What is a digital fast?

Also known by various other terms like “digital detox,” “digital Sabbath,” and “unplugging”, the idea behind a digital fast is to voluntarily and deliberately stop using all connected devices – smartphones, computers, tablets, and so on – that plug you to the internet for a pre-specified amount of time. The abstention could be for as little as a few hours (say, from 7 pm until the next morning). However most digital fasts are at least a day long, and many span an entire weekend or even longer. Just like food fasts, longer digital fasts are thought to be more effective (up to a point) in weaning oneself away from digital connectivity, and in regaining self-control.

distraction by underminingme Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: distraction by underminingme Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Some versions of the digital fast recommend off-line activities you should perform instead (with all the spare time freed up from not texting and Facebooking): going on a walk or a hike, or organizing a pot-luck meal with friends who are also digitally fasting.

In theory, the idea of a digital fast has generated a lot of interest, with organizations such as Adbusters and the Huffington Post each promoting their respective versions of digital fasts. It is especially popular among Silicon Valley employees of tech companies like Facebook and Google.

But in practice, digital fasting really hasn’t moved beyond the fringes of our culture. One reason is that there is a raging debate about whether a digital fast is desirable. Advocates take the digital stance that digital technology has addictive properties that cause harm in various ways, and we need to regain control over its use. Its opponents counter with the argument that digital technology satisfies our fundamental needs today and is irreplaceable. So, they say, there is no need for anyone to fast or unplug.

In this blog post, I want to provide brief synopses of both positions, so that you can make a better decision for yourself about whether a digital fast is something worth doing.

The Addiction Perspective: I am Addicted to Digital Technology and this is a Growing & Serious Problem

The Hummingbird Doll by Paree Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: The Hummingbird Doll by Paree Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Over the past decade, a growing number of psychologists have started to see addiction to digital technologies as a form of behavioral addiction, similar to pathological gambling, and even to substance dependence addictions. They point to the fact that when using smartphones, or playing online games, or using social media, many people exhibit features that are very similar to those displayed by drug addicts. These features include the following: excessive use of the digital technology without discretion, experiencing symptoms of withdrawal including feelings of anger, tension or depression without use, and negative repercussions from use such as lowered ability to focus and insomnia. One study from 2014 led by psychologist Julia Hormes concluded:

“The use of online social networking sites is potentially addictive…Disordered online social networking use seems to arise as part of a cluster of symptoms of poor emotion regulation skills and heightened susceptibility to both substance and non-substance addiction.

Under this perspective, unchecked use of digital technology is a potential problem that could have serious consequences. One avenue to gain control over the problem is to disconnect from the source of the addiction in a deliberate and systematic way by means of a digital fast.

The Unalloyed Empowerment Perspective: Digital Technologies Satisfy My Fundamental Needs and Allow Me to do Important Things That I Cannot Otherwise Do

Love at a Distance by Cubmundo Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Love at a Distance by Cubmundo Flickr Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Technology enthusiasts take an entirely different view. They see nothing problematic or dangerous with our incessant digital connectivity. They believe that there is no need for anyone to unplug at all, even momentarily. Rather, they argue that digital technologies now satisfy many of our most basic needs and we no longer have other, old-fashioned ways of meeting these needs. For instance, (at least in the United States) people no longer stroll to the town square every evening, or call each other to talk for hours on a landline phone. Our online and offline lives have now blended together so completely that one is not possible without the other. Thus, fasting digitally will lead to nothing more than depriving ourselves of basic need fulfillment and constitutes a case of unnecessary technological asceticism. This view is expressed nicely by business consultant Alexandra Samuel:

“When we’re online — not just online, but participating in social media — we’re meeting some of our most basic human needs.  Needs like creative expression. The need to connect with other people. The need to be part of a community. Most of all, the need to be seen: not in a surface, aren’t-you-cute way, but in a deep, so-that’s-what’s-going-on-inside-your-head way.”

Under this perspective of technology and digital connectivity, it is clear that a digital fast is anathema. Instead, it would see each of us as electric appliances. Unless it is plugged in to a power source, it is useless. In the same way, we are only functioning when we are digitally  connected.

Which perspective makes sense - Addiction or Unalloyed Empowerment?

It is worth thinking deeply about which perspective of technology relationship – addiction or empowerment – resonates with you. When I thought about this question, it was clear even though using digital technology and being connected is empowering, I am also addicted to its use. Some experts suggest that people like me should approach digital connectivity like a diet instead of a fast. In other words, use technology in a restrained way rather than not at all. Nevertheless, I choose to unplug from all digital devices from time to time, usually for a few hours, or sometimes for a weekend. (I have never gone on a longer digital fast than this). If nothing else, digital fasting is a way to prove to myself that I have the strength to act willfully in my relationship with technology.

I teach marketing and pricing to MBA students at Rice University. You can find more information about me on my website or follow me on LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter @ud.

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