Resisting media and regaining authentic life

Digital detox: Resisting media
and regaining authentic life
A yearning for authenticity is a dominating trend in our contemporary society, as the
fascination for the ‘real’, ‘genuine’ and ‘original’ is manifested in everything from consumer
trends and political communication, to self-help literature and the mindfulness movement
(Baudrillard 2008; Banet-Weiser 2012; Dillard 2016; Euromonitor 2017; Enli 2015, 2017).
The question of what is means to live an authentic life has become increasingly complicated,
not least because of digital media and tools for online communication that have altered the
ways we relate to time, space and ourselves (Feenberg and Barney (eds.) 2004).
Digital detox is a phenomenon accentuating the dilemmas of what it means to be
authentically human in the age of online interactions, faceless communication, and artificial
intelligence. Authenticity is often associated with normative ideals, and digital media and
online communication accordingly tend to be perceived as a barrier against authentic life.
Digital detox is the encouragement and desire to disconnect from online or digital media for
a longer or shorter period. Although the motivation is rarely to disconnect permanently,
digital detox is a sign that constant connectivity is experienced as negative and worth
resisting. Rather than celebrating the opportunities of new media technologies, the digital
detox trend is characterized by nostalgia for a past where people had more time on their
hands, a more defined space, and a less stressful lifestyle. Digital detox stands in a tradition
of media and technological resistance and resembles reactions against for example the
telephone (Kline 2003), cinema (Grieveson 2004), television (Kcrmar 2009) and many other
communication technologies (see Syvertsen 2017 for overview). Yet, there are also novelties
and differences, which will be explored in this article.
By studying digital detox, we unpack the multifaceted reception of digital media, as well
as the options open to citizens who resist. Ubiquitous media and internet pose new
challenges for audiences, not just in terms of using the new media actively and critically, but
also in terms of organising daily life. Drawing on textual analysis of self-help literature and
corporate websites, the paper discusses three main research questions. First, how do digital
detox texts describe the main problems caused by digital media overload? We point to three
aspects critical to authenticity: humans’ sense of time, space and mind/body? Second, what
are the main strategies suggested to reduce potential damage caused by digital media
overload? We elicit both practical and more existential advice. Third, how can digital detox
be understood in a wider cultural and political context? In the final section we discuss digital
detox as a symptom of societal responsibilization, self-optimization and commodification.
We argue that digital detox illuminates the transition to a self-regulation society, where
individuals are expected to balance an increasingly complex set of (mediated) pressures on
everyday life, including the pressure to constantly improve, and that the detox market
provide viable business opportunities.
Digital detox: The term
Digital detox is a relatively new concept, appearing on websites around 2010.
1 From
2013, the concept is included in the Oxford dictionary:
informal: A period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices such as
smartphones or computers, regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in
the physical world. Example: ‘break free of your devices and go on a digital detox.’
The concepts of digital detox and media detox are not precise; sometimes they are used
to describe definite periods of media or digital abstention and sometimes a more gradual
process of reduction and reorganisation. In self-help books (see, for example Zahariades
2016, Price 2018), digital detox measures vary from spending an hour or two without a
mobile phone to a long-term break or digital detox holiday. The media aspect is also varying;
while digital detox inevitably includes refraining from using online and social media, such as
checking Facebook and online news sources and playing online games, it may also imply
refraining from other media such as television, and/or other digital services, including work
related tools and programs. What is common to all descriptions, however, is the
presumption that online media and work tools are invasive, and that current patterns of
usage is dangerous and unhealthy. As such, the term digital detox stands in a long line of
metaphors related to toxicity, infections and health used by media critics and resisters
(Syvertsen 2017, 121 ff). From early on, popular media was likened to infections, trash,
sewage and poison (see, for example, Sutter 2003), and bodily metaphors continued with
expressions such as ‘couch potato’ for describing TV-induced passivity, and ‘a juggler’s brain’
for online-induced hyperactivity (Carr 2010, 115). Hence, a digital detox can be a
metaphorical ‘cure’ for the damage done by cumulative waves of media and online services.
