Starting your Digital Detox – Finding the Symptoms

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To begin a digital detox, we need to identify what is causing the need in the first place. What are the symptoms of being so involved in the digital realm that it is negatively affecting not only your physical world life, but can also be damaging your enjoyment and benefit from the digital realm as well?

There are four main symptoms of the need for a digital detox. Each symptom represents a kind of “toxic” behaviour in our lives. The symptoms, especially when strong, cause more harm than benefit.. Taken together, they can harm us profoundly – our personal, our social, or family and our working lives.

The four symptoms are: Digital Addiction, Digital Drift, Digital Distraction, and Digital Decline

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Symptom 1 – Digital Addiction

You’ll know you are falling into digital addiction when you feel a compulsion to connect. You find yourself “going back in” every few hours, or even minutes. You are “always on” because you simply cannot not be always on. You find yourself in a state of anguish after only a short while of not being connected. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you do is check your device. It is never further away than reaching distance. You need to be connected. If you lose your device you go into a panic. Simply put, you can’t do without a digital fix at very regular intervals.

A lot of people justify this by saying it is vital for their work. Well, that may be true. You work may force you to become digitally addicted. Some people’s addiction is largely work-based. I know people in the financial sector who compulsively check in during working hours alone. In most cases, the addiction also reaches into social life. It can also happen in the other direction. People who are digitally addicted in their social lives can allow this to spill into their working lives, constantly connecting “under the desk”, so to speak. We can and do have periods of intense digital connecting – this isn’t always the same as connecting habitually and compulsively.

Digital addiction has similarities with substance addiction – you need the regular “fix”, the constant high, and you are simply unable to stop.

Ask yourself. Can you really stop if you choose to? Even when you do for a few hours, does the device find its way back into your hand? You go on holiday – the first thing you do on arriving at the hotel is to ask for the WiFi password. You are out for dinner with friends – you leave the phone on and check it when you head to the bathroom. You have to have your phone by your bed using the excuse it is an alarm clock. You have become so attached to a game you can’t stop playing it. You’ve tried several times to leave Facebook but you keep reactivating your account. Your life is becoming increasingly determined and driven by your digital activity, even when what you are doing interferes with your physical life isn’t in any way productive or useful. You are “always on”, at mealtimes, in cafes, on trains, in bed at night, even in the bath.

You can check the symptoms in even more detail here and read some stories of digital addiction here.

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Symptom 2 – Digital Drift

Digital Drift can be part of Digital Addiction but it can also stand apart. People who aren’t (yet) digitally addicted can find themselves in a state of  digital drift.

Digital Drift happens when you are engaged in digital activity that serves little or no valuable purpose – to you or other people. It can sometimes be fairly automatic. You check your emails far more than you need to, clicking the “read” button just to clear the notifications. The emails don’t need to be read at that time and you end up missing the lovely view from the window of your train, or you only half listen to the content of an important meeting. When you are digitally drifting you are connected digitally for the sake of connecting and not for any other purpose. Digital drifting can be aimless surfing, pointless scrolling, purposeless clicking.

It can also involve getting involved with social media platforms you don’t need to join and that you aren’t genuinely even curious about. You can digitally drift over the course of a few minutes to simply pass the time (which can sometimes be ok to do) and you can also look back over your day and realise you were connected for hours but actually achieved hardly anything. Digital drift takes your time and offers you little in return – an addictive game you aren’t even enjoying that much, looking a products on a web site that you aren’t even going to buy. Digital drift can begin purposefully and end up without purpose as you go “off track”. With digital drift purpose gets lost, or is weak. Sometimes the drift is controlled, not by you, but by others – corporations and people who want your attention. When this happens digital drift can become digital distraction. Digital drift steals bits of your life which ,over time can begin to feel like loss – these are hours or days you can never get back. Often digital drift hides other symptoms – feeling lost in life, bored, directionless, and having an addictive personality or weakened will.

