Taking time off from tech: How many people need to 'digital detox'?

A recent Ofcom study on internet use in Britain revealed that while most adults spend significant amounts of time online each day, many are also choosing to consciously 'detox' from the digital world. 

David Becker/Reuters
An attendee uses his laptop computer and mobile phone during the 2016 Black Hat cyber-security conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Wednesday.

The proliferation of internet connectivity that began in the 1980s has spread from unwieldy desk-bound systems to a plethora of portable devices that can be worn, carried, and activated while driving.

Yet with more and more people coming to rely on the benefits of being online 24/7, the constant connectivity can also create stress, according to a recent study by British telecom monitoring group Ofcom.

“All the studies show there is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and that the stress is constant,” the French National Assembly’s Benoit Hamon told the BBC. “Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash – like a dog. The texts, the messages, the emails – they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.”

Nearly 90 percent of adults in Britain  report that they use the internet regularly, and increasingly, many are turning to mobile devices or devices other than desktop computers to stay online constantly.

People use the internet today for just about everything, from banking to content creation, accessing news and gaming. The Ofcom study shows, however, that many users are choosing to periodically unplug, whether for an afternoon or for a month. 

“When we take a break from tech, we're taking a break from our usual social involvement, which is what we typically have done in our vacations before there was tech. We go somewhere where our friends are not, perhaps a place that offers us more solitude,” says David Weinberger by email, fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “Taking tech breaks isn't necessarily about taking breaks from tech but from the social presence that tech enables, as we always have.”

These “digital detoxers” could have the right idea, with 49 percent of the Ofcom survey responders indicating that they often spend more time online than they intend to, often to the detriment of other tasks or pastimes.

Earlier this year, The Christian Science Monitor reported on a study that showed that the six to nine hours that US teens spend on average per day on internet enabled devices could hurt relationships with family and friends.

In that study, conducted by Common Sense Media, about 50 percent of American teens self-reported that they felt addicted to their devices, while 59 percent of parents reported that they believed that their teens might be addicts.

The study also found that too much screen time could effect concentration abilities and a person’s ability to empathize with others.

The problems associated with constant screen time have even crept in France, a nation known for its 35-hour workweek and fierce protection of the work-life balance. A labor reform bill proposed earlier this year there contained a provision that would restrict the number of hours employees could respond, via the internet, to work related issues.

About a third of all British internet users feel as though they need to take breaks from their devices, according to Ofcom. That number represents about 15 million people, a quarter of whom take about a day off from the internet at a time. Twenty-percent of those who require breaks take up to a week off, and another 5 percent took as much as a month off at a time.

Perhaps surprisingly, given stereotypes about young people and their need for communication, the 16- to 24-year-old age group reported the most recent breaks, with 14 percent of that group taking time off within the past month, and another 14 percent taking time off within a week of the survey.

In the United States, some adults are using an old-fashioned way to take breaks from technology through a low-tech medium most left behind in their teens – summer camp.

At Camp Grounded, a digital detox summer camp for adults, campers over the age of 18 leave their devices at the door, allowing them to fully relax and enjoy being in nature, according to the camp’s website.

Some experts, however, say that needing a digital detox could be less about the technology, and more about the social habits that we engage in, whether online, or in person.

“It doesn't necessarily indicate a fatigue with tech,” says Dr. Weinberger, “but perhaps with the normal fatigue with our usual social involvements.”

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