Etymologically, the concept of digital detox is derived from the medical term
detoxification; getting rid of substances such as alcohol, nicotine or other real or presumed
toxins from the body. Detoxing can, on one hand, mean a specific medical process, but it
also encompasses a wider range of measures to achieve well-being and a healthy balance in
life. There is a self-help tradition of detox building on the legacy from the 12-step
programme for Alcoholics Anonymous, to later efforts to control dangerous and behavioural
impulses (Madsen 2010, 2014, Illouz 2008 and McGee 2005). From its origins in religious
practices, fasting and self-denial of food have for long been a measure of purification; from
the 1920s, dieting was on the rise (Giddens 1991, 104). Digital detoxing and media fasting
are newer elements in a catalogue of abstinence and consciousness-raising programmes. As
such, digital detox fits well with individual and corporate lifestyle trends such as
mindfulness, healthy eating and new age forms of self-improvement (Sutton 2017). From
the early 2010s, holiday packages emerged with a digital detox label, clearly spin-offs from
other ‘healthy holiday’ concepts emphasizing beauty, exercise or mindfulness.
Nevertheless, digital detox is also grounded in consumer activism and popular resistance
against commercial media. For example, Adbusters, the Canadian-based worldwide network
of ‘culture jammers’ organised what could be the first ‘digital detox week’ in April 2010.4 In
this paper, we explore how detox-texts express the need for, and benefits of, taking a break
from online media and other digital services.
Media resistance and the yearning for authenticity
Although texts promoting digital detox rarely encourage permanent abstention, they
urge reduction, restraint and a more conscious use of online media and platforms. As noted
above, this is both a reaction to communication overload and a yearning for authenticity. In
this paper, we draw on studies of media resistance and non-use as well as studies of
authenticity and existentialism to discuss the texts promoting digital detox. Several studies
investigate media resistance and non-use as a way of criticising and rejecting media
platforms, functions, genres and user patterns. Winn (1980) and Kcrmar (2009) discuss the
experiences of television resisters and show how non-viewing can be a powerful expression
of alternative identities and values. Sutton (2017) observes life in a Californian detox camp
and discusses motivations and ideologies. Studies explore ambivalence to and withdrawal
from services such as Facebook (Portwood-Stacer 2012, Baumer et al. 2013), Twitter
(Schoenebeck 2014), the dating app Grindr (Brubaker et al. 2016), online news (Woodstock
2013) and social network sites more generally (Light 2015, Woodstock 2014). Syversen
(2017) charts media resistance historically and argues that rejection of mass and digital
media is grounded in shared values such as morality, culture, enlightenment, democracy,
community and health. She observes that there are fewer political protests and more
emphasis on self-regulation with social and online media, arguing that mobility and ubiquity
has made it more difficult to organise grassroot movements and protests (92ff, see also
Karlsen & Syvertsen 2016, Gomes et al. 2018).
Related to media resistance are studies exploring the motivations of those who refuse to
go online. Although the rationale of such studies is often to discover barriers to be
overcome, respondents present value-based answers to why they prefer offline
communications akin to those found in detox literature (Helsper and Reisdorff, 2013, van
Deursen and Helsper 2015). Studies show that users of different generations perceive social
and online media to be superficial, narcissistic and alienating, and describe how they avoid
genres that are deemed invasive and disturbing (Lüders & Brandtzæg 2014, Helgerud 2017).
A key dilemma is the tension between impression management pressures and the desire to
present an authentic sense of self (Ellison et al. 2006, 414, Lüders & Brandtzæg 2014).
Drawing on cross-disciplinary research literature, Enli (2015) defines suggests two
definitions of authenticity in mediated contexts: First, authenticity is about being ‘original’,
as opposed to manufactured, a definition which implies a degree of nostalgia where aspects
of pre-modern societies are idealized; commercial products are for example regarded as
inauthentic while non-commercial alternatives are authentic (Banet-Weiser 2012). A second
meaning of authenticity draws on philosophy and existentialism, and the idea of being ‘real’,
and ‘true to one’s inner self’, which emerged in the late eighteenth century and arose out of
experiences with the first wave of modernization in the West (Berman 2009).
Concerns about authenticity are endemic to the reception of new media; paralleling the
dawn of writing, the emergence of digital communication evokes questions about what it
means to be authentically human (Ickes 1993; Ellison, Heino and Gibbs 2006; Baym 2010).
