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Can you disconnect from the digital world?

Forget a dip in the Ganga. Scrap the mini break in Mauritius. Ditch Atkins. Cancel your lymphatic drainage appointment. It’s 2013. You have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, email, an e-reader, and probably 1TB full of pop culture essentials.

brunch Updated: Jun 22, 2013 16:17 IST
Aparna Pednekar
Aparna Pednekar
Hindustan Times

Forget a dip in the Ganga. Scrap the mini break in Mauritius. Ditch Atkins. Cancel your lymphatic drainage appointment. It’s 2013. You have a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, email, an e-reader, and probably 1TB full of pop culture essentials. Yes, you need to detox but it is more likely that you need to ease off the digital wagon.

An Ericsson ConsumerLab study, The Digital Lives of Generation Z, reveals that while 30 million out of 69 million urban Indian youngsters own mobile phones, tweens (nine- to 14-year-olds) end up spending roughly seven out of 15 waking hours on their phones or in front of the TV. Of course you can’t unplug completely and expect to survive today. But we can benefit from little changes that keep us connected, not addicted. So allow us to gently pluck that BB from your iron grip, as you read on…


Only you know how plugged in you are. My own Facebook feed is currently, and ironically, choked with jokes about how a boy, who was texting while driving, met with a fatal accident. More tragically, there’s been an e-furore over how teenage girls in America and Canada have committed suicide after particularly vicious bouts of cybershaming and cyberbullying.

Your life may not be as bad. But just living 24/7 glued to those ‘indispensable’ gadgets can take its toll. Azad Essa, journalist, author of The Moslems are Coming, and for whom a BlackBerry is a constant companion, admits that as a newsperson and writer, he finds it tough to give up. "Cutting off totally can never be an option," he says, explaining that you risk becoming obsolete and that social networks are a lifeline for anyone who lives away from home. So, a few years ago when Essa read about digital diets (on Facebook!), he dismissed it in the way any wired person would: First World Problem! But in 2012, when he realised that his online behaviour showed signs of addiction, he took action. "I was forced to curtail my activity on the Internet," he recalls. It involved "reserving more time to talk to closer friends and family, rather than trying to partake in one massive global orgy of a conversation."


Before you dramatically fling your iPad out of the window, consider if you are really addicted to a digital life. A good proportion of the urban Indian population believes that the digital dragon is well under control. Parmesh Shahani, MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow and founder of Godrej India Culture Lab, is one of them. "I don’t think of being wired 24/7 as something that we need to take a break from," he says. "Aren’t people who use wheels – in a car or in a machine – following a lifestyle? I use digital tools in my life as much as I use analog tools and don’t really differentiate between the two." The key, Shahani insists, is what role you assign to technology. "I have sustained meaningful relationships over Skype, WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, just as I have with

face-to-face contact," he says. Anisha Subandh, yoga teacher and mother of two young boys, also says that she does not find the digital world as crazy as it’s made out to be. Apart from a few unspoken rules – no phones at the dining table, for one – she’s happy to occasionally indulge her kids’ with a PS3, PSP, Wii, DS, iPad and iPhone.

If you’ve got your Instagram and tweets under control, no need to panic. But if you’ve already texted 10 times while reading this story, it’s time for a digital detox.

Press the Help key Psychotherapist and counsellor Dr Minnu Bhonsle, sees new cases of youngsters unable to handle their digitised lives every week. In most instances, the first casualty is the family unit. One mother was reduced to sending Facebook messages to her son (holed up with his laptop in his bedroom) to coax him to the dinner table. Dr Bhonsle also found that being constantly plugged in had made him fragile – easily offended, angry and depressed. "That send button is the most dangerous thing," she says, referring to how young people take the most casual comments made by their ‘online friends’ very personally. "Earlier, when you called someone from a landline in a fit of anger, those few minutes it took for your call to get connected often gave you buffer time to cool down," she says. Like instant gratification, Dr Bhonsle sees a problem with instant expression.


So which group is most at risk from online overload, ‘digital natives’ (those born to technology) or ‘digital immigrants’ (those who’ve adapted to technology)?

Munich-based social media expert Iqbal Mohammed, who confesses to carrying to his iPhone and iPad everywhere except the loo, believes the lines between both factions are blurred. "The ‘digital natives’ are not connected in isolation," he explains. "A greater part of their peers, work and social circle are also connected in the same ways. It’s this social fabric around them that’s forcing them to be constantly wired." This is true also of the ‘immigrants’. "It’s what surrounds us that keeps us enslaved."