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Symptom 3 – Digital Distraction

Digital Distraction is one of the key symptoms of being digitally addicted, but not all people who are digitally distracted are (yet) digitally addicted. A term has been coined to describe a large part of digital distraction – “WILFing”. WILFing stands for “what was a looking for?”. When we WILF we begin with one purpose and then get distracted off at a tangent. We were looking up some train times and see, on the same web site, some news about an accident. We click on that link and read. There’s a video which we watch. Someone famous was in the accident. We check their web site. They are in a new film. We look up the film. There’s a special offer on that site, offering a free Smart phone if we answer a simple question. We click on that link. To have a chance to winning we have to register our details. This opens up another special offer to get free tickets to the premiere of the film. Ten minutes have gone by. We still haven’t booked our train ticket and, unknown to us, the cheapest tickets have now sold out.

WILFing involves being distracted by something other than our original purpose. Digital distraction occurs often when the digital world notifies us or alerts us to something that takes our attention away from what were were are currently focused on. Digital distraction reprioritises the digital distraction over whatever is currently before us — be that physical or digital. We are working on an email – a new one comes in and we check it. We are on a call and a text comes in – we read that instead. Digital distraction can take or divide our attention. When we WILF we can go off track altogether, sometimes completely neglecting our original task. Too much WILFing and we digitally drift.

Digital distraction can affect us at work as we don’t properly listen to colleagues or end up juggling too many tasks and never doing one of them properly. it can affect our families as our kids don’t get our proper attention, feel neglected, as meal times and bed times become places of half-goodnights and half-listening. Digital distraction can stress us out as we feel pulled in more than one direction.It can reduce our performance unless we love this processes of multitasking. It can be fun and useful to occasionally deliberately WILF, but when it is a habit, it can become harmful and valueless.

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Symptom 4 – Digital Decline

Digital Decline can happen for a number of reasons and tends to reveal itself over time. It can occur when we are digitally addicted, drifting and distracted together. The combination of these ensures we have no coherent, controlled nor conscious relationship to the digital realm – we are at its mercy. We become part of the “gadget” we once were in control of. In the digitally realm there’s a difference between diving in (and getting out) and drowning in it.

Digital decline is the state where our own self – our personality, skills, development, knowledge, self-confidence and self-awareness begins to degrade through our use of the digital realm. We look back on our “digital self” and we do’t like who we are. This can be mostly restricted to our “avatar” (the version of our self we inhabit and project in the digital realm) but it can also impact on our physical world personality. It is “decline” when who we are becoming is not who we want to be. We can become addicted, unable to concentrate, easily distracted. We might experience ourselves as a “colder” person, someone who has become more uncaring. We might also discover that, despite spending hours, even days “networking”, that our income is no higher, is even lower. We might feel more stupid and less confident as the digital calls on skills and reactions we simply don’t have and find hard to develop.

Our relationships are decaying, the family is losing touch with each other. Our career is floundering. We simply aren’t getting the benefit from the digital realm we hoped for. Our gaming time means we spend less time with friends. We are bored, have lost direction. At worst, we have a thousand friends on Facebook but no one came to our birthday party.

In a state of digital decline, we aren’t using the digital realm consciously and we aren’t able to use it in ways that create meaning, purpose and help us to grow, develop and thrive.

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So, what next?

Which of these symptoms have you identified as in play in your own personal and working life? Which symptom is strongest? Having identified the symptoms and named them in your life, you are now ready to begin your digital detox. Detoxing can take many forms. You can create your own detox programme, draw on what is already “out there”, or read some of the resources here or in Digital Inferno to help to to get started. Digital Inferno is full of practical activities and exercises to help you to detoxify your digital life.


Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno

Order the Book

Digital Inferno by Paul Levy

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on April 26, 2015, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. For me this also leads to a reduced ability to pay attention over the long term and draw those wider holistic connections.

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