From the start, online communication was associated with threats to authentic human
relations; fears for cynical relations, emotional deception, and fake personas flourished in
scenarios for interactions in cyberspace (see Reingold 1991; Turkle 1995). More recently, an
emerging body of research pinpoint that there are blurring boundaries between our offline
and online identities, and that digital communication might also be experienced as
authentic (Palfrey and Gasser 2008; Baym 2010; Lobinger and Brantner 2015). According to
Nancy Baym (2010, 89) “new media do not offer inauthentic simulations that distracts from
or substitute for real engagement”, because “what happens through mediations are
interwoven, not juxtaposed, with everything else”. Several scholars argue that digital
communication has imposed a shift; where social life has become a ‘cyberlife’ characterized
by a confessional culture (Bauman 2007, 2-3), and that we live a ‘media life’ in which online
interactions and confessional behaviours are equally meaningful as its offline versions
(Deuze 2012, 92). Studies of online-self presentations even argue that selfies might
empower users to experience an “authentic sense of self” (Ellison et al 2006, 415; Barry et.
al 2015, 2). Despite these more positive approaches to digital interactions, the question of
what it means to be authentic in the context of digital connections and media invasion
continues to be dilemmatic, and people become increasingly oriented towards finding
strategies to preserve authenticity in human connections and of ourselves (Baym 2010,
155). Detox is an interesting case to discuss considering how technological disruption not
only creates a yearning for authenticity, but also redefines what it means to be authentically
Sources and material
The emprical sources are self-help literature and corporate websites. Self-help literature
promoting detox adhere to traditional characteristics of the genre with a mixture of
personal experiences and advice for self-regulation (e.g. Snow 2017; Huffington 2014). They
stand in a traditions of literature aiding users in handling new technology. For example, at
the advent of printing there were discussions on how to handle ”the multitude of books”,
radio brought advice on how not to be overwhelmed but to listen carefully and avoid
Many books on this topic are simple self-help manuals, downloadable for a low price;
others are more accomplished and available from mainstream publishing houses.
Specifically, we have chosen eleven books, published between 2010 and 2018, of which
seven are manuals, with elements of memoirs and reflection: Talks’ A to Z of Digital
Detoxing: A practical family guide (2013); Fielding’s Unplugged: The Essential Digital Detox
Plan (2014) Formica’s Digital detox: 7 Steps to find your inner balance (2015); Zahariades’
Digital detox: Unplug to reclaim your life (2016), Goodin’s Off: Your Digital Detox for a Better
Life (2017), Snow’s Log Off: How to Stay Connected after Disconnecting (2017) and Price’s
How to Break up With Your Phone: The 30-day Plan to Take Back Your Life (2018).
Furthermore, we include five memoirs, addressing digital overload and digital detox:
Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a
Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the
Tale (2010), Huffington’s Thrive. The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a
Happier Life (2014), Ravatn’s Operation self-discipline (2014), and Bratsberg and Moen’s Log
off (2015).
5 Reflecting the international outspread of the digital detox phenomenon, the
selected texts are written by authors based United States, Australia, Europe, and the Nordic
region. In spite of different national cultures, these are societies with a high level of Internet
The second primary source is websites by businesses promoting detox camps, coaching,
consultancy and merchandise. The sample include websites with digital detox in the title or
as a main purpose, including Digital Detox6
, the Digital detox company7
, Digital Detoxing8
and Thrive Global9. In addition to the primary sources, the above services and texts generate
substantial secondary source material such as journalistic pieces, commentaries and
personal testimonials. The self-help books and the corporate websites are supplementing
each other, but they are also to partly overlapping sources because many authors also have
financial interests in detox trips and advertise their book on the corporate website and vice
versa (e.g. Talks 2013; Goodin 2017). Both genres to a large degree contains confessions,
essential in cyberlife (Bauman 2007) and a key authenticity marker (Enli 2015, 91). The tech
entrepreneur Arianna Huffington for example set up the health and wellness platform
Thrive global10 in 2016 after a dramatic personal burnout. “[A]fter lying in her own pool of
blood, she began to question how overworking and stress had overtaken her life”. 11 The
now deceased Levi Felix, co-founder of the trademark site Digital detox®12 describes how he
was “enthralled with the internet” at the age of 24, but health concerns led him to leave his
job at a thriving start-up “to take a sabbatical from his “always-on,” constantly tethered,
digitally enthralled reality.” The digital detox-authors’ main authority is based on their own
experiences and confessions, not least because their mentions of research, statistics, and
scientific studies are, with a few exceptions, unspecified, unreferenced and anecdotical.
The analysis is explorative and bottom-up: we look for statements describing problems
motivating individuals to detox, as well as descriptions of strategies to combat the
problems. The analysis is structured around three dimensions emerging in the material,
which are strongly related to authenticity. First, we examine problems of temporal overload,
the experience of 24/7 connectivity and the desire for non-mediated periods and improved
time-management. Second, we examine statements describing space invasion and the
difficulty of being present just where you are. Third, we examine statements describing
potential damage to body and mind resulting from constant connectivity and intense use of
social and online media. The, afterwards, we turn to a discussion of implications.
