Exploring the world of digital detoxing

The new (old) inbox. Camp Grounded tries to build up attendees’ confidence to be silly and playful, with their identities less tied to their work persona—in a backlash against Silicon Valley’s intense work ethic. Photo by Pumpernickle.

As our social interactions become increasingly entangled with the online world, there are some who insist on the benefits of disconnecting entirely from digital technology. These advocates of “digital detoxing” view digital communication as eroding our ability to concentrate, to empathise, and to have meaningful conversations.

A 2016 survey by OnePoll found that 40% of respondents felt they had “not truly experienced valuable moments such as a child’s first steps or graduation” because “technology got in the way”, and OfCom’s 2016 survey showed that 15 million British Internet users (representing a third of those online), have already tried a digital detox. In recent years, America has sought to pathologise a perceived over-use of digital technology as “Internet addiction”. While the term is not recognised by the DSM, the idea is commonly used in media rhetoric and forms an important backdrop to digital detoxing.

The article Disconnect to reconnect: The food/technology metaphor in digital detoxing (First Monday) by Theodora Sutton presents a short ethnography of the digital detoxing community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her informants attend an annual four-day digital detox and summer camp for adults in the Californian forest called Camp Grounded. She attended two Camp Grounded sessions in 2014, and followed up with semi-structured interviews with eight detoxers.

We caught up with Theodora to examine the implications of the study and to learn more about her PhD research, which focuses on the same field site.

Ed.: In your forthcoming article you say that Camp Grounded attendees used food metaphors (and words like “snacking” and “nutrition”) to understand their own use of technology and behaviour. How useful is this as an analogy?

Theodora: The food/technology analogy is an incredibly neat way to talk about something we think of as immaterial in a more tangible way. We know that our digital world relies on physical connections, but we forget that all the time. Another thing it does in lending a dietary connotation is to imply we should regulate our consumption of digital use; that there are healthy and unhealthy or inappropriate ways of using it.

I explore more pros and cons to the analogy in the paper, but the biggest con in my opinion is that while it’s neat, it’s often used to make value judgments about technology use. For example, saying that online sociality is like processed food is implying that it lacks authenticity. So the food analogy is a really useful way to understand how people are interpreting technology culturally, but it’s important to be aware of how it’s used.

Ed.: How do people rationalise ideas of the digital being somehow “less real” or “genuine” (less “nourishing”), despite the fact that it obviously is all real, just different? Is it just a peg to blame an “other” and excuse their own behaviour, rather than just switching off their phones and going for a run/sail etc. (or any other “real” activity).

Theodora: The idea of new technologies being somehow less real or less natural is a pretty established Western concept, and it’s been fundamental in moral panics following new technologies. That digital sociality is different, not lesser, is something we can academically agree on, but people very often believe otherwise.

My personal view is that figuring out what kind of digital usage suits you and then acting in moderation is ideal, without the need for extreme lengths, but in reality moderation can be quite difficult to achieve. And the thing is, we’re not just talking about choosing to text rather than meet in person, or read a book instead of go on Twitter. We’re talking about digital activities that are increasingly inescapable and part of life, like work e-mail or government services being moved online.

The ability to go for a run or go sailing are again privileged activities for people with free time. Many people think getting back to nature or meeting in person are really important for human needs. But increasingly, not everyone has the ability to get away from devices, especially if you don’t have enough money to visit friends or travel to a forest, or you’re just too tired from working all the time. So Camp Grounded is part of what they feel is an urgent conversation about whether the technology we design addresses human, emotional needs.

Ed.: You write in the paper that “upon arrival at Camp Grounded, campers are met with hugs and milk and cookies” not to sound horrible, but isn’t this replacing one type of (self-focused) reassurance with another? I mean, it sounds really nice (as does the rest of the Camp), but it sounds a tiny bit like their “problem” is being fetishised/enjoyed a little bit? Or maybe that their problem isn’t to do with technology, but rather with confidence, anxiety etc.

