By Jasmin Shokoui, Lab Intern.
It is a rainy Wednesday evening. I am waiting in Studenterhuset, a cosy student café in the old town of Copenhagen. The organisers rented out a spacious, white room upstairs of the afternoon trouble in the café. Lo-fi music is playing in the background, and the atmosphere is very relaxed as people are slowly trundling in. I am sitting at a table close to the door. A man, and a woman enter the scene. I know him; Jesper is a colleague of mine from ETHOS Lab. He introduces the woman to me; her name is Laura. We talk for a bit, and they decide to grab a seat at my table. A minute before the event starts, another person enters the room. He grabs a seat at our table and introduces himself to us. His name is Georg. We are about 10 participants when the moderator gets up to explain the event titled “Digital Selfcare”. The purpose of the gathering is to use the community of the others to take care of our digital selves together. The moderator explains that we will use a data detox kit by the Berlin-based start-up Tactical Tech for this.
Four weeks later, I am sitting in Café Analogue, a cosy student café at the IT University of Copenhagen. Couches and cushioned armchairs invite the participants to grab a seat, and at the bar, everyone can grab a glass of fizzy lemonade paired with expensive chocolate or berries. A presentation projects a quote to the front of the room that states: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political welfare”, Audre Lorde 1988. As people are sitting down, I start counting them. This time we are about 25 participants. The moderator and a member of ITU’s staff begin introducing the event on “Digital Selfcare”. She reads the quote out loud. Using the notion of care instead of detox was a decision made intentionally. In today’s digital world, we want to attempt to protect and preserve ourselves and our data. Digital self-care responds to numbing and default behavioural patterns we established towards digital technologies and strives to protect our data.
The speaker goes on to emphasise that this is a collaborative space. The organisers are no experts on the matters of digital detox or self-care. Nevertheless, everyone attending the event is there to support our collective attempts to care for our digital selves with our community. For this, we are working with the same data detox kit by Tactical Tech again. Immediately, it hits me. Why are we using a detox kit to practice digital self-care? Can you use the terms digital detox and digital self-care as synonyms and do they describe and refer to the same practices? This blog post takes a comparative stance to look into digital self-care and digital detox to find answers and more open questions.
Digital detox – Of forests and mental cloudiness
“A digital detox is the voluntary removal of devices, “regarded as an opportunity to reduce stress or focus on social interaction in the physical world” (Sutton 2020). In 2014 and 2015, Theodora Sutton attended a northern Californian digital detox community called “Camp Grounded” to conduct ethnographical fieldwork. The scholar used the data she gained from Camp Grounded for her PhD Thesis about digital detox.
The retreat runs by the motto “Disconnect to reconnect” (Sutton 2020: 10). This phrase hints at something I discovered in my fieldwork too. Digital detox communities aim at disconnecting from digital technologies to connect with analogue experiences instead. An ideal prominent in the digital detox communities that I found in literature and my empirical material is spending more time in nature (Sutton 2020: 99-126). For example, a participant I encountered in the second digital self-care event talked about how she admired her friend who limits his usage of digital technologies. Hence, when they went hiking in a forest together, he brought an analogue map of the area, with which he navigated them. The participant explained how empowering she found the experience of hiking without relying on digital devices. Furthermore, she told us that they experienced the nature around them much more presently and mindfully, as their minds were “offline” too.
As the name digital detox suggests, digital technologies are framed as something toxic in the phenomenon. While they do not express their toxicity through poisoning the person engaging with them, they can create addiction and other mental illnesses. (Subramanian 2018) Since 2010, depression rates and suicide rates, especially among Millennials and Gen Z’s, have increased significantly. This development is associated with people spending more time consuming digital media (Twenge et al. 2019). Often digital detox communities utilise pseudo-scientific explanations to justify their claims, stating that corporations design digital media outlets to cause dopamine rushes that cause addiction (Sutton 2020). In the events I took part in, participants reported often finding themselves in situations where they have mindlessly been scrolling through social media for hours. “When I’m bored, I automatically unlock my phone and start scrolling. I lose track of time and my head gets cloudy. Sometimes hours can pass by without me noticing”, Laura said. This leaves us users with less time for other tasks we need to carry out and can thereby cause stress. At the same time, when we use every moment to consume content on our digital devices, when can we do nothing or even be bored? When can we process the constant input of information? As a solution, digital detox communities suggest strategies like keeping your phone out of the bedroom or going on a retreat that does not allow using digital technologies for a couple of days or weeks.