Temporal overload: No sense of time
Digital detox texts are based on presumptions of temporal overload; digital tools and
media occupy too much time and distract us from what is valuable and essential for a good
life. The descriptions of online time waste flourish, such as: “You’re probably wasting at
least a few hours every day” (Zahariades 2016), “Our time is precious and limited, and yet
we’re wasting so much of it every day (Goodin 2017) “ (..) despite our wide use of digital
tools, we are grasping for more time now than ever before” (Formica 2015), and “We’re
living a life of time famine” (Huffington 2014).
Digital media disrupts our perception of time, our very ‘sense of time’, according to the
self-help literature: “The addict experiences this loss of time on a regular basis. Because she
spends so much time in isolation staring at her phone, tablet, or computer screen, she often
has no idea what time it is” (Zahariades 2016), and “I often picked up my phone “just to
check”, only to resurface an hour later wondering where the time had gone“ (Price 2018).
Some texts describe an overwhelming sensation of being constantly connected, all days and
all hours, such as the website of The Digital Detox Company: 13
We are drowning under an electronic avalanche of incoming emails, texts and instant messaging. We are
struggling with the effects of this continuous deluge of digital data and are becoming aware of the impact
that being “on” 24/7 is having on every aspect of our lives. …. However, that same technology that
enables us to be connected digitally may actually be responsible for disconnecting us from our real lives”
(authors italic).
Detox-promoting texts describe situations ranging from serious addictions to mild invasion –
but in all cases the root of the problem is that there is just too much; your life and the lives
of those around you are invaded and out of control. Although some authors explicitly
distance themselves from nostalgia (see, for example, Maushart 2010, 8), the texts reveal a
longing for a less complicated time, when people could live authentically in the moment.
The premise of temporal overload is often built on a difference between ‘then’ and ‘now’:
Thirty years ago, information came to us in the form of a stream. We had newspapers, magazines, and a
handful of television programs. We visited the library if we needed to research something. It was
manageable. Today, information comes to at us in the form of a flood… We are drowning in information.
We’re being overwhelmed by a continuous torrent of content (Zahariades, 2016).
Media and cultural history provide ample documentation that we are not the first
generation to feel overloaded by new media. Anthropologists describe how humans invent
measures to «save time», but end up feeling that they have less time than before (see, for
example, Hylland-Eriksen 2001). In the sixteenth century, «the multitude of books»
prompted warnings that literary overload could lead to a “barbarous” future unless effective
reading strategies were adopted to manage the overwhelming influx of material (Blair 2003,
11). If we look back thirty years, in a time described as peaceful and ‘manageable’ in the
above quote, the debate about the influx of new television channels in fact prompted use of
the same metaphors: “tide”, “flood” and “storm” (Syvertsen 1992, 217). Yet, despite the
familiarity of the arguments, the cumulative impact of digital media, and the convergence
between different networks and platforms, clearly require new management strategies and
greater effort to carve out time slots that are not media-centred.
Digital detox texts offer numerous tips on how to handle temporal overload. The advice
can be divided into two categories, of which the first are practical advice for time
management and self-control. Examples include wearing a wristwatch and purchasing an
old-fashioned alarm clock, rather than using the mobile phone (Zahariades 2016; Goodin
2017), hiding your smartphone (Ravatn 2014; Bratsberg and Moen 2015; Goodin 2017),
screen free time-zones (Goodin 2017; Price 2018), or installing apps such as “Moment” to
restrict interruptions (Talks 2013; Formica 2015). Several texts also advice detox periods, for
example characterized as ‘digital sabbath’ (Price 2018) or ‘digital fasting’ (Goodin 2017),
which can be a day a week, a whole week or a vacation. Some authors invite readers to
meet them ‘for real’ by participating in a digital detox event organized by their own
company (Talks 2013). An increasing number of companies offer customers help to regain
control over time, both by confiscating their digital devices to make it easier to be present in
the moment, and to implement a rule that it is not allowed to talk about time, to increase
spontaneity and immediacy.14
The second type of advice is more existentialist, such as reflecting on the
meaninglessness of trivial online activities in a life-death perspective (Ravatn 2014,74),
striving to experience the moment by watching the sunset or connecting with strangers
(Zahariades 2016), and being more present in everyday life: “Don’t miss the moment!”
