If I had to pick one trend that has gripped my internet ecosystem in the past year I wouldn’t pick courgetti, or Lululemon, or the amaro filter. I would have to – somewhat ironically – pick the ubiquitous digital detox.
There are so many blog posts, vlogs, think pieces and podcast episodes about the so-called “joys” of a digital detox that one would be forgiven for suspecting people are choosing to embark on the experience purely for the content fodder.
Last week the national press fell over itself to report the findings of a dubious Ofcom survey, which stated that six in every 10 British internet users say they’re “hooked” on their smartphone, the implication being what? That we’re creeping towards a world where we’re stealing old ladies’ handbags to fund the ever-increasing need for digital content, which we’ll cook up with baking soda under a pigeon-infested bridge and inject into our veins with dirty syringes?
The problem is the mis-use of the word “addiction”. Merriam-Webster defines it as either “a strong and harmful need to regularly have something or do something” or “an unusually great interest in something”. That’s pretty broad. I definitely have a strong need to check my work emails regularly, but it’s no more harmful than my predecessors’ “strong need” to call their voicemail mid day-out to check whether they have any messages. I have a great interest in Snapchat but the platform’s 100 million daily active users prove this really isn’t “unusual” – so does my somewhat compulsive relationship with the internet really constitute an addiction?
According to the report, further evidence that we have a collective problem includes the fact that 48% of us will ignore housework in favour of the internet and that 47% of us lose sleep due to our time online. This seems tenuous – I will watch paint dry in order to avoid doing housework, and way before we had broadband in my house I would stay up until the wee hours because I simply had to finish my new Judy Blume novel, or there was an all-night Sabrina the Teenage Witch marathon on.
As humans, most of us are prone to distraction and procrastination, programmed to seek out escapism. But we also crave human interaction, and that’s what the internet offers us. Over and above everything else, this is what we spend the most time chasing around the web, and this is what we’re “hooked” on. The internet provides us with a constant feedback loop which can be rewarding or destructive – in the same way as real life can.
The positioning of the internet as something we’re addicted to and need to detox from due to the negative impact it has on our lives is problematic because it paints the entire internet as a toxin and doesn’t allow for nuance. The internet isn’t an unhealthy habit or a guilty indulgence – it’s the means for me and most of the people I know to launch their careers and make friends, it allows us to hear the voices which have hitherto been silenced, and gives us the opportunity to discover parts of ourselves we never knew existed. The internet makes us better informed, more creative and more empathetic human beings.
Older generations have always been disparaging of new technology, regardless of the benefits it offers society at large, but it’s our job as people who live online and are creating a better digital world for the future to fight these misconceptions, not promulgate them. Of course it’s important to see the beauty of the world beyond Instagram, to have conversations beyond Twitter and to abandon the screen to occasionally play a vinyl record or pick up a paper book, but let’s stop labelling this as a “detox”, implying the internet is a toxin we need to forcibly remove from our system, when we all know deep down it brings us more joy than our ancestors could ever have dreamed of.