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04.21.10

The Dangers of Digital Detoxing

This Digital Detox Week, many have abruptly unplugged—at their own peril. From insomnia to "inattentional blindness," Anneli Rufus on how suddenly going off the grid can be hazardous to your health.

After his parents abruptly took away his Xbox 360, Daniel Petric went into their room, told them he had a surprise for them, then shot them both in the head.

Mark and Susan Petric had taken away their 16-year-old son's Xbox because he'd been using it to play Halo 3 for up to 18 hours a day. Fleeing their Ohio home after the October 2007 shootings, Daniel carried only one thing: a copy of Halo 3. He was convicted last year and sentenced to 23 years-to-life for the crime many said was a form of "videogame addiction."

Quitting digital devices entirely, as with any addiction, “is a disaster waiting to happen if you don’t have a support system in place.”

Though few of us feel addicted to videogames, our relationships with other electronic devices—BlackBerries, iPhones, iPods, laptops—often betray behaviors that approach something resembling addiction: compulsively checking email, texting, tweeting, status updating, browsing the Internet for hours on end. The problem has gotten serious enough that the American Psychological Association is considering adding "Internet addiction" to its new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Such compulsions are the target of Digital Detox Week, which began Monday and is promoted by the anti-consumerist activists at Adbusters (the group behind " Buy Nothing Day") as a week to free your mind from the shackles of electronic stimulation.

But like any addiction, abruptly unplugging from your thoroughly wired lifestyle can lead to withdrawal symptoms, say experts—and even dangerous physical and psychological harm.

"The brain has only a limited ability to hold information in conscious awareness and solve problems with it," says neuroscientist Mark Fenske, coauthor of The Winner's Brain. "Digital devices keep track of appointments, addresses, phone numbers, and routes so that you don't have to memorize them. Deprived of these aids, you increase the amount of work your prefrontal cortex has to do." When this happens, you can plunge into a state known in neurology circles as "inattentional blindness," in which you miss crucial—and potentially life-threatening—signals, says Fenske.

Say you're an airport baggage screener who's suddenly sworn off such devices. "You're thinking, 'When do I need to pick up my kids? Where's the daycare center?' And it's tying up all of your brain's attentional resources," Fenske says, "so you're more likely to miss the gun in the luggage when it shows up on the X-ray." Likewise, inattentive blindness could cause a driver to run a red light, or an office worker to accidentally email that dirty joke to the CEO instead of his cubiclemate.

We live in a more complex world than the one that was inhabited by our ancestors, Fenske points out, and digital devices were invented to free our minds for problem-solving in that world. When struggling to remember the countless details that our smartphones and computers normally remember for us, we reallocate precious glucose and oxygen—brain fuel—away from the modern-day tasks at hand.

There are psychological consequences to digitally detoxing, too. Overloading our prefrontal cortexes with more information than they're capable of holding can reduce our ability to "self-regulate"—to stay emotionally balanced. Keeping on an even keel "draws upon the same pool of resources as do other cognitive functions," says Fenske—ditch your iPhone, and suddenly sensations like will power, anger, and sadness become more difficult to keep stabilized. "When your brain runs out of fuel, you're more liable to lose your temper on the road or at home with the spouse or the kids, and you're less able to resist the greasy cheeseburger and fries if you're trying to stay on a diet."

Ryan Van Cleave, a recovery consultant who works with former addicts, agrees with the basic premise of Detox Week, but warns that plunging into it too vigorously can lead to mental meltdowns. While anyone who grew up pre-Internet might find this hard to understand, Van Cleave says many young people who have been plugged in since birth can't tolerate sudden unplugging.

"For them, there's no difference between having a conversation over the table at Starbucks or IMing a friend they've never met in person who's a thousand miles away. To them, there's no quality difference between these two forms of social interaction. Both are equally good and equally real. They don't see one as worse just because it depends on technology. They don't see the technology. To take this away from them"—as happened to Daniel Petric, and to 15-year-old Brandon Crisp, who fled into the Ontario woods when his parents took away his Xbox and was found dead three weeks later, having plunged from a tree—"is truly an annihilation. To them, it's like killing their friends. Their entire universe has been taken away. Telling them, 'Stop texting' is like telling them, 'Stop living.'"

Van Cleave himself is a former digital addict, whose memoir, Unplugged: My Journey Into the Dark World of Videogame Addiction, will be published in June. He says on the day he decided to end his World of Warcraft addiction, he considered suicide.

"I hit 'delete,' and it was a horrible, horrible feeling," he says. He couldn't sleep for three days straight, suffering from severe headaches and 104-degree fevers. Quitting cold turkey "had serious physical and psychological effects" that were "extremely negative and lasted a long time."

Quitting digital devices entirely, as with any addiction, "is a disaster waiting to happen if you don't have a support system in place," says Van Cleave, who has taught at the University of Wisconsin and Clemson University. Coming unplugged "feels like a powerful attack on you. It creates a powerful, unbearable sense of aloneness."

Naturally, the idea of digital detoxing has many supporters. Buddhist teacher James Baraz leads what are essentially weeklong digital detoxes—technology-free retreats at Spirit Rock, the meditation center he cofounded in Marin County, California. A busy writer and workshop leader who spends most days checking his email and using his smartphone, Baraz is familiar with the withdrawal symptoms of unplugging, but says it's worth it to persevere and get past them.

"For the first couple of days, there's restlessness and sleeplessness. The mind is all over the place and the body isn't used to being still." But then, "you start becoming amazingly sensitive to the world around you, mesmerized by every little lizard and tree. You've shed any longing or need for technology and artificial stimulation, and you're making friends with yourself."

Van Cleave maintains that in this day and age, however, Digital Detox Week is "unimplementable." Detoxing from alcohol, he notes, would entail avoiding bars, liquor stores, parties, and containers of alcohol. "But the digital world is everywhere. The digital world is the world. It's in your car. It's in your wristwatch. It's all over your house and every building you enter. Yes, it steals your soul. Yes, it depersons you."

But, just like anything addictive, you can't seem to get enough of it.

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and the Nautilus Award-winning Stuck: Why We Don't (or Won't) Move On, and the coauthor of still more, including Weird Europe and The Scavengers' Manifesto. In 2006, she won a Society of Professional Journalists award for criticism.