(Huffington 2014)15 The point is to anchor the digital detox more deeply in personal values:
“if you do not know your purpose, time management tips and tools will not be effective
because you could be engaged in activities that are not in alignment with what you truly
want” (Formica 2015). Accordingly, the strategies to regain control over time through digital
detox are connected to ideals of living an authentic life, where our time is prioritized in
accordance with our genuine needs rather than external expectations.
Spatial overload: No sense of place
In addition to loss of control over time, texts promoting detox present dire descriptions
of spatial overload, and digital hybrid living, where individuals are trapped in between the
‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. Joshua Meyrowitz’ (1985) term ‘no sense of place’ describe how TV
“decreased the significance of physical presence in the experience of people and events.
One can now be an audience to a social phenomenon without being physically present; one
can communicate directly with others without meeting in the same place” (vii).
Digital technologies accelerate a radical dislocation of our experience of both space and
time (Barney 2005: 33). The self-help literature diagnoses the problem as a devaluation of
our real-life encounters and face-to-face meetings, because almost everyone is distracted by
activities in online environments: “People are more concerned with what’s happening
online than what is happening right in front of them” (Snow 2017). Typically, the digital
detox texts provide metaphors to describe how digital hybrid living harms your offline
relationships: “screen wall” and “screen jealousy” are concepts that describe feelings of
being shut out or put on hold because your partner or friend is being too preoccupied with a
screen (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, 65 ff). Other terms are “screen invasion, “the ecosystem
of interruption technologies”, “attention management”, and “interruption Science”
(Brabazon 2012; Helding, 2011, 200-201, see also Webb and Wasilick 2015). These
metaphors pinpoint how the persuasive design of social and online media not only interrupt
us temporally, but also distracts us from being present in a certain spatial and relational
Digital detox books describes in detail the implications of digital hybrid living, often with
examples of distractions in their own lives, making a turning-point in their use of digital
media: For example, Moen, describes a pivotal moment of recognition when he missed his
child’s goal at a soccer match because he was busy surfing the net on his smartphone: “The
next day I went to the store and bought a dumb phone instead” (Bratsberg and Moen 2015,
12). Likewise, Maushart initiated a detox after being worried about how the media “began
to function as a force field separating my children from what my son, only half ironically,
called RL (Real Life)” (2010, vi-vii). In line with the notion of being «alone together», as
coined by Turkle (2011), the author describes a longing for more authentic connection with
her family, in what she defined as “a real space and time”:
[W]e had ceased to function as a family. We were just a collection of individuals who were very connected
outwards – to friends, business, school and sources of entertainment and information. But we simply
weren’t connecting with one another in real space and time in any sort of authentic way.16
Digital detox texts suggest two main strategies for handling challenges of spatial overload
and digital hybrid living. The first strategy is to reconnect with nature. Rather than living in
artificial environments, readers are recommended to seek unspoiled nature, in line with the
widespread notion that simple rural life reduces stress and enhances harmony: “Spend
more time in the nature, take a walk in the park or go hiking in the forest. Fresh air and
wonderful Norwegian nature is good medicine” (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, 182).
A general feature of digital detox texts is that they promote outdoors activities, and to
connect with nature (Fielding 2014; Snow 2017; Goodin 2017; Price 2018). Moreover, some
texts underline the need for connecting physically with the nature, as a strategy to escape
the stressful duality of modern hybrid living:
Most of us live in urban environments, and have gradually disconnected from nature. You see, humans
have lived on earth for at least 200,000 years, always in contact and symbiosis with nature. The disconnect
that we experience now from nature is likely to have significant and unprecedented consequences on our
inner balance …. Recently, is has been scientifically demonstrated that having a direct contact with the
earth has healing power …. It is particularly important to be in direct contact with dirt, grass, or any type
of soil, daily (Formica 2015).
“Sit right down on the grass, not on a rock or a bench or a chair. Feel the grass under your hands and feet”
(Goodin 2017)
Precisely this notion of a space dedicated to connecting with nature and disconnecting
from online media is at the hearth of what is offered by digital detox businesses. These
companies capitalize on the demand for non-mediated space by offering nature- and
wildlife-based retreats to help customers disconnect from digital distractions. CNN refers to
a hotel detox package that includes “a detox survival kit”, containing “a board game, a
walking map, a tree-planting kit, and other reminders that life exists beyond the confines of
an iPad”. 17 Locations are often exotic and remote; Samatahiti yoga and surf retreat invites
customers to sleep in a hut in the jungle, as a “way to immerse yourself in nature and take
yourself out of the digital world”.18 The retreat Montagne Alternative promise that a stay at
the renovated ruined stone and timber buildings in a remote village amid hiking paths and
open spaces will have a positive effect19: “The peace and quiet, the authentic and beautiful
surroundings, will unleash positive emotions and strengthen relationships. You will leave the
village full of inspiration and happiness!”20
The second strategy for regaining a sense of place is what the text define as real human
connections; face-to-face interactions without interruptions from digital media.
