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Is it ethical to do a digital detox during the coronavirus pandemic?

Is it possible, ethically, to digitally detox during a pandemic?

It seems like everyone is inside, cooped up on their phones, creating as much content as physically possible. Turn off my phone now? No way! My FOMO would be off the charts.

My Instagram feed is filled with friends and family sharing their quarantine routines and positive affirmations on how to remain, well, normal. Users are posting their sourdough starters, 10-minute workouts, and viral challenges, urging each other to do ten push-ups, take a shot, or draw a carrot.

My Twitter feed flows from one satirical quip to another about the conundrums of self-isolation, all quaintly playing off one another, as we loudly pretend our anxieties are not eating us alive.

My Facebook feed is misinformation, or otherwise known to me as regularly scheduled programming. I avoided that feed before the coronavirus took over my thoughts.

Digital Detox Phone
Meira Gebel/Digital Trends

The news alerts sent to my phone seem to flash every hour, on the hour, reminding me that Yes! It is still as bad as you think! No, wait… worse!

Seemingly hypocritical in nature, social media begs me to keep my mental health in check: Remember to breathe, take a walk, meditate, join this virtual sound bath class, paint your kitchen! But don’t do too much!

All the while, breaking news beckons with new information, new death counts, new confirmed cases, new heart-breaking stories of families not being able to say goodbye to their loved ones because they are dying in confinement.

It is all very overwhelming. Forget abstaining from screens. It sure feels like they’ve won.

Man if this quarantine is ever over society will need a massive digital detox.

— Matthew Covid Snoep (frmrly David) (@monkeymarv) April 1, 2020

Yet, this past week I decided to delete it all…off of my phone at least. Yet, the tightness and shortness of breath I’ve felt in my chest were not symptoms of the latest popular pathogen plaguing millions, but of guilt. I’ve realized there may be two types of people right now: Those who unplug to recharge, and those who feel the need to walk into the fire to see what’s burning. And I may be both.

Above all, I thought, don’t I have a moral responsibility to be informed as a citizen? To keep refreshing my feeds? If it’s my duty to stay perpetually up to date, at what cost should my sanity suffer?

This was too big of a question for me to ponder without philosophical help.

So I turned to Kathie Jenni, a professor of philosophy at the University of Redlands in California, who said I could perhaps strike a balance — a delicate one.

“Although it’s natural for some to feel guilt over not being more robustly informed than we could be, I would hope we can fight that feeling by… remembering that one can’t help others or oneself much if one is not emotionally stable,” she said.

Basically, if the anxiety and terror you feel is debilitating, and the cause of your anxieties are the screens you surround yourself with, according to some ethical theories and Jenni, self-preservation should take precedence if it impedes responsibility to others and civic duty.

But it’s not that easy.

As soon as all of this is over, I’m going on a digital detox and just gonna enjoy life without the internet for a bit.

— Mol???? (@_MollyWebb) March 28, 2020

“I do think one can try to balance emotional self-preservation with a civic duty to stay informed,” said Jenni. “We don’t need to watch hours of news or listen to public radio all day to get the basics of the situation down each day. Still, there’s a danger of self-deception here: Some people will say they can’t bear to know what’s going on, when in fact they could and should bear it. But if someone just decides, ‘I’ve had enough of this bad news’ and unplugs completely, they are failing in the moral obligations.”

The gist? Time to get brutally honest with ourselves about what we think we can handle, and what we can actually handle. As for my tight chest, Jenni advised it’s wise for me to “do something about that.”

Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel/Digital Trends

Luckily, she provided some questions to ask ourselves if we are contemplating a thorough digital detox right now: How is my emotional health? How much do I need to know? In what form can I know those things without being overwhelmed with anxiety and terror?

Avoiding distressing information right now is impossible. It’s everywhere. Managing what we see, read, and hear, though, is. It’s possible to uphold our moral responsibility to ourselves as people and as citizens within the same day as long as it’s an authentic reflection of where we are at mentally. Meaning, yes, it is ethical to digitally detox, even during a pandemic.

There’s no need to vindicate ourselves at this time. Disconnecting, turning off the notifications to your phone, and deleting apps until a time when you feel ready may be the best strategy for those still wanting to uphold their civic duty. But also remember: You are obligated to take time for yourself during this crisis.

And if anyone disagrees, tell them to consult a philosopher first.

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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