My (failed) digital detox: After realising his phone addiction, journalist Stephen Mudd attempts a digital detox

Technology has made us more connected than ever before, but increasingly people complain of social isolation. Self-confessed tech junkie Stephen Mudd decided to try to kick the habit.

I could feel her glaring at me. It was a Tuesday night and I was sitting on the couch watching television with my darling wife Belinda. But I wasn’t really watching My Celebrity Renovation Rules at First Sight, or whatever the show was. Instead, I was a million miles away, engrossed in the little videos on my mobile phone screen.

“Seriously?” Belinda asked. “Can’t you go five minutes without your phone?”

Of course I could, it would be easy to disconnect from social media, as I looked back down. I could feel her glaring at me again. 

“Fine then”, I said, putting the phone down beside me, unconsciously making sure it was still touching me. But as I watched vaguely familiar-looking people carry on about something trivial, I became aware of a need to pick the phone up again.

“Oh no”, I thought. “I’m a phone addict”. So before it got any worse, I decided to do something about it.

My first failures

Stephen Mudd wonders why these little devices have such a power over our lives.

Stephen Mudd wonders why these little devices have such a power over our lives.

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step towards recovery, but being someone who generally thinks he knows more than he should, I decided I could simply tackle the problem on my own without any assistance.

However, I didn’t realise how quickly my cold-turkey approach would have me eating crow.

Being a journalist in the digital millennium, there was no way I could go completely off the grid, so I thought I’d try my digital detox on my days off.

My first attempt ended almost as soon as it started because of a rookie error: I’d set my morning alarm on my phone.

On my second attempt, I solved the alarm problem by not setting an alarm. This resulted in me oversleeping and in my morning grogginess, I forgot I was digitally detoxing and was scrolling through Facebook before I remembered.

Attempt number three was far more successful, thanks to a half-opened blind and leaving my phone in another room. But despite my good intentions, I found myself drawn back in.

If your home is anything like mine, there are a number of digital distractions competing for our attention. There’s the big ones, the television and radio, but then there’s also a laptop, an old tablet that I use for reading news over breakfast and a CD player. 

What if my problem wasn’t just isolated to the phone? What if I’d become a technology junkie, bingeing on any kind of stimuli I could get?

What is going on here?

Psychology lecturer Dr Gene Hodgins says humans are hardwired to habitually seek intermittent rewards, like social media 'likes'.

Psychology lecturer Dr Gene Hodgins says humans are hardwired to habitually seek intermittent rewards, like social media 'likes'.

Why was it so difficult to quit these little black boxes? 

I decided to ask Gene Hodgins, a senior psychology lecturer at Charles Sturt University, said technology addiction had become a hot topic.

“It’s a really interesting question and certainly multi-faceted, but one of the theories has to do with variable rewards,” Dr Hodgins said.

“Think about a poker machine or an instant scratchie: Every now and then something good happens, so you go back again and again. You might win a little bit, but lose much more trying to win again.”

There's nothing inherently wrong with smartphones, Dr Hodgins says, but using them too much can disconnect people from their personal relationships.

There's nothing inherently wrong with smartphones, Dr Hodgins says, but using them too much can disconnect people from their personal relationships.

There was a famous psychological experiment where mice were taught to press a lever to get a treat, but when the treat didn’t appear every time, the mice tapped on the lever more than they ever did before.

“It’s called intermittent reinforcement,” Dr Hodgins said, “and it’s incredibly powerful. You look at social media and someone has liked your photo, which feels good and reinforces your desire to feel it again. So even if the next 20 times all you see are ads and silly videos, you’ll keep going back because something nice might be just around the corner.”

Related: Parenting expert encourages digital detox for kids

The digital detox industry

With more than eight million smartphones, 15 million Facebook users and four million daily Snapchat users in Australia, I’m far from the only person feeling anxiety about their digital dependence.

Across the globe, holiday destinations are jumping on board the digital detox bandwagon, with resorts devoted to purging addicts of their technology.

Singer-songwriter Katie Noonan took a self-imposed one-week digital detox holiday back in 2012 and said it was great, if not a little strange at first.

“Not having my phone with me was incredibly liberating,” Ms Noonan said. “We live in the age of over-stimulation and it really has affected my ability to relax, my nervous system and my sleep.”

Thailand's Chiva-Som is just one of many health resorts where people go to digitally detox and reconnect with life.

Thailand's Chiva-Som is just one of many health resorts where people go to digitally detox and reconnect with life.

Where to from here?

Unable (and stubbornly unwilling) to afford an expensive detox retreat, I adopted a new mantra: less is best. 

A couple of weeks ago, Belinda and I went to see Adele in Melbourne before spending a week on the Great Ocean Road. I was surprised by the number of people watching the concert through mobile phone screens, chasing social media gratification as they shared poor quality videos.

And while I joined in with all the tourists taking photos of the Twelve Apostles and the Bay of Islands, I was also mindful that I should consciously experience the majesty of nature and not just snap photos.

I’m still a phone user; I wake up with my phone, listen to podcasts on the way to work and check social media in the evening. But I’m also conscious of the impact our devices can have on our personal relationships. I’d rather be present with loved ones than disconnected along with everyone else.

The BBC's Newsnight explains the digital detox.

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