21 In the
digital detox literature, the authors define physical co-presence as a precondition for as
authentic human relationships:
The single most important factor for living a good life is good relationships … Relations are based on
interpersonal values and feelings. They must be experienced in real life. No emoticon in the world can
replace a face. A face you see right in front of you. You notice every little detail. … Real relations happen in
real life (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, 143-44).
In particular, the point about physical eye contact is repeated by many of the self-help texts:
“If you’re going to make meaningful connections with people, you must look at them and
the life in front of us in the eye” (Snow 2018). The challenging aspects of looking people in
the eye, and making contact with strangers, and even your own family and friends, is also
addressed in the digital detox texts. However, the point is to overcome shyness and social
anxiety, such as Snow’s (2017, 64) self-challenge to dear being present in public: “when in
public, I make a point never to use my phone as a social anxiety blanket”, and Zahariades’
(2016) advise to be social and present: “Strike up a conversation with a stranger: If you’re at
a coffee-shop, lean over to the person sitting next to you and comment on the shop’s food”.
Being present in the same space, rather than being distracted by online media and digital
communication was one of the key rewards from the digital detox experience reported on
by Susan Maushart (2010); After the six-month media pause, Maushart (2010) and her
family “found – among other things – each other”:
We hung out on each other’s beds, and on the couch in front of the fire. We lingered for no good reason
over dinner. We invaded each other’s space. Whereas before we’d scurry to our separate corners, we now
found excuses to bond together and stay there (322).
Body and mind: No sense of self
A third major concern in the digital detox texts is physical and mental ailments because
of digital media overload. Our bodies and minds are suffering because of heavy use of
communication technologies. The physical symptoms described include lack of exercise,
weight gain, unhealthy eating and muscular pain. Digital detox books typically offer
diagnoses, and describe conditions such as “text claw”, “smartphone elbow”, “text neck”,
and “computer vision syndrome” (Huffington 2014; Formica 2015; Bratsberg and Moen
2015; Price 2018).
Furthermore, the digital and media detox texts describe mental symptoms such as
depression, fear, anxiety, and stress, and loneliness (Formica 2015; Zahariades 2016; Goodin
2017; Price 2018). Social media is particularly argued to cause negative self-image because
users are comparing themselves to others: “feelings of inadequacy are stirred up by
witnessing our friends ‘perfect’ lives online” (Goodin 2017), and “Exposure to carefully
curated images from others’ lives leads to negative self-comparison, concluded a recent
study from Harvard university, a.k.a. the birthplace of Facebook” (Snow 2017, 33). The selfhelp books moreover pinpoint that we seek solace in technology and distractions “because
we are unwilling or uncomfortable confronting our own feelings” (Snow 2017, 61), yet only
resulting in reinforced: “feelings of low self-worth” (Zahariades 2016).
Digital detox texts describe the problem of digital overload as addiction, both in a
pathological and vernacular sense. A point raised in many self-help books is that the
dopamine is the reason for addiction: “Dopamine makes us feel excited, and we like feeling
excited” (Price 2018), and some compare the “dopamine loop” created by digital media to
drug addiction: “it leads to compulsory disorders similar to those who are addicted to
chemical stimulants and depressants such as cocaine, caffeine, methamphetamines,
nicotine and alcohol” (Snow 2017), and “heavy users of the Internet can suffer brain
damage similar to those suffered by people who are addicted to drugs” (Talks 2013,43).
Addiction is also described as FOMO (= Fear Of Missing Out), for example defined as «a
permeating concern or worry related to not being present while others have pleasant or
rewarding experiences” (Formica 2015). In turn, the self-help books and websites explain
that FOMO causes loss of sleep and insomnia with reference to how LCD lights of tablets
and smartphones stimulates you to stay awake (Formica 2015; Price 2018).