At first, these methods sound promising. However, it quickly becomes evident that many tips and tricks from digital detox advisors are not accessible for everyone. Looking at the number of products or experiences we can buy to detox digitally, digital detox seems to have evolved into a business model. Purchasing a technology-free trip or affording an apartment big enough to allow us not having to use our phone in your bedroom depends on our monetary resources and privileges.
Digital Self-care – Guarding data and time as acts of care
Now we have an idea of how we can understand the phenomenon of digital detox. Now, we will ask what digital self-care implies. Existing literature does not provide an official definition of digital self-care that we could look up to find out. Nonetheless, we can look at the empirical material that I gathered participating in the events on digital self-care. Overall, I encountered two overarching dimensions of digital self-care.
The first aspect is concerned with the users’ data privacy. During the first event on digital self-care, the moderator encouraged us to do any remaining exercises freely after completing the first few tasks in silence together. He emphasised that it would be good to talk about our encounters with the people around us. In my group, Laura and Jesper quickly agreed to do the exercise on data privacy.
After reading through the introduction provided by the data detox kit, a debate on data privacy emerged quickly. In the beginning, Laura and Jesper talked about how carelessly we hand out our data to major corporations like Google or Apple. This critique also counted for other companies that produce software or hardware, like apps or smartwatches. Nonetheless, I will focus on these two firms in this chapter, as the participants mostly used Google and Apple exemplary for the digital tech sector.
“You have no choice. If you don’t agree to the terms of service, you can’t use it. They have so much power that the user has no alternative.”, Jesper said. When we get new software or a hardware device, we usually have no choice but to agree to the terms of service of the product that we would like to use. Even though everyone could decline the terms of service, people rarely go through this. Declining them would lead to the device’s or programme’s function becoming so restricted that there would be no point in using it anymore. “Who would pay a Phone for 5000 DKK and then not agree to the terms of service?” Georg joked. The issue is that we need digital devices to participate in everyday life. Not agreeing to the terms of service of the companies manufacturing the hardware and developing the software would practically have significant impacts on almost every dimension of your life, be it socially, economically, or culturally. Imagine working or studying without a computer, for example.
Moreover, many individuals rarely take on the effort to read through the terms of service they agree to, as they tend to be long and exhilarating texts. At times, some people might not even have the resources to do that. Laura argued that most people knew that they “give away their data” when agreeing to Google’s or Apple’s terms of service. Once we accept Apple or Google utilising our data, it is hard to know what is going to happen with it. “If you don’t pay money for a product, you pay with your data”, Laura said. “And that is the problem!” stated Georg, “On the one hand, we know all the benefits we’ll get when we use a phone. But we don’t know the consequences”. The positive effects of agreeing to provide data to Google or Apple are visible to the users. What trading our data for a product really means is not evident, though. Knowing that some company does something with our data is a very abstract concept to grasp. This hauntology makes it hard to weigh potential negative consequences in the decision-making process. “We all kind of know that it’s bad, but at the end of the day, we all use Google or Apple because they’re convenient.”, Georg said, “For me, it’s a trade-off. Do you want data protection, or do you want convenience? I don’t really care what happens to my data. I’m not that interesting. But as an engineer, I like efficiency. I prefer using Google because of the infrastructure they provide.”
According to the participants who joined the events that I observed, digital self-care means figuring out the practicalities of what we can do to take care of our digital self. How important is data protection for you, and how much do you value other factors like efficiency? If you know where you stand on the scale, you could figure out your specific needs and how to configure your set-up accordingly.
