People call me a digital native (read: phone addict).
I’m the kind of person who leaves no notification unread, reads work chats while on holiday, and checks Facebook at least fifteen times a day. You probably are too.
But one day, I didn’t want to be that person anymore.
The solution, according to Google, was a digital detox—a period of time during which I would refrain from using electronic devices such as smartphones or computers.
Detoxing, the Internet claimed, would be an opportunity for me to reduce stress, increase mindfulness, lower my anxiety, and focus more on social interaction in the physical world.
Like juice cleanses and veganism, I was doubtful it would work.
To reduce my reliance on my phone, I turned off all push notifications, moved all my social media and work apps (except for Whatsapp) into a separate folder and turned off data access to all of them. As a final step, I set a time limit of 45 minutes for myself for how long I could spend on my phone each day. This limit would be shortened each day until the end of the detox.
To some extent I still remained plugged in—I didn’t deactivate any apps, and still used my laptop. With a media-related job, I reasoned that it would be difficult for me to go offline entirely.
By the end of Saturday, the first day of this detox, I recorded phone usage time of only 31 minutes. I was off to a good start.
The morning passes without a hitch, until I find myself 30 minutes to church service feeling slightly bored but with nothing to do. I twiddle my thumbs, I fidget, I press the home button on my phone repeatedly, only to be greeted by a blank screen.
I see the person on my right typing a message out on Whatsapp, while the person on my left is busy adding filters to his photo of a bowl of Chirashi don.
But I force myself to look up, to concentrate on what my pastor is saying. In fact I decide to take notes of his sermon on pen and paper in the hope that it will help me to focus better. It does.
By night time, my self-control flags. At 9pm, what was meant to be a ten minute surf of Facebook turns into a 3 hour marathon session. I visit Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and YouTube. I even go onto Telegram and Twitter which I rarely do.
Afterwards, I lie in bed feeling digitally fulfilled by also like a big fat failure.
I wake up, ready to try again.
While I’d typically start my morning on my phone, watching a YouTube video or flicking through my Snapchat feed, I decide instead to spend that morning staring at my reflection and listening to the sound of the rain whilst I brushed my teeth. It was nice.
At the breakfast table, I open up a copy of the Straits Times and read about how David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II is 2017’s most-watched TV show in Britain. Maybe if I had been using Facebook that morning I’d have seen it on my feed. Maybe not.
When I reach the office, I decide in a fit of rash irrationality (or maybe it was common sense) to deactivate my Facebook, Instagram and delete Whatsapp web off my computer browser.
I think about how I initially wanted to stay connected ‘for work’ and wonder if I was just using it as an excuse because I couldn’t bear to be really disconnected. I am a changed woman.
As reward for yesterday’s success, I decide to wear a new pair of floral pants to work. I feel the urge to post an Instagram story about it but then realise that I no longer can.
Instead, I show my colleagues and they nod in approval. I used to take pride in the fact that my sense of self didn’t depend on what I posted on social media but now I see that it does—even if just a little.
With no Instagram or Facebook to distract me, the only thing I could do at work, was work.
I was immensely more productive, but also more suffocated. While the content on Facebook and Instagram can be frivolous, I was already conditioned to see it as a form of stress-relief.
With it no longer had it at my disposal, I was forced instead to take walks around the office, browse through books, stare out the window, and make a few more trips to the bathroom. Yay for old-fashioned procrastination.
On Wednesday, I decided to go the whole hog and leave my phone at home. By then, I was using my phone for less than 16 minutes each day and was beginning to see little purpose in carrying it around.
Within ten minutes, my heart was racing.
It didn’t matter that up to that point I had hardly used my phone. The knowledge that I could use it should anything occur was comfort enough. That comfort was now gone.
The fact that I also had plans arranged for Wednesday contributed to my anxiety.
I had arranged to meet my sister for lunch at 12 and then my family for dinner at 7. Given that there was no way for them to contact me, I had to finalise and commit to my plans with them the day—and not hours—before.
There was a definite risk, since neither party couldn’t afford to be late or to make any changes, but there was also trust. A trust that I never had to depend on when I had my phone with me.
I remember standing outside of Chye Seng Huat, unsure of what time it was (I didn’t wear a watch because I’m a genius), with no clue of my sister’s whereabouts. As I’m telling myself for the third time not to panic, I see her.
The time? 12.01PM.
I didn’t go to work this day, but visited the ArtScience Museum for a media event instead. This time, I brought my phone with me.
As I networked, I couldn’t help but notice that people would promptly pick up their phones whenever the conversation came to a standstill, only to put it down when a new topic of conversation came up.
To anyone else, they’d look busy, answering work emails and messages. In reality, they were probably just using their phone as a safety blanket to avoid potentially awkward eye contact and silences.
To be fair, I didn’t know what to do with myself either in between the long pauses in our conversation, so I just watched them watch their phones. It was very interactive.
The only upside was that Thursday was probably the first time I had ever been in a museum and walked through an entire exhibit without getting distracted by my phone. I even learned a few things.
A big day for me in my digital detox journey.
By 2pm, I was in a car, headed across the causeway to Malaysia where I would be spending my weekend at a farm for a story.
For the next 26 hours at least, I would have no Wifi and no service. If this were any other day, I probably would’ve been slightly terrified, but that Friday, I felt surprisingly ready.
The detox was working.
I ate durians, plucked rambutans off a tree, fought off killer mosquitos, rode a van alongside the homes of Malaysia’s Orang Alis, didn’t bathe, and slept on a concrete floor without feeling the slightest urge to Instagram any of it.
My memories are now the only proof and reminder that I did it. Truth be told, I don’t feel any less accomplished.
As I was returning to Singapore from the farm, my mind wandered to my friends, how they were and what they had been up to over the week in which I was gone.
It was then that I realised who I actually cared about.
I may have over a thousand friends on Facebook and follow over 700 people on Instagram, but I don’t actually need so many people in my life do I? Why was I being fed details and images of what over 700 people were doing when realistically, I only cared about 80 of them?
Truth be told, without social media, I would likely never hear from them, nor think about them ever again. And I knew I didn’t need to.
After this detox, I decided, a social media cleanse was in order.
The final day of my detox was also the day when majority of my friends finally realised that I was missing from Instagram and Facebook.
“Did it work?” They asked, when I explained why my social media accounts were deactivated.
To be completely honest, it did.
I thought I’d feel relieved when my week-long detox came to an end and ready to plunge back into the world of connectivity without looking back. Instead, I was reluctant.
I was reluctant because detoxing effectively created a bubble around me, providing a breather from other people’s lives and problems—whether it was Trump or my ex-boyfriend.
For the first time since I discovered the power of 4G, I wasn’t over-saturated with information, I wasn’t connected to all 1000 of my ‘friends’ and I wasn’t living half my life online.
I was content with myself, and myself alone. I knew I couldn’t stay in the bubble forever, but it was blissful while it lasted.
Some of you might say that I didn’t need a digital detox to realise all that I did. But if not for my detox, I doubt I’d have the headspace and time to do just that.
I’ve reactivated my social media accounts for now but I haven’t yet reinstated my notifications nor my data access. I haven’t yet felt the need to.