Digital detox books and websites suggest strategies for reducing damaging effects
on body and mind caused by digital media usage. Again, the strategies can be divided into
two categories, of which the first is practical and the second is more existential. The main
practical advises in the detox texts are nutritious food, sleep, exercise: “If it grows, eat it, if it
does not grow, do not eat it” (Formica 2015), “Eat healthy, and often, and get enough sleep”
(Ravatn 2014, 102), “a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep can help you find the right balance in
the use of technology” (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, p. 132). In terms of exercise, the most
often mentioned activities are walking (without your phone) and yoga (Zahariades 2016;
Price 2018; Goodin 2017). Other guidelines are avoiding multi-tasking, deleting unrewarding
Facebook ‘friends’, and self-discipline (Zahariades 2016, Bratsberg and Moen 2015, Ravatn
2014). The digital detox texts suggest a variety of analogue activities, including knitting,
sawing, colouring, cooking (old recipe), handwriting and gardening (Talks 2013; Goodin
2017; Perice 2018). While some advises are general remedies: “Gardening is good for the
mind, body and soul” (Talks 2013), others are specific solutions to a problem “Reading
before bedtime will improve your sleep” (Goodin 2017). A healthy sleep hygiene is
described as one of the key rewards of doing a digital detox; Maushart tells how, during the
media fasting period, the youngest daughter begins to sleep regularly and regain her
energy. Her moodiness “which we’d put down to being a teenage girl … turned out to be
largely a function of being tired” (2010, 325).
Strategies to handle more existentialist challenges, including low self-esteem,
loneliness and addiction are widely offered in the self-help books and websites. Key advises
are to ignore external pressure, and to nurture our authentic self: “Disconnect from our
always-connected lives, and reconnect with ourselves” (Huffington 2014), “To be able to
share our authentic selves requires more than sharing of digital images and messaging
(Fielding 2014, 10), “allow you to ‘be’ and listen to your inner voice and rediscover your
authentic self (125).
Yet, in order to achieve this goal, the detox texts’ supreme advice is a period of
abstention from digital media, alternatively a digital detox vacation. Digital detox®23 for
example offers “a mindfulness based and psychological driven program with a handful of
journals, yoga mats, arts and crafts, typewriters, and one agenda; disconnect to reconnect”.
The benefits of a digital detox trip are compared to a self-growth seminar, as will help you
“reconnect with your inner self”, “If you do not go within you go without”, “In order to feel
better, I started learning how to meditate”, “I must be kind, loving and patient with myself.
The more self-love, kindness and patience I feel, the faster I will incorporate the new habit
in my life”, “The purpose is to create more awareness of what is going on in our mind and to
interrupt our identification with thoughts” (Formica 2015). Detox is “an important step
towards changing the way you see yourself” (Zahariades 2016). Again, the desired prize is a
more authentic life: “By disconnecting from our devices we reconnect with: ourselves, each
other, our communities, and the world around us … becoming more present, authentic,
compassionate and understanding”.
The yearning for authenticity is integral to modernity, and the ideal of an authentic self
is a modern construction; existentialist notions of authenticity as inwardness is manifested
in modernism and the ‘subjective turn’ in modern culture. In a pre-modern society, there
was little room for self-development and searching for the real reality under the surface
(Berman 2009). The modern ideal of authenticity is about being true to oneself, but also
implies self-fulfilment and self-realisation. As such, the digital detox trend offers not only
practical advice to prevent invasion by omnipresent digital media, but also a more complete
package of authenticity and self-improvement. If you follow the advice, you are on the road
to “inner peace” and “relations in real life” (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, 144), and being
more “in touch with our inner selves” (Goodin 2017).
As we turn to the wider cultural and societal implications of digital detox, these aspects
place digital detox firmly within a discourse of self-optimization. Self-optimization describes
the trend where individuals are not only expected but feel obliged to improve their lives.
The detox trend is related to many other forms of self-optimization: healthy eating,
exercise, mindfulness, a balanced lifestyle etc. Indeed, digital detox texts often include a
description of a personal conversion as a generic feature. Self-help authors and founders of
corporate detox sites describe their first-hand experiences with the negative side effects of
digital media, and demonstrate how they have managed to turn their lives around; implying
that their journeys of self-improvement will inspire others. In the self-help books analysed
for this study, all authors confess to have been a ‘bad role model prior to conversion,
describing themselves as a former ‘tech addict’ (Formica 2015), ‘digiholic’ (Talk 2013), or
‘wired geek’ (Snow 2016), or describing how they recovered from ‘nomopfobia’, the fear of
being without your phone (Goodin 2017), procrastination and web-induced lack of
concentration (Ravatn 2014), and health-damaging burnout (Huffington 2014). Confessions
based on first-hand experiences increase the credibility of authors and founders as
inspirational characters in the market for ‘authentic lifestyles’.