“What is much more interesting to me is the question of how these companies steal our time.”, Georg added. He explained that companies that produce digital technologies often design them to keep us as the users engaged with the product as long as possible. They develop complex algorithms that stimulate the release of dopamine in our brains. “It is so tricky because I live alone, and especially during the lockdown, I used my phone as my gate to reality and to keep in touch with my friends.”, said Laura. “But sometimes, I also find myself in a rat where I can spend hours in front of my phone or my computer gaming or scrolling without noticing, and that is horrible.”, she added. Especially during the COVID related lockdowns, some people might have found it comforting to use their phones to connect to others while distancing socially. At the same time, other digital activities, like mindless scrolling through an infinite content loop or general overuse of digital technologies, might have been perceived as harmful to the self. Therefore, practising digital detox also means reflecting on which usages of digital technologies soothe oneself. From this, we can conclude that the notion of digital self-care also refers to reflect on how much screen time is healthy for you individually and to act accordingly. A reflection of how the individual wants to use their time is crucial for this dimension of digital self-care.
The notion of care in digital self-care
After having elaborated on two dimensions of digital detox and of digital self-care, we can now grasp general similarities and differences. In general, both approaches strive at increasing the mental or physical health of individuals. As the notion of care suggests, digital self-care is about self-protection and nursing one’s mental health to avoid potential side effects or overuse of digital technologies. Reflecting on which kinds of digital behaviour “feel” good for the individual speaks to an approach to enhance their mental health or to protect it from “unhealthy” technology use. If the community members become aware that their own ability to practice digital self-care is limited, this might be a first step enhance their mental wellbeing. Additionally, it would be beneficial to utilise their community to form a movement that also calls for political action (Twenge et al. 2019).
The metaphor of detox in digital detox
Instead of countering the various strains, digital technologies pose on individuals with self-care, the digital detox phenomenon resorts to detox. Thereby, digital technologies are in some narrations used by the community members I observed imagined through the medical lens of toxicity. In medicine, the dose of exposure to the substance determines the toxicity. Considering how digital media can influence our mental wellbeing, it can be toxic too, which might also be a matter of dosage. Therefore, digital detox emphasises the possibility of cutting exposure to digital technologies as its most potent tool. In medicine, many poisonous substances can be neutralised by giving an antidote. Likewise, digital detox often is about not doing something in order to do something else. Many community members, for example, limit time spent on their phones to spend time in nature. (Sutton 2020).
Opinion: Digital detox and digital self-care – a tale of individualised responsibility
The practices of digital detox and digital self-care can imply that we as individuals are responsible for our consumption of digital technologies. This idea misses, though, that we are facing a collective and structural issue. To some individuals, the strategies suggested by both phenomena might feel beneficial. One could even argue that the phenomena help nudge users to establish a sustainable relationship to technologies (Sunstein and Thaler 2008). However, many digital detox and self-care practices are not accessible to everyone. Some people do not have the resources to practice them, and others cannot afford to abandon their digital devices. Instead of pushing the responsibility to the users, policymakers should finally make digital technology corporations fully responsible for the products they develop and generate profit from.
We should also reflect that, as we often rely on digital technologies to participate in everyday life, the corporations to which these products belong inherit a lot of power over us. This makes it hard to limit our use of digital technologies sustainably. One could argue that it would be more effective, if the companies producing digital technologies would become fully responsible for their products. Considering digital detox and self-care, it might be advantageous to critically reflect that a “healthy” technology use is not only an issue of individual responsibility but a societal matter that policymakers should tackle. (Viscusi 2005; Heinzerling and Ackerman 2002)
Hungry for more?
If you are interested in reading the research project, stay tuned until the release. It will look at theories of distinction and socio-technical imaginaries and evaluate how digital self-care and digital detox can be understood and what this implies for responsibility. You can sign up to receive a notification about the release here: https://forms.gle/egMnumFUPaofQXsq5
 Due to data protection considerations, all names are anonymised. Further information that could indicate the identity of the participants are anonymised as well or will be left out completely.
Heinzerling, L., and F. Ackerman. 2002. “Pricing the Priceless: Cost-Benefit Analysis of Environmental Protection.” Georgetown Environmental Law and Policy Institute; Georgetown University Law Center, Georgetown University.
Sutton, T. 2020. “Digital Re-Enchantment: Tribal Belonging, New Age Science and the Search for Happiness in a Digital Detoxing Community.” Oxford Internet Institute; Mansfield College, University of Oxford.
Twenge, J. M., T. E. Joiner, M. L. Rogers, and G. N. Martin. 2019. “Corrigendum: Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science 7 (2): 397. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702618824060.