Theodora: The people who run Camp Grounded would tell you themselves that digital detoxing is not really about digital technology. That’s just the current scapegoat for all the alienating aspects of modern life. They also take away real names, work talk, watches, and alcohol. One of the biggest things Camp Grounded tries to do is build up attendees’ confidence to be silly and playful and have their identities less tied to their work persona, which is a bit of a backlash against Silicon Valley’s intense work ethic. Milk and cookies comes from childhood, or America’s summer camps which many attendees went to as children, so it’s one little thing they do to get you to transition into that more relaxed and childlike way of behaving.

I’m not sure about “fetishised,” but Camp Grounded really jumps on board with the technology idea, using really ironic things like an analog dating service called “embers,” a “human powered search” where you pin questions on a big noticeboard and other people answer, and an “inbox” where people leave you letters.

And you’re right, there is an aspect of digital detoxing which is very much a “middle class ailment” in that it can seem rather surface-level and indulgent, and tickets are pretty pricey, making it quite a privileged activity. But at the same time I think it is a genuine conversation starter about our relationship with technology and how it’s designed. I think a digital detox is more than just escapism or reassurance, for them it’s about testing a different lifestyle, seeing what works best for them and learning from that.

Ed.: Many of these technologies are designed to be “addictive” (to use the term loosely. Maybe I mean “seductive”) in order to drive engagement and encourage retention. Is there maybe an analogy here with foods that are too sugary, salty, fatty (i.e. addictive) for us? I suppose the line between genuine addiction and free choice/agency is a difficult one; and one that may depend largely on the individual. Which presumably makes any attempts to regulate (or even just question) these persuasive digital environments particularly difficult? Given the massive outcry over perfectly rational attempts to tax sugar, fat etc.

Theodora: The analogy between sugary, salty, or fatty foods and seductive technologies is drawn a lot—it was even made by danah boyd in 2009. Digital detoxing comes from a standpoint that tech companies aren’t necessarily working to enable meaningful connection, and are instead aiming to “hook” people in. That’s often compared to food companies that exist to make a profit rather than improve your individual nutrition, using whatever salt, sugar, flavourings, or packaging they have at their disposal to make you keep coming back.

There are two different ways of “fixing” perceived problems with tech: there’s technical fixes that might only let you use the site for certain amounts of time, or re-designing it so that it’s less seductive; then there’s normative fixes, which could be on an individual level deciding to make a change, or even society wide, like the French labour law giving the “right to disconnect” from work emails on evenings and weekends.

One that sort of embodies both of these is The Time Well Spent project, run by Tristan Harris and the OII’s James Williams. They suggest different metrics for tech platforms, such as how well they enable good experiences away from the computer altogether. Like organic food stickers, they’ve suggested putting a stamp on websites whose companies have these different metrics. That could encourage people to demand better online experiences, and encourage tech companies to design accordingly.

So that’s one way that people are thinking about regulating it, but I think we’re still in the stages of sketching out what the actual problems are and thinking about how we can regulate or “fix” them. At the moment, the issue seems to depend on what the individual wants to do. I’d be really interested to know what other ideas people have had to regulate it, though.

Ed.: Without getting into the immense minefield of evolutionary psychology (and whether or not we are creating environments that might be detrimental to us mentally or socially: just as the Big Mac and Krispy Kreme are not brilliant for us nutritionally)—what is the lay of the land—the academic trends and camps—for this larger question of “Internet addiction” and whether or not it’s even a thing?

Theodora: In my experience academics don’t consider it a real thing, just as you wouldn’t say someone had an addiction to books. But again, that doesn’t mean it isn’t used all the time as a shorthand. And there are some academics who use it, like Kimberly Young who proposed it in the 1990’s. She still runs an Internet addiction treatment centre in New York, and there’s another in Fall City, Washington state.

