Time for a Digital Detox?

By Carolyn Camilleri

Does the thought of having no Wi-Fi send a wave of panic through you? It does for me. My job depends on being connected, and it’s how I stay in touch with friends and family. The volunteering I do wouldn’t even be possible without online communication. Hobbies, interests, entertainment, how many steps I walk daily — it’s all in my phone. And I’m okay with that. I love living in the digital age.

But there is a dark side — and everyone knows it. It’s a line that gets crossed. Endless messages and emails. The aggravation of notifications. The pressure to look and respond right away. Bouncing from topic to topic, chat to chat. Hours go by scrolling social media and retail sites, and it’s so easy to forget why you were online in the first place.

Well, here’s one for you: Google “digital detox.” I got 76,700,000 results. “Digital detox British Columbia” gave me 763,000 results. Page after page of information and suggestions. You can even download apps to fight “phone addiction.” It’s a rabbit hole.

But digital behaviour is something to take seriously, and you don’t need your phone to take the first step.

You know your phone is stressing you out, right?

Monica Kvas is a registered clinical counsellor (RCC) who specializes in helping people with anxiety and stress at her practice, MK Life Coaching and Counselling. She says our connection to our devices was bad before and has gotten worse since the pandemic. But it’s not just social media — it’s also work, overlapping with our free time.

“When technology became available, it was supposed to make our lives easier, and, instead, it has made our lives harder,” says Kvas. “There’s no off switch for people. Before technology, you would get home and you had a telephone, but there were no emails. You had time to mentally and physically relax. Now, people get emails at all hours and it’s expected that they answer.”

Kvas says people are showing acute and chronic conditions, including anxiety, depression and burnout. A digital detox is one of the ways Kvas helps people combat that stress. She often starts with this exercise.

“I encourage people to not look at their phone for the first 30 minutes of their day, and a lot of people find that difficult,” she says. “Then it becomes, okay, what can you do? Can we start with five minutes? Can you give 10 minutes?”

For people who don’t think they have a problem, that little assignment is a wake-up call.

Next steps may involve deep breathing and mindfulness, noting that mindfulness is a broad term.

“There are so many things you can do: yoga, meditation,” Kvas says. “And there are so many different types of meditation, qigong, tai-chi.”

She helps people find something that resonates with them. “I’ll have one client start yoga and absolutely love it, and another hate it. And that’s okay. Let’s try something else.”

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be complicated.

“You can bring mindfulness into folding laundry or washing dishes by bringing all your senses into it, bringing yourself into the present moment and just focusing on that one task — that’s mindfulness,” says Kvas. “And trying to use dead time, like if you’re waiting in line or even driving. In a supermarket line, everybody’s on their phones waiting, but that could be an opportunity to do some deep breathing and just ground yourself.”

She encourages people to remove social media apps from their phones. “Look at them if you have to once a day on your computer, so it’s a little bit more work.”

But be prepared for what happens when you do turn off the phone.

“Because technology is so addictive, it’s very overstimulating,” says Kvas. “When people do actually shut everything off, it’s almost an eerie feeling for them to be alone with themselves. That can be really scary, and that’s when uncomfortable emotions can come up.”

Remember that a detox period needs to be sustained and change takes time.

“Because everything is so instant in our society, we expect instant results,” she says. “But it takes time, especially if you’re someone who’s been under intense stress for years. You’re not going to feel the benefits right away.”

But the benefits are worth it.

“It’s about getting back even just small pockets of groundedness so you can hear yourself think and feel calmer, because you’re more efficient when you’re calm and grounded throughout the day.”

What if you really, really can’t put the phone down?

Benjamin Shing Pan Wong, RCC, helps people and their families address issues related to digital use, specifically gaming disorder.

“Given what we know of how our brains work — the most up-to-date neuroscientific understanding of our brain and our behaviours — we’re creatures of habit,” says Wong. “The more time and energy we invest in certain activities and behaviours, they become our go-to option in almost every endeavour.”

For example, if we’re shopping or looking for a meal, entertainment or legal advice, where do we look first? Probably online.

“That’s what everybody does, which by itself is not necessarily a problem, but now our options are limited by such conditioning,” says Wong. “And for some people, they take a step back to re-evaluate their lives and how they want to spend their time, and they may say, ‘Well, that’s not exactly how I want to spend my time.’”

Often it’s much more time than originally planned.

