Can we turn all the tech off?

KATE WILCOX
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2013
Abandoning social media
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SWITCH OFF: Can it be done?

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When Zoe Thompson took her tech-savvy family, including two teenagers, on holiday last month to an island off the coast of Queensland with no electricity, internet access or running water, she was curious to see how they would manage.

"Basically, we were without any form of technology for 14 days this January. But I can say that none of us missed it at all," Thompson, a Sydney teacher, says. "More than that, we actually enjoyed not having it for a while."

Thompson's 14-year-old son, Harry Browell, confesses that occasionally - around midday when it was hot and the tide was too low for swimming - he did miss his iPod, computer, phone and PlayStation. But mostly he enjoyed being tech-free.

"You find new ways to occupy your time. I played a lot of board games and card games with my friends, which I don't normally do," he says.

Browell enjoyed the way he and his friends interacted without technology. "We were talking about more meaningful things than what we usually [do]. In a way, we were interacting smarter with each other, because we weren't just playing mindless games on a screen."

A remote island holiday is one way to switch off, but on March 1-2 the US-based National Day of Unplugging will urge people everywhere to forgo all forms of technology for 24 hours from sunset on Friday.

Jewish arts group Reboot in New York City began the event four years ago as a way of reimagining the sabbath tradition for a new generation. But it found the idea of taking time out from gadgetry appealed across all cultures.

"It really fit the zeitgeist," the associate director of Reboot, Amelia Klein, says. "We realised that people's digital addictions were overpowering and overwhelming their ability to shut down.

"We've utilised this ancient Jewish tradition to speak about an issue that's prevalent across all denominations, all backgrounds, all generations," she says.

Amie Liebowitz, 20, a student at the University of Sydney, plans to take part. She describes herself as "always connected in every way possible" and anticipates 24 hours away from her screens will be very difficult.

"I guess we always say 'FOMO', which is fear of missing out, and with social media you just develop this need to know everyone's business all the time, which is really unhealthy and I can recognise this. But I have this massive fear of not seeing what my friends are doing," she says.

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According to a survey from hotel chain Travelodge, 72 per cent of those interviewed checked social networking sites in bed before going to sleep, while 65 per cent checked and sent text messages last thing at night. Perhaps most startling of all, 20 per cent of those who checked their phone in bed admitted interrupting sex to read text messages.

Larry Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University, the author of iDisorder and an expert in technology-related psychological disorders.

Rosen believes the National Day of Unplugging is an interesting idea but is dubious about any long-term benefit for participants.

"One day will not change anything," he says. "What needs to change is an understanding of what we are doing to our brains and how to reset or calm them periodically to help us learn how to focus and attend to our world without getting overwhelmed and anxious."

For those addicted to technology, Rosen recommends short regular breaks from the phone or computer, for 10 to 15 minutes every hour or two.

The point of breaks such as the National Day of Unplugging or a tech-free holiday is not curing technological illness, or even breaking habits, but providing a reminder there is a simpler, less networked way to live.

"Generations X and Y have been prolific in telling people what they're doing on Facebook and Twitter. People [now] are relieved to have permission to do something where they don't have to report on what they're doing," Klein says.

She also says being forced to turn off their phone "gives people a sense of freedom; they don't have to instantaneously respond. It's good to take stock and to pause and breathe a little bit."

- FFX Aus

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