The term certainly isn’t going away any time soon and the centres treat people who genuinely seem to have a very problematic relationship with their technology. People like the OII’s Andrew Przybylski (@ShuhBillSkee) are working on untangling this kind of problematic digital use from the idea of addiction, which can be a bit of a defeatist and dramatic term.

Ed.: As an ethnographer working at the Camp according to its rules (hand-written notes, analogue camera), did it affect your thinking or subsequent behaviour/habits in any way?

Theodora: Absolutely. In a way that’s a struggle, because I never felt that I wanted or needed a digital detox, yet having been to it three times now I can see the benefits. Going to camp made a strong case for the argument to be more careful with my technology use, for example not checking my phone mid-conversation, and I’ve been much more aware of it since. For me, that’s been part of an on-going debate that I have in my own life, which I think is a really useful fuel towards continuing to unravel this topic in my studies.

Ed.: So what are your plans now for your research in this area—will you be going back to Camp Grounded for another detox?

Theodora: Yes—I’ll be doing an ethnography of the digital detoxing community again this summer for my PhD and that will include attending Camp Grounded again. So far I’ve essentially done just preliminary fieldwork and visited to touch base with my informants. It’s easy to listen to the rhetoric around digital detoxing, but I think what’s been missing is someone spending time with them to really understand their point of view, especially their values, that you can’t always capture in a survey or in interviews.

In my PhD I hope to understand things like: how digital detoxers even think about technology, what kind of strategies they have to use it appropriately once they return from a detox, and how metaphor and language work in talking about the need to “unplug.” The food analogy is just one preliminary finding that shows how fascinating the topic is as soon as you start scratching away the surface.

Read the full article: Sutton, T. (2017) Disconnect to reconnect: The food/technology metaphor in digital detoxing. First Monday 22 (6).


OII DPhil student Theodora Sutton was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Estimating the Local Geographies of Digital Inequality in Britain: London and the South East Show Highest Internet Use—But Why?

Small area estimation techniques allow us to estimate Internet use in small geographies in Britain: the first attempt to estimate Internet use at any small-scale level. Read the full article.

Despite the huge importance of the Internet in everyday life, we know surprisingly little about the geography of Internet use and participation at sub-national scales. A new article on Local Geographies of Digital Inequality by Grant Blank, Mark Graham, and Claudio Calvino published in Social Science Computer Review proposes a novel method to calculate the local geographies of Internet usage, employing Britain as an initial case study.

In the first attempt to estimate Internet use at any small-scale level, they combine data from a sample survey, the 2013 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS), with the 2011 UK census, employing small area estimation to estimate Internet use in small geographies in Britain. (Read the paper for more on this method, and discussion of why there has been little work on the geography of digital inequality.)

There are two major reasons to suspect that geographic differences in Internet use may be important: apparent regional differences and the urban-rural divide. The authors do indeed find a regional difference: the area with least Internet use is in the North East, followed by central Wales; the highest is in London and the South East. But interestingly, geographic differences become non-significant after controlling for demographic variables (age, education, income etc.). That is, demographics matter more than simply where you live, in terms of the likelihood that you’re an Internet user.

Britain has one of the largest Internet economies in the developed world, and the Internet contributes an estimated 8.3 percent to Britain’s GDP. By reducing a range of geographic frictions and allowing access to new customers, markets and ideas it strongly supports domestic job and income growth. There are also personal benefits to Internet use. However, these advantages are denied to people who are not online, leading to a stream of research on the so-called digital divide.

We caught up with Grant Blank to discuss the policy implications of this marked disparity in (estimated) Internet use across Britain.

Ed.: The small-area estimation method you use combines the extreme breadth but shallowness of the national census, with the relative lack of breadth (2000 respondents) but extreme richness (550 variables) of the OxIS survey. Doing this allows you to estimate things like Internet use in fine-grained detail across all of Britain. Is this technique in standard use in government, to understand things like local demand for health services etc.? It seems pretty clever.

Grant: It is used by the government, but not extensively. It is complex and time-consuming to use well, and it requires considerable statistical skills. These have hampered its spread. It probably could be used more than it is—your example of local demand for health services is a good idea.