“That speaks to the power of how electronic devices engage our attention,” says Wong. “They’ve got a certain draw, a certain pull, a certain personality of their own. These devices, they’re not neutral in the sense of a tool.”

Part of it has to do with how powerful and portable our devices have become — they are designed to accompany us everywhere, and we are willingly tethered to them.

“We want those benefits to accompany us always, 24/7,” says Wong. “And there’s the reason behind what electronic devices do to us psychologically, physiologically, mentally, socially — how all of these questions have formed perhaps the fastest-growing emerging field in psychological research.”

How do you know if you have a problem? Without going into the clinical details of a diagnosis, three conditions are considered, 
all of them starting with the letter C.

“The issue of control is, ‘Am I in control of my devices or are my devices leading my way?’ That’s the first issue to think about,” Wong says.

The second is compulsion: “If, in my conversation with you right now, in the back of my head, I’m thinking about that photo I loaded up onto my Instagram account, and I’m wondering how many likes and hearts that photo is generating. In a sense, my mind is not quite here with you. My mind is someplace else. That’s compulsion.”

The third is consequences: “If my digital behaviours are already bringing into my life negative consequences — consequences that are not desirable; consequences that are destructive of my health, my relationships, my ability to attend to important matters in my life — and yet I continue to maintain the same level of engagement, spending the same amount of time, or possibly even more, then I’ve got a problem.”

If all three C’s are checked, Wong’s recommendation is to start a conversation with a professional who deals with these issues. If you’re not quite at the 3-C level, think about your schedule and try to be more purposeful with your online activities.

“It’s about being disciplined,” says Wong. “And, keep in mind, not all screen time is created equal. There is productive screen time and unproductive screen time. Unproductive screen time is what we want to reduce and eliminate, if possible.”

When you find yourself browsing mindlessly or playing video games with no exact ending, it’s time to detach and do something else.

You are surrounded by the greatest digital detox opportunity there is …

John Fraser, RCC, calls himself a nature connection mentor.

“Reconnecting with nature is powerful, powerful therapy, but not just therapy,” he says. “Even from a perspective of recentering you, getting a bit of calm, getting out of the rat race for a little while — on so many fronts, people are drawn into nature.”

As a complement to his counselling practice, Fraser operates Elemental Magick Adventures, offering Mystical Rainforest Tours for groups and Self-Discovery Quests for individuals. Both combine classic forest bathing with what Fraser calls “a little bit of nature mysticism.”

Forest bathing is mindfulness. “It’s slowing down, being in the present moment, really seeing, smelling, touching, hearing. Intentionally bringing yourself into the present moment, looking at the different shades of green, watching the leaves dance in the wind, listening to the birds singing, closing your eyes and listening to a stream.”

Nature mysticism is the idea that the forest is aware of you — that there’s sentience.

“If you’re open to the idea that the forest senses you, knows you’re there and is reaching out to offer you some kind of guidance, support, nurturing, healing — whatever it is you need — if you’re open to it, there are certain tools and techniques to tune into and hear that calling,” he says.

Fraser teaches people how to connect with nature as a therapist, as a tool they can use, and not just for peace and relaxation but for genuine healing. The forest works like a sedative without side effects, shifting the nervous system and lowering blood pressure. It can change someone at a profound, fundamental level.

To counter too much time online, Fraser says go for a walk in a forest and don’t take your phone.

“If you are really feeling like you’re going through withdrawal if you don’t bring a phone, be mindful of that anxiety,” he says. “Acknowledge it, but distract yourself with mindfulness. Bring your focus back to what’s going on around you.” 

For people who fail at meditating, bringing your focus into nature is much easier.

If you want to return down the rabbit hole of a digital detox Google search, sure, spend some time scrolling through pages. Then put down your phone, do some deep breathing and go for a walk in the trees.

Deep dive detox

If you want more than just a reduction in your digital use, these books may be your introduction to an entirely new way of living.

Lean Out: A Meditation on the Madness of Modern Life, by Tara Henley (Penguin Random House Canada, 2020).

Lean Out is described as a deeply personal and informed reflection on the modern world and why so many feel disillusioned by it. Henley connects the dots between anxiety and overwork and confronts the biggest issues of our time.

How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell (Melville House, 2019)

One of former President Barack Obama’s “Favorite Books of 2019,” How to do Nothing has been called a “field guide for dropping out of the attention economy” and an “action plan for thinking outside of capitalist narratives of efficiency and techno-determinism.”