He adds that it’s the reason young people, the ‘natives’, don’t see anything wrong with checking their online status in the middle of a social gathering – everybody’s doing it, and it’s the primary way everything’s being done now. And just like that, a habit is born.


Susan Maushart’s hilariously enlightening 2011 book, The Winter of Our Disconnect, is a must-read, regardless of how plugged in you are or aren’t. It recounts how Maushart (a mother to three teens, who slept with her iPhone that she nicknamed iNez) yanked the plug off her family’s digitised lives in 2009, and lived to tell the tale. Today, they are global nomads and she deems it "unthinkable" to repeat that experiment. "We are more dependent on technology than ever before, especially now that we are a bi-hemispheric brood," she says, referring to how they divide their time between western Australia and New York. "Our life would not be possible in a world without email, Skype, Instagram, FB, etc. Sussy [her younger daughter] is a complete Instagram addict, and I am grateful that she texts me through the day!"

Maushart’s eldest, Anni, now 22, is the only one of her friends who is not on Facebook. Bill Maushart, barely 20, is already talking about how he wants to limit his kids’ access to phones, games and TV. Being made to quit technology cold turkey reintroduced him, a former gaming addict, to the joys of skateboarding, saxophone music and marine biology.

Maushart offers practical, surmountable steps to a digital detox: "It doesn’t have to be six months in cyber Siberia!" She recommends unplugging in small doses – for a week or even a weekend. You could also use your next mini holiday as a vacation from your gadgets.


Celebrity blogger Malini Agarwal, who is connected 24/7, reveals that her new rule is to "vacay twice a year somewhere that has no Internet."

Her favourite destination is Rishikesh, "where you can’t even charge your phone, so you are forced to switch off!" Take a tip from the organisers of California’s Camp Grounded, a summer camp for stressed-out tech junkies, and find your ‘dead spot’. It could be your grandmom’s house in the hills or the underground Metro at rush hour, where your network signal drops like magic. Just make sure you frequent them.

If you tend to fiddle with the phone the moment you wake up, stick to the time limit. Adopt Iqbal Mohammed’s tip of avoiding any interaction with screens in bed, or resist responding to a device when you’re working on something.

Or take tips from Luddites. Author Devapriya Roy deems herself quite low down in the wired pecking order. "My phone is just a phone. No Internet or fancy camera," she admits. "I think the digital age has made many people, including writers, slightly hysterical." Photographer Asmita Parelkar, is off Facebook entirely. "It gives me a sense of freedom and space to think. There is so much information I feel I can do without," she says. "My phone exists only so that my family and friends can track me down. Come to think of it, I don’t know anyone from my peer group who’s so disconnected. Does it make me sound crazy?" asks Parelkar.


You, your gadgets and your body

A fully wired life can have harmful effects on your body. Neurologist Dr Rahul Chakor lists the fallouts of being glued to your screens all day

Excess use of a mouse can predispose you to carpal tunnel syndrome. This causes tingling, numbness and weakness in the hand.

Excess use of the thumb can lead to Tenosynovitis which causes pain in the thumb or wrist. (So, how many texts did you send today?)

Exposure to flickering lights, computer games with fast sequences and patterns can precipitate epileptic seizures in susceptible people.

Using handsets in awkward positions, holding them to your ears with the shoulder and working for long durations on computers, may lead to inflammation or spasm of the trapezius muscle. Symptoms involve pain and stiffness in the neck, shoulder. This condition can become chronic and disabling.

The effect of mobile phone overuse leading to brain tumours is under intense study

Constant exposure to smartphones, computers and video game screens leads to eye fatigue or computer vision syndrome which affects 50-90 per cent of computer workers. This happens because of a tendency to blink less when staring at a computer screen. This results in dry, tired, itching and burning eyes.

Phantom phone syndrome is a false sense that your phone is ringing. This can be anticipatory anxiety, where your brain is on hyper alert. It’s a type of hallucination and a tech-related psychological disorder.

A psychological disorder that affects more women than men is FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. People constantly worry that they’re not in the loop. This leads to decreased productivity, and makes you less happy with your decisions.

From HT Brunch, June 23

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First Published: Jun 22, 2013 16:06 IST