When news broke that Salesforce Chief Executive Officer Marc Benioff had taken a 10-day “digital detox” vacation in French Polynesia, the internet ate it up. We couldn’t, it seems, stop scrolling about how one very wealthy man stopped scrolling.
Stories like this seize our imaginations for several reasons. One is that the merely well-off tend to obsess about the habits of the super-rich, whether we find them admirable or hypocritical. Another is the appeal of the quick fix, whether it is Dry January, a spend-nothing challenge or a digital sabbatical.
But I suspect the story truly caught fire because, deep down, most of us are jealous. Ten days without digital devices? Must be nice. (Especially when the company you run is considering layoffs.)
In reality, the features of the modern workplace make it feel impossible to disconnect to a Benioffian extent. As work communications have spread from email to tools such as Slack and texting, it has become tougher to break away — the once-reliable out-of-office message is of little use when you’re trying to pause notifications on so many different channels.
A self-regulation society
According to a survey by Okta, large companies now use more than 200 apps on average. Too often, we’re left alone to decide how to manage the onslaught.
A 2019 scholarly review argued that the rise of the digital detox as a concept “illuminate[s] the rise of a self-regulation society, where individuals are expected to take personal responsibility for managing the risks and pressures” of forces they didn’t create.
Our screens are evermore integrated into our leisure lives as well. It’s tough to imagine a vacation without my digital boarding pass, TripIt itinerary, e-books, podcasts, Google Maps and SMS alerts set up for travel delays — not to mention Instagram to broadcast all the fun I’m having.
Even on a hiking trip, I’m using my phone to take photos, track my miles and find the next trail junction. And post-hike, there is nothing like relaxing with a cold drink and Wordle.
Teleported back to my desk
And with the phone already in my hand it’s just so easy to dip into my work messages and take a quick peek. I might physically still be sitting at a wooden picnic table in the mountains, but mentally I’ve been teleported back to my desk.
Is that a problem? I’ll go full therapist on you: It’s a problem if it’s bothering you. Although a raft of studies have linked excessive screen time and social media use to ADHD, depression and anxiety, there is little data to suggest that digital detoxes have consistently beneficial effects.
One 2022 meta-analysis found that in people with symptoms of depression, a digital break mitigated their symptoms, but that otherwise, there was no consistent impact on detoxes’ behaviour, mood or performance.
But perhaps “digital detox” is the wrong metaphor. It smacks of a discredited fad diet.
Most nutritionists today put less emphasis on limiting food entirely or even limiting “bad” foods, but on adding healthier foods to your plate — and eating them first.
What if rather than obsessing over limiting our time on screens, we added more non-screen experiences to our lives — and pursued those first? It’s hard to scroll when your hands are covered in paint, or dirt, or marinara sauce.
Staring at screens
Adding some offline pastimes would mitigate the problem pinpointed by the writer Delia Cai: that we reward ourselves for a hard week staring at medium-size screens by watching a bigger screen and scrolling a tiny screen.
When asked about how much screen time is too much for young children, parenting economist Emily Oster often exhorts the questioner to think about the activity that screen time is replacing.
Is it quieting a tantrum on an aeroplane? In that context, surely screen time is fine. But is it replacing playing outside on a sunny day? Then maybe it isn’t so good.
This is a way for adults to think about our own screen time, too. We might decide that it’s acceptable to replace a paper crossword with a digital one, but not to replace friendly phone calls with likes. And even without clear data, it makes intuitive sense that replacing Twitter with a book before bed might help us sleep better.
As with any bad habit, perhaps the best way to break it isn’t to put our energy into resisting the siren song, but into singing a different tune. In a self-regulation society, that might be the best we can do.
Sarah Green Carmichael was an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted “HBR IdeaCast.”