A decade ago, smartphones would constantly ring in public; now, social norms dictate that the sound be off. Individuals, cultures and societies define when it is appropriate or necessary to put away digital devices.
‘It’s addictive,’ says a woman in her 40s. She occasionally deactivates her social media accounts and does a digital detox every summer. For her, logging off is ‘a mixture of liberation and abstinence’. A middle-aged man takes periodic breaks from ‘toxic’ news coverage and describes his computer as a ‘digression machine’: ‘You just lose it, it has such a strong logic of its own.’ A young woman ‘loves social media’ but needs pauses. She believes your ‘social antennas’ deteriorate: ‘You get worse at conversing and being present for those around you.’
Together with colleagues, I study why and how people take breaks from digital media. The statements above are summarised from interviews. It is difficult to pin down the frequency and nature of digital disconnection, but evidence of perceived overuse is everywhere. In surveys, a sizeable proportion of the population answers affirmatively to the question ‘Do you think you are spending too much time online?’ Self-help books and online sites flourish with tips for logging off. Mass media and academic articles discuss screen times, addictive behaviour, and motives for disconnection.