Ed.: You say this method works for Britain because OxIS collects information based on geographic area (rather than e.g. randomly by phone number)—so we can estimate things geographically for Britain that can’t be done for other countries in the World Internet Project (including the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia). What else will you be doing with the data, based on this happy fact?

Grant: We have used a straightforward measure of Internet use versus non-use as our dependent variable. Similar techniques could predict and map a variety of other variables. For example, we could take a more nuanced view of how people use the Internet. The patterns of mobile use versus fixed-line use may differ geographically and could be mapped. We could separate work-only users, teenagers using social media, or other subsets. Major Internet activities could be mapped, including such things as entertainment use, information gathering, commerce, and content production. In addition, the amount of use and the variety of uses could be mapped. All these are major issues and their geographic distribution has never been tracked.

Ed.: And what might you be able to do by integrating into this model another layer of geocoded (but perhaps not demographically rich or transparent) data, e.g. geolocated social media/Wikipedia activity (etc.)?

Grant: The strength of the data we have is that it is representative of the UK population. The other examples you mention, like Wikipedia activity or geolocated social media, are all done by smaller, self-selected groups of people, who are not at all representative. One possibility would be to show how and in what ways they are unrepresentative.

Ed.: If you say that Internet use actually correlates to the “usual” demographics, i.e. education, age, income—is there anything policy makers can realistically do with this information? i.e. other than hope that people go to school, never age, and get good jobs? What can policy-makers do with these findings?

Grant: The demographic characteristics are things that don’t change quickly. These results point to the limits of the government’s ability to move people online. They say that 100% of the UK population will never be online. This raises the question, what are realistic expectations for online activity? I don’t know the answer to that but it is an important question that is not easily addressed.

Ed.: You say that “the first law of the Internet is that everything is related to age”. When are we likely to have enough longitudinal data to understand whether this is simply because older people never had the chance to embed the Internet in their lives when they were younger, or whether it is indeed the case that older people inherently drop out. Will this age-effect eventually diminish or disappear?

Grant: You ask an important but unresolved question. In the language of social sciences—is the decline in Internet use with age an age-effect or a cohort-effect. An age-effect means that the Internet becomes less valuable as people age and so the decline in use with age is just a reflection of the declining value of the Internet. If this explanation is true then the age-effect will persist into the indefinite future. A cohort-effect implies that the reason older people tend to use the Internet less is that fewer of them learned to use the Internet in school or work. They will eventually be replaced by active Internet-using people and Internet use will no longer be associated with age. The decline with age will eventually disappear. We can address this question using data from the Oxford Internet Survey, but it is not a small area estimation problem.

Read the full article: Blank, G., Graham, M., and Calvino, C. 2017. Local Geographies of Digital Inequality. Social Science Computer Review. DOI: 10.1177/0894439317693332.

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant ES/K00283X/1]. The data have been deposited in the UK Data Archive under the name “Geography of Digital Inequality”.


Grant Blank was speaking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Chinese Internet users share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts

There are now over half a billion Internet users in China, part of a shift in the centre of gravity of Internet use away from the US and Europe. Image of Pudong International Airport, Shanghai, by ToGa Wanderings.

Ed: You recently presented your results at the OII’s China and the New Internet World ICA preconference. What were people most interested in?

Gillian: A lot of people were interested in our finding that China was such a big online shopping market compared to other countries, with 60% of our survey respondents reporting that they make an online purchase at least weekly. That’s twice the world’s average. A lot of people who study the Chinese Internet talk about governance issues rather than commerce, but the fact that there is this massive investment in ecommerce in China and a rapid transition to a middle class lifestyle for such a large number of Chinese means that Chinese consumer behaviours will have a significant impact on global issues such as resource scarcity, global warming, and the global economy.

