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I’ll tell you when I’ve had enough!: The evolving world of digital detoxes and Internet addiction

digital detox signThe space between our online and offline lives is vanishing. We instant message or video chat instead of meeting up in person. We fire up our iPads or Kindles instead of turning pages of an actual book. Our phones are an appendage. We simply cannot help ourselves: If the digital solution is there, we should use it … right?

Maybe not. The surplus of tech in our lives comes with consequences. The uncontrollable tendency to check email, post Facebook updates, tweet random thoughts, and slap filters on snapshots of trees and our feet can turn from hobby to obsession – or even addiction.

This over-reliance is exactly what digital detox camps hope to alleviate, if not completely rectify. A digital detox camp is exactly what it sounds like; think of it as summer camp for adults, only the main purpose is for you to enter with an open mind and empty, gadget-less pockets. Leave all your button mashing, social media obsessions, and technological dependencies at the door.

But while there’s no denying that everyone deserves to take a break from our hyper-connected, digital world, the question is, are these camps really the best way to do it?

Defining digital addiction and recovery

Before we discuss the merits of digital detox camps, it’s important to talk about the differences between abusing the Internet and digital world and being addicted to it.

“Internet addiction is basically the obsessive or compulsive use of the Internet or other digital media devices – like an iPhone or a smartphone – in a way that creates some negative or deleterious impact in your life,” explains Dr. David Greenfield, PhD, founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction (CITA) and renowned expert on Internet and cyber psychology. In order for your Internet and technology user to be considered a legitimate compulsion, it needs to have a debilitating effect on one or more of the major spheres – home life, school or work life, finances, legal status, or health and medical issues. If it doesn’t affect any of those areas in a major and harmful way, according to Greenfield, you’re probably not an addict, but like many people, you may meet the criteria for Internet abuse, which simply is an overuse of technology but not to an extent that it creates a problem in your lives. (And something most of us should probably cop to.)

Each person has a different brain chemistry – that’s why it’s harder for certain people to unplug and easier for others.

In order to meet the criteria for Internet addiction, you spend an excessive amount of time online, leaving you with almost no time for other facets in your life thereby creating a major imbalance. “You may see changes in your physical health. Increases in obesity, sedentary behavior, social isolation, or depression. A decrease in work or school performance. Irritability, mood changes, changes in the way a person relates interpersonally or socially, and more importantly, changes in primary relationships,” says Greenfield.

CITA acknowledges that today, it’s difficult to live without the Internet and that complete abstinence is futile. With that in mind, the center primarily treats virtual addiction by re-training the brain to perceive and use technology in a different way. They also encourage the use of filtering or blocking software that can modulate a person’s online movement. “We have found that if we can get a 5 to 10-second lag between the time that they want ‘the hit’ on the Internet or on the device and the actual ability to get it, the frontal lobes of the brain can kick in and they can actually use better judgment,” Greenfield says.

According to Gemini Adams, an award-winning author and illustrator of the recently released The Facebook Diet: 50 Funny Signs of Facebook Addiction and Ways to Unplug with a Digital Detox (The Unplug Series), our biochemistry is to blame. “Research shows that when the brain receives a new piece of information, the part of the brain that relates to pleasure releases a burst of the neurotransmitter Dopamine,” she says. “Activities that increase the level of Dopamine in the brain are addictive because they generate a feeling of enjoyment.” However, each person has a different brain chemistry – that’s why it’s harder for certain people to unplug and easier for others. “It’s also why conditions such as Facebook Addiction Disorder (F.A.D). Digital Distress Syndrome (D.D.S) and Internet Addiction Disorder (I.A.D) are increasingly becoming recognized as serious conditions that need to be treated by the health and medical communities in certain countries,” says Adams.

web addictionGreenfield’s two-day and five-day intensive outpatient programs for patients suffering from Internet, gaming, pornography, social media, and personal device addictions not only involve assessment and identification of addictive behaviors and patterns of use and abuse – it also includes providing a better understanding of psycho-neurological patterns of addiction and how to work with them to create a change, development of a relapse prevention plan, and a real-time life plan to “plug back into life.” The intensive program entails about 20 hours of personalized therapy and strategies that usually take months to accomplish. Follow-up sessions are recommended and may be conducted in person, Skype, or by phone. He also offers Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), a cutting edge technology that uses light, sound, and vibration to create a movement in our brain patterns. EMDR was originally developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro, PhD, which has been used successfully in curbing anxiety as well as other mental health and addiction disorders.

Internet and digital addictions are an emerging issue that we’re still learning how to treat – so what’s the difference between the recovery plan described over and a digital detox program?

Fancy camping: Welcome to your digital detox

These programs might sound like options for addiction treatment, but in reality they’re — at best — places where the well-heeled internet abuser might gain a little perspective. That’s provided said abuser isn’t turned off by purple language they employ to describe themselves.

The Digital Detox is a personal wellness retreat organization located in Ukiah, California where participants are asked to give up all electronics in exchange for a weekend of wilderness fun and relaxation. “Our mission at The Digital Detox is to provide people with the opportunity and permission to put aside their digital arm and ‘re-format’ their own personal hard-drives…  so they can return to their job and family feeling rejuvenated and relaxed, with a new found perspective, in order to live a more balanced life online and off.” The brochure-speak continues:

The fear-mongering combined with ritzy outdoor trip packages feels mildly manipulative.

