As technology creates an "always-on" society, in which we are connected to a steady stream of information and each other, many people are finding themselves more dependent, if not addicted, to their devices. And with any potential addiction comes the inevitable next step: treatment.
Levi Felix, a former tech company executive, in 2009 returned from a six-month trip to Asia, where he had little or no Internet or phone connectivity in his travels, with a new belief in "the value of unplugging." He co-founded one of the USA's first unplugged vacations. He calls it "Digital Detox" -- a retreat for "people who are burning out and need a break."
In the past three years, Felix's "detoxes," which require participants to turn in all electronic devices upon arrival, have helped more than 1,500 people "to question how these tools help us or distract us." A two-night retreat costs $650 and up for three days and two nights and features activities such as yoga, meditation, reading, swimming, cooking and exercises such as making sustained eye contact with others.
Participants don't "realize how much they use their phone or device as a social crutch – as a way to avoid anxiety or loneliness," Felix says. "They find other things to do with that time and in the end feel more connected."
Jeremy Lizt, 39, a vice-president in a San Francisco tech company, attended one of Felix's recent retreats near Mendocino, Calif., hoping to be with other "like-minded people" who are overwhelmed by the phones, tablets and laptops in their lives. "I feel that same pull that a lot of people to do, to check e-mail and apps, whether for work or social reasons," Lizt says. Another participant, who asked not to be named, says she attended the retreat to learn how to "disconnect to reconnect" with others.
The movement isn't limited to the West Coast, or even the USA. Digital Detox Holidays, an online service for those "addicted" to their devices, provides hundreds of hotel listings worldwide that offer a range of ways to unplug – from accommodations with no in-room Wi-Fi, TV or phones to "highly disconnected" hotels with absolutely no Internet or cell service on the property. For instance, the Estrella Vincci Hotels del Mar in Spain asks guests to turn in their devices upon check-in and offers a book with recommendations on how to relax and detach.
All of this comes as digital device usage permeates our lives. According to a 2012 Time magazine survey, 84 percent of respondents said that they could not go a single day without their cellphones.
Among the problems caused by the overuse of digital devices, perhaps none is more significant than the havoc wrought on sleep. A National Sleep Foundation poll reported that 95% of Americans use an electronic device within an hour of going to bed and that nine in 10 adults have a smartphone or other electronic device in the bedroom. According to University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center study published late last year, the use of these light-emitting devices immediately before bedtime may perpetuate sleep deficiency and disrupt our circadian rhythms, with "adverse impacts on performance, health, and safety."
The average American spends 12 or more hours a day on a screen, and more than 40 percent of Americans said they never disconnect from their personal devices, according to a 2014 poll by Civic Science. When it comes to work, an American Express survey found that more than 80% of those on vacation stay digitally connected, with two-thirds checking e-mail daily. As for the "Facebook generation," University of Arizona researchers reported in 2013 that teens receive an average of 3,417 texts a month, or more than 100 a day.
Jordan Shafer, a 28-year-old corporate account manager from San Mateo, Calif., says he "spent the majority of his teen years in front of a computer," which he now regrets because instead of making friends and having experiences he used "technology as a substitution."
Douglas Rushkoff, the author of 10 books on media, technology and culture, including Program or Be Programmed, has long worried about our over-reliance on technology. In 1999, he founded an experiment called Reboot, which he describes as a digital Sabbath. It has evolved into what's now known as "National Day of Unplugging," sundown to sundown, March 6 and 7 this year. He cautions that it's crucial to think about how technology has enslaved us, pointedly adding "this is the enemy in modern times."
For those with young kids and teens, these guidelines can be even more important, explained Ana Homayoun, an author and educational consultant who speaks at schools on social media issues. She says she sees too many parents using their devices while driving and at the dinner table, which "kids take as an example of what's OK." Homayoun advises parents to model good behavior with their devices; to create tech-free time during the weekend; and to confiscate all devices after dinner. "Parents think their kids are asleep, but they're on their phones until 3 or 4 in the morning," she says.
It's important to recognize that our digital habits, not our digital devices, are the problem. Felix is among the first to acknowledge that technology can "improve society and make our lives easier." These new devices, he adds, can be "great tools, but how do we cut out the negative habitual use?" Rushkoff urges people to "think intelligently about this stuff" and adds: "The sad, sick thing about a digital detox movement is the assumption that digital is toxic…. Better to use technology in a healthy way, which is not hard at all."