Related to the trend of self-optimization is the trend of responsibilization, also highly
relevant to understand the cultural phenomenon of digital detox. Responsibilization is a
term from the literature of governmentality, referring to “the process whereby subjects are
rendered individually responsible for a task which previously would have been the duty of
another – usually a state agency – or would not have been recognized as a responsibility at
all” (Wakefield & Fleming 2009, 277). Responsibilization is associated with neo-liberal
policies and the shift onto individuals for designing personal solutions to global problems
(Elliott & Lemert 2009). The digital detox trend derives part of its credibility from its roots in
previous forms of media resistance, such as grass-roots movements for TV-free periods and
campaigns against media commercialization or amorality. The corporate detox firms often
have a ‘manifesto’, their charismatic leaders engage in public speaking on behalf of the
cause, they publish books, hold meetings and construct themselves as inspirational
agitators. Yet, the aim of corporate detox is in no sense to build grass-root movements or
achieve substantial political change. Instead, personal conversions and ‘social movement’-
character is more of a business strategy; digital detox is used as a trademark, and yearning
for authenticity lays the ground for a burgeoning market of self-help literature, retreats, and
events. In a sense, this is the ‘Californian’ way of being societally engaged (Sutton 2017).
Fish (2017) criticises the lack of political agenda; the detox ‘movement’ do not work for
changes in work rules for example, to limit the level of exploitation of workers, but more for
individual improvement. Rather than criticizing the technology or the industry, the problem
is the users and their relationship with digital media: “In reality, the problem lies in us,
rather than technology (Talks 2013, 82), and “the problem isn’t smartphones themselves,
but the problem is our relationship with them” (Price 2018, 2).
As such, digital detox illuminates the shift in media resistance and protest from actions
to restrain certain media and protect individuals through regulations, to an emphasis on
heightened consciousness and taking a healthy pause (Syvertsen 2017, 93). These aspects
also point firmly to commodification, as a third societal force illuminating digital detox.
While digital detox is an interesting social and cultural phenomenon, it is also a sphere of
business opportunity. There are businesses to keep you attached to social and online media,
but also businesses that can help you get away.
Conclusion: Real life and media life
We have explored the phenomenon of digital detox and discussed three research
questions: How is the problem defined, what are the strategies suggested to deal with them
and what are the wider societal implications of the phenomenon of digital detox. We have
answered these questions and identified factors relevant to media resistance and
As discussed above, an authentic life presumably requires 1) a ‘sense of time’, in which
we restrict meaningless time-waste, are conscious about time, and spend time wisely and in
accordance with our inner values; 2) a ‘sense of place’, in which we are present, grounded
and connected with nature and people in real life; 3) a ‘sense of self’, meaning that we live
healthy lives and gain self-worth and confidence from within rather than depending on
external feedback. In this study, we have shown how self-help literature and corporate
websites promise improvements on all three counts. Digital detox reflects the cultural
tendency to idealize and cherish ‘authentic life’. The nostalgia for a time when humans lived
in harmony with time, space and themselves, is presented as an alternative to the alienating
‘space-time distanciation’ which is a distinctive mark of postmodernity (Barney 2004:33).
The nostalgia is paradoxical as the digital detox texts does not promote a tech-free society,
but underline that there are positive aspects of digital media and argue that “We shouldn’t
be alarmist (…). The point of this book is not to get you to through your phone under the
bus” (Price 2018), and “I don’t think data plans and mobile Internet are the devil” (Snow
2016). The main point in digital detox texts is to promote a balance between our offline and
online lives, for example: “we love all the opportunities in the new digital environment (…).
As long as you find the right balance” (Bratsberg and Moen 2015, 185). While the narratives
in the literature are often nostalgic, they are rarely historically specific.
Yet, despite the paradoxes, we should not underestimate the digital detox trend as a
possible and sometimes rewarding response to the persuasive mechanisms of the media
industry. Digital detox is a reaction to the experience of being temporally overloaded and
invaded, trapped in a superficial, narcissistic and fabricated space, needing strategies to
improve health and mindful presence. Studying digital detox confirms that the notion that
life nowadays is digital life, popular in media studies, is contested; instead there is a
continued insistence on the distinction between real life and digital life, mediated life and
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8 9 10
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