Business

Rethinking the “Digital Detox” – The New York Times


Marc Benioff’s version of a “digital detox,” is more involved than most: The Salesforce chief executive went on a 10-day, device-free vacation to French Polynesia as his company was laying off around 8,000 workers last month. “We are so addicted to our devices (at least I am) it’s very freeing to leave them all behind for a while!” he told The New York Times via text message.

But maybe a detox is the wrong metaphor. The phrase, pulled from the language of substance abuse treatment, suggests that “we at least have a sense that there’s something wrong here,” said Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 book, “The Shallows,” was one of the first to explore the cognitive cost of digital distraction. Newer research, he says, has shown the problem isn’t only about the time you spend actually looking at your devices. The mere ability to check for messages “is taking up part of our attention all the time.”

Here’s bad news: Taking a vacation from your phone probably won’t solve much. “Leaving Las Vegas for 10 days if you’re a problem gambler is great,” said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of books on digital distraction and the importance of rest. “But if on day 11 you’re back at the slot machines, then it’s not so great.” A 2021 review of 21 studies that looked at the effect of digital detoxes on aspects like anxiety and participants’ sense of well-being found that most showed either no effect or mixed results at best.

What’s more, cutting off all access to technology — not so hard to imagine in 2010 — is increasingly impractical, especially if you’re not a billionaire with a staff. Even people on vacation “are reliant on mobile phones for so much, from documents to photos,” said Matt Berna, the North America president for Intrepid, an adventure travel company that ended its “digital detox” tours in 2018. (It still runs many trips on which you’re not likely to catch a Wi-Fi signal.)

That’s not to say a digital detox is bad — it’s just not enough. “You really have to figure out how to take breaks within the realities of your daily life,” said Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. Like any other habit, he says, “it basically takes repetition and sort of baby-stepping into it.”

Experts’ recommendations are less exciting than a trip to French Polynesia, though they’re certainly less expensive: Turn off your notifications. Set aside an hour of single-tasking time. Put physical distance between yourself and your phone when you don’t need it. And understand that although technology companies design their devices to be on your mind all the time, you don’t need to follow suit.

“It’s sort of like a reframing rather than a detox,” Gazzaley said. “It’s not that you just do it completely. You do it a little bit at a time.”

We want to hear from you: How do you set boundaries with your devices? If not a “digital detox,” what would you call your strategy? Let us know here.

How will Microsoft tweak its new A.I. chatbot? Users have reported creepy interactions with the bot persona that is part of the company’s revamped Bing search engine. In response, Microsoft said it would limit the length of conversations. Will it put more guardrails in place?

Basically zero: The cost of shooting down the balloon and U.F.O.s is “not even a rounding error” in the U.S. military’s roughly $770 billion budget, according to Zach Rosenberg of Janes, the defense and intelligence firm.




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