When a friend first told me about The World Unplugged study, I didn’t really pay much attention. I thought that the idea of staying offline for a day would only faze a handful of computer geeks and kids who tremble at the idea of life with without a cell phone and tablet.
“At least my generation is free of all that,” I thought with no small amount of smugness, believing that I represented everyone who had grown up without the Internet.
The international university survey conducted by the University of Maryland in 2011 asked 1,000 students from 12 universities around the world to switch off their phones, tablets and home computers, and to stay away from all sources of information or social networking for 24 hours. The findings of the survey confirmed the most frightening projections: a future in which entire generations of addicts will be online 24/7.
A year ago I would not have paid attention to these findings. However, realizing how fast I switch on my computer when I get home every night got me thinking that this study actually does relate to me as well.
As it turned out, it related to a lot more people around me too. I asked my “friends” on Facebook to take a stab at the experiment and log off completely for a day, though I did exclude television and radio from the ban. The rule was: No Internet at all. Though small, the response to my invitation was bigger than I expected: 22 participated. Only seven succeeded.
And those seven did not succeed without some difficulty either.
“I must confess that I do think about the issue in general terms, as I check my e-mail, Facebook, etc several times a day,” Vassilis Vassiliadis, a psychologist, wrote back to me a few days later. “On the other hand, however, I didn’t find it especially hard to stay away for 24 hours, though I think that it would have been a lot tougher if it had been for two days or more.”
Christos Papaioannou had survived without the Net for three months in 2012 while working in an isolated part of southern Sudan. He knew he could do it again for 24 hours. But there was a big difference: In 2012 he didn’t have a choice, while this time he was in France for a few weeks and could, theoretically, spend as much time as he wanted online.
“The absence of the Internet was felt more in the practical and more meaningful applications of technology: I knew nothing of the news of the world; I couldn’t look for a short-film festival I wanted to go to; I had some anxiety about a work e-mail I was expecting; I had no access to information I needed for a paper I was writing; and I couldn’t download a movie I had been planning to watch,” he said. “Mostly, though, I missed the contact with my closest people via e-mail, Facebook and phone apps. This is daily contact that has become a habit over the years and has managed to beat the distances that separate us. I had thoughts and ideas and I had to wait a day to share them.”
For librarian Ioanna Diamantopoulou, the experiment was relatively painless.
“What I have to say is that I didn’t miss it much – I have stayed offline in the summer during my vacations – though once or twice I did have to hold myself back from looking into something I wanted,” she admitted.
As a businessman, Constantinos Halioris found it tough for the first few hours, though the overall experience was rewarding.
“As time passed and the afternoon came along, I felt the need to speak to someone,” he said. “I called a couple of friends and asked them what they were doing. We arranged to meet up and went out for a coffee. We exchanged news, had a few laughs and then went home. There were quite a few moments – probably due to force of habit – when I wanted to go online, but I held back.”
The youngest of the group I surveyed, Dimitrs Dragatsis Hadzifotiou, was reintroduced to a world that he thought he had lost.
“It reminded me of summer holidays where we didn’t have television and we would write our own newspapers and plays, and the grownups would organize treasure hunts for us,” he said. “That was not in the 1960s, mind, but just a decade or so ago. As kids we had the good fortune to experience the deprivation that leads to creativity. I don’t have anything against people who didn’t have the same experience, but I do want to make them think in the same way that people who are unfortunately no longer with us helped me think.”
Romanos Gerodimos, a Greek, was the scientific supervisor for The World Unplugged in the UK.
“Personally, I believe that the most serious finding of this survey, especially in Great Britain, was the significant distancing of young people from public spaces, the way they are cut off from the natural and urban landscape and confined to a part of the house, usually their bedroom, which evolves into a center of entertainment, technological control and social networking etc,” he said.
“The young people who participated in the survey realized that, for no particular reason, the excessive use of information technology and media had effectively limited their activities to a very humdrum routine,” Gerodimos said. “Abstaining from the routine – even for just 24 hours – compelled them to re-evaluate their choices and values, to actively participate in group activities, to listen to their fellow citizens, to observe their city and their environment.”
Gerodimos, however, does not believe that these findings in any way reduce the significance of new technologies and the media.
“Obviously they have created endless opportunities for the empowerment, participation and information of citizens,” he said. “But how we use the technology and how we gradually end up in a limited routine of uses and interaction is important and ought to trouble us, so that we can take full advantage of the potential of these technologies.”
The World Unplugged survey in 2011 saw the participation of some 1,000 students from 12 universities on five continents. It was conducted in three phases. The first phase saw voluntary abstinence for 24 hours from every technological means of communication, entertainment or information (books and landline telephones were excluded). Once the students had completed the first phase, whether successfully or not, they had to write a short essay describing the experience, explaining any difficulties they faced, what they may have gained from it, surprises, practical problems that arose and any changes that it may have brought to their lives. The final phase concerned assessing the results, which, in short, were the following: 1) There were signs of addiction. 2) The majority failed to complete the experiment. 3) Many said they felt their cell phones to be an extension of themselves. 4) The use of technology is not a habit, but the most important tool around which they build and organize their social lives. 5) People can display different identities depending on the medium they are using. 6) Many respondents said they felt lonely during the experiment. 7) Many students had real trouble filling their time. 8) Most said they felt safe when online. 9) The concept of news has changed. Anything can be news, even the status update of a college friend on Facebook. 10) “We don’t look for news; news find us.” 11) “I don’t need any news that’s longer than 140 characters.” 12) “Television is a means of escapism.” 13) “Music is not just something to keep you company on the road or at home; it is a way of regulating your mood.” 14) “E-mail is not dead; it is just for older people and work.”
Tips for tech detox: a walk and a conversation
Manolis Andriotakis, who knows how the Internet works better than most in Greece, has conducted the experiment for two successive summers. In this extract from his blog (Garage Blog), he provides a few tips for surviving offline.
“The first days of abstinence from the Internet are the hardest and most crucial. To cut yourself off from the habit of online devices, you need to resist even the smallest temptation. If you don’t do too well in the first few days, start over. It’s worth it. When you succeed, the feeling is great.
“I felt fresh and rejuvenated when I came back from a detox of 17 days. If you’re not convinced, carry a notebook and pencil around with you. Start jotting down your thoughts and ideas. Soon you’ll realize that your ideas are different when expressed on paper. Even if you’ve forgotten how to write properly, this is a good opportunity to rediscover its pleasures. You’ll be surprised at how much a piece of a paper and a simple pencil can help you to organize your thoughts and ideas.
“If you’re struggling not to look at your e-mail in the morning, take a walk, have a conversation, take a bath, read a book. It may sound trite, but walks in nature especially… are very beneficial. Give yourself the opportunity to focus on the small things: a pebble, a cloud, a leaf, something so ‘insignificant’ that you would never bother to post it on social media, and think how important the things you share with people on the Internet are.
“Soon you will probably reach the same decision I did: to be more selective in sharing and setting better boundaries in my use of digital media.”