“The Digital Detox is a tech-free personal wellness retreat where attendees give up their smart-phones and gadgets in exchange for four days of serenity and bliss. Yoga, meditation, hiking, hot-tubs, art/writing workshops, and healthy eating in a natural and tranquil environment help one gain balance, perspective and a piece of mind.” 

“…Each morning will begin with tea and fresh fruit, followed by an enlightening two hour session of guided Yoga, Meditation and Asana Breathe work led by Gina Zappia, and an ayurvedic breakfast. Then unravel and soak in the wine barrel hot tub as your body begins to align with the natural environment. After a gourmet organic vegetarian lunch, we will take a guided meditative wilderness hike through the Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve. Art workshops, group discussions, writing prompts, hot tub soaking and baking class will fill the early afternoons, and participants will have ample personal time to read their favorite book along the nearby stream, nap in a hammock, or just enjoy the natural surroundings. Organic vegetarian dinners will delight the senses, from Thai-Cambodian fusion cuisine to delicious raw appetizers. Evening activities such as a stargazing, bonfires and journaling will surely open the mind for creative thought. After hours, take a dip in the hot tub at anytime of the night under the starlit sky.”

detox activitiesThere are many personal stories and anecdotes about the digital detox experience, but the consensus is rather unanimous: They are relaxing, health-minded vacations from the constant buzz of being connected. But does that make these retreats just a momentary fix or a legitimate way to treat or identify addiction?

Greenfield says digital detoxes aren’t a new concept. It’s the same as taking someone out of a situation or environment they’re most accustomed to and encouraging them to form better habits through guided practice. When asked about the difference between digital detox camps and his practice of providing psychological and clinical to battle serious technology-related addiction, Greenfield explains that although there are a few overlaps in terms of methods and techniques, there are also vast differences. “In addictionology, the term ‘detox’ implies just that, to detoxify from the use and abuse of a substance or behavior, which in this case is excessive technology use. However, typically there is some form of treatment that follows the detoxification and that’s where we come in. There has to be a comprehensive plan to address triggers, urges and cravings, relapse prevention, as well as technical blocks and filters and monitoring to help manage and change the neurological pattern of behavior,” Greenfield elaborates.

The Digital Detox retreat is mostly focused on promoting relaxation and peace of mind through a digital noise-free environment as well as a healthy diet, and meditation modules are spearheaded by an experienced Yoga instructor. According to Greenfield – who has not had first-hand experience with digital detox camps – this type of program is a fine way to take time off from the hustle and bustle of the digital world, but it ‘s probably not enough to tackle deeply rooted addiction to technology and the Internet. “Detox is the first step to any recovery process for any form of addiction, including one relating to technology. In order for it to have a longer lasting effect, it needs to be followed up by constant and habit-forming practice. A weekend in the wilderness may help achieve short-term relief, but it is definitely not enough for people with more serious addictions. You need follow-up steps.”

The price of unplugging ‘in style’

While relaxation and self-reflection are keys to tech-free “detoxes,” these off-the-grid options might not actually aid hard-to-manage technology habits, and they also come at incredibly expensive prices. The Digital Detox package, for example, costs anywhere between $595 and $1,400. Lake Placid Lodge New York’s “Check-In To Check-Out” Package starts at of $1,340, and that’s not including taxes and resort charges. These prices make it harder to justify “programs” that are relatively comparable to an unplugged camping trip. For the average Internet over-abuser, you could easily argue there’s no need for instructors, therapists, chefs, or camp facilitators – you’re your own program designer.

There are a lot of ways you can do your own digital detox more affordably, but it requires a lot of self-control and discipline. Here are a couple of examples from The Facebook Diet:

  • Download, an app that manages the amount of time you can be online.
  • Contemplate the zillions you’ve helped Zuckerberg and Co. make, and the cash you’d be earning if you weren’t on Facebook all day long!
  • Join a real club (one with real live human interaction, spit, warts, bad breath and all!).
  • Take time to sit down with your family and give them a real-time, in-person status update.
  • Power down for 24 hours each week and subscribe to the for ideas on what to do with your tech-free time.

You can even consider fully unplugging on weekends (easier said than done, of course) and focus on outdoor activities you enjoy but usually neglect. You can maintain a social media schedule – keep it short if you intend to do it daily. When you’re overwhelmed with tech-intensive activities, go on mini-breaks and use apps and sites like Motivation RPG to keep you engaged in short, away-from-keyboard activities.

Weighing the worth

Internet and technology addiction, just like any over-reliance on alcohol and drugs, is a very real and very serious problem for a small percentage of online users in the country (according to Greenfield, the number is around five to six percent), but the reality is, unless you have zero control over your impulses, your probably don’t need to seek professional help.

The point is that we’re constantly being told we’re digitally addicted and should consider spending (a lot of) money on unplugged vacations – but the fear-mongering combined with ritzy outdoor trip packages feels mildly manipulative. For starters, actual Internet and digital addiction is very different than overuse, as previously discussed. Secondly, if you are an addict, a detox is but the first stop – and if you aren’t, then … well, you might be just as well off opting for a DIY detox.

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Jam Kotenko
Former Digital Trends Contributor
When she's not busy watching movies and TV shows or traveling to new places, Jam is probably on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or…
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