier, and then we become dependent on the tool instead of the reason why we use the tool, which is to connect and share with our friends, family and acquaintances.
Just like Thurston, we stop using digital tools for quicker communication or more meaningful connections. Instead, we use them for self-gratification: notice me, validate me, make me feel important. The idea of not having that validation creates anxiety, so we check our notifications or log on to our social media, obsessively tracking what people say about us.
Algorithms like Klout scores replace real experience. Your social influence is decided by the same digital tools that helps you build that influence.
A Solution: Disconnect in Small Doses
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not advocating for a complete withdrawal from the internet. I’m not a luddite. But I do acknowledge that for many people, too much connection can lead to anxiety, depression, or at least a sense of ennui.
Studies do support this idea. One report from The University of Edinburgh shows that people who have a high number of friends on social media show higher signs of stress. It appears to be a perception issue: the more people interact with you, the more you feel pressure to maintain that level of interaction. Since our social media sites tend to represent us at our best, it’s difficult to maintain that level of interaction, leading to stress and anxiety.
Even though I’m not nearly as connected as Baratunde Thurston and wouldn’t even pretend to have his level of influence, I get burned out on social media and digital culture. I have to step away and disconnect for significant periods of time.
While I’ve never disconnected for weeks or months, I take regular breaks from the internet. The term “detox” does seem appropriate. After a couple hours of disconnection, you begin to feel less pressure. I get more writing and reading done when I remove myself from the internet. I also enjoy my time with friends or family when I’m not checking my phone every time there’s a lull in the conversation. I’m not worrying about that email I just saw come through.
Overall, the internet is a good thing. It has helped professionals fashion careers from home without missing out on vital networking or social interactions. It helps people who have niche interests or hobbies connect with like-minded people around the globe. This site wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the community of readers that join me each week. I love the discussions on book culture and technology that I get to have with readers.
Yet, I like to have time where I don’t feel pressured to comment, like, +1, RT, circle, or poke. I disconnect on the weekends for an afternoon, or a whole day, and when I do, I find more time to finish projects or reflect on my goals.
For most people, that’s all you need. Just disconnect, and do so when you need it.
Thurston’s article has several suggestions, so check it out, and take time this summer to enjoy life without the internet.