Others were interested in our findings concerning Internet use in ’emerging’ Internet countries like China. The Internet’s development in Western Europe and the US was driven by people who saw the technology as a platform for freedom of expression and peer-to-peer applications. In China, you see this optimism but you also see that a lot of people coming online move straight to smart phones and other locked-down technologies like the iPad, which you can only interact with in a certain way. Eighty-six percent of our Chinese respondents reported that they owned a smart phone, which was the highest percentage of all of the 24 countries we examined individually. A lot of these people are using those devices to play games and watch movies, which is a very different initial exposure to the Internet than we saw in early adopting Western countries.

Ed: So, a lot of significant differences between usages in emerging versus established Internet nations. Any similarities?

Gillian: In general, we find that uses are different but values are similar. People in emerging nations share the same values concerning free speech, privacy, and control as their Western counterparts. These are values that were embedded in the Internet’s creation and that have spread with it to other countries, regardless of national policy rhetorics. Many people—even in China—see the Internet as a tool for free speech and as a place where you can expect a certain degree of privacy and anonymity.

Ed: But isn’t there a disconnect between the fact that people are using more closed technologies as they are coming online and yet are sharing the same values of freedom associated with the Internet?

Gillian: There’s a difference between uses and values. People in emerging countries produce more content, they’re more sociable online, they listen to more music. But the way that people express their values doesn’t always match what they actually do. There is no correlation between whether someone approves of government censorship and their concern of being personally censored. There’s also no correlation in China between the frequency with which people post political opinions online and a worry that their online comments will be censored.

Ed: It seems that there are a few really interesting results in your study that run counter to accepted wisdom about the Internet. Were you surprised by any of the results?

Gillian: I was, particularly, surprised by the high levels of political commentary in emerging nations. We know that levels of online political expression in the West are very low (around 15%). But 40% of respondents in the emerging nations we surveyed reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly. That’s a huge difference. Even China, which we expected to have lower levels of political expression than the general average, followed a similar pattern. We didn’t see any chilling effect—i.e. any reduction of the frequency of posting of political opinions among Chinese users.

This matches other studies of the Chinese Internet that have concluded that there is very little censorship of people expressing themselves online—that censorship only really happens when people start to organise others. However, I was surprised by the extent of the difference: 18% of users in the US and UK reported posting a political opinion online at least weekly, 13 percent in France, and 3 percent in Japan; but 32% of Chinese, 51% of Brazilians, 50% of Indians, and 64% of Egyptians reported posting online at least weekly. This shows that these conclusions we have drawn about low levels of online political participation based on studies of Western Internet users are likely not applicable to users in other countries.

Of course, we have to remember that this is an online survey and so our results only reflect what Internet users report their activities and attitudes to be. However, the incentive to over-report activities is probably about the same for the US and for China. The thing that may be different in different countries is what people interpret as a political comment. Many more types of comments in China might be seen as political since the government controls so much more. A comment about the price of food might be seen as political speech in China, for example, since the government controls food prices, whereas a similar comment may not be seen as political by US respondents.

Ed: This research is interesting because it calls into question some fundamental assumptions about the Internet. What did you take away from the project?

Gillian: A lot of scholarship on the Internet is presented as applicable to the whole world, but isn’t actually applicable everywhere. The best example here is the very low percentage of people participating in the political process in the West, which needs to be re-evaluated with these findings. It shows that we need to be much more specific in Internet research about the unit of analysis, and what it applies to. However, we also found that Internet values are similar across the world. I think this shows that discourses about the Internet as a place for free expression and privacy are distributed hand-in-hand with the technology. Although Western users are declining as an overall percentage of the world’s Internet population, these founding rhetorics remain powerfully associated with the technology.


Read the full paper: Bolsover, G., Dutton, W.H., Law, G. and Dutta, S. (2013) Social Foundations of the Internet in China and the New Internet World: A Cross-National Comparative Perspective. Presented at “China and the New Internet World”, International Communication Association (ICA) Preconference, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, June 2013.

Gillian was talking to blog editor Heather Ford.