'Digital detox' may be what the doctor ordered

  • Taking time to relax and unplug from computers and cellphones may have health benefits.

    Taking time to relax and unplug from computers and cellphones may have health benefits.

By Ann Sharpsteen
Scripps Howard News Service

Jeanna Freeman of Collierville, Tenn., had never heard of the term "digital detox" before her trip to the mountains of western North Carolina last fall.

She visited Earthshine Mountain Lodge in Lake Toxaway, a vacation resort touted as one of the country's premier destinations for digital-detox back-to-basics family vacations.

There, guests are gently encouraged to set aside their BlackBerrys, iPads, iPhones and other electronic devices and enjoy technology-free stays, immersed in nature, outdoor activities and old-fashioned fun in order to unplug and reconnect with family and friends. Rooms do not include TVs. Instead, guests are invited to relax and converse on the porch rocking chairs, or tackle the zip-line canopy tour and high-ropes obstacle course.

For Freeman, the experience of unplugging from her cellphone and computer was surprisingly refreshing. "Honestly, it was exhilarating being away from my cellphone and free of it," she says. "I hadn't felt that good and 'connected' in a long time. I didn't realize how much I needed that."

Earthshine general manager Benny Upton sees a trend in the number of families looking to unplug and reconnect.

"There does seem to be a movement in this direction and a desire to get back to basics," he said. "Campfires, making s'mores, sharing stories, getting away from technology -- that's what we're all about and what more people seem to be craving and seeking out."

Many Americans first learned the term "digital detox" when musician John Mayer completed a one-week detox in 2010, and encouraged his fans to do the same. Digital Detox Week, an annual event in April, is gaining in popularity. National Day of Unplugging is set for March 23-24 this year.

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Excessive connectedness is straining our bodies and brains, says Kim John Payne, author of "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids."

"Neurologically, we can't sustain being on high alert any more than one-third of our waking life," says Payne. "What's happening as a result of technology is our brains are saying, 'You have to be switched on, in top gear, for 10, 11, 12 hours a day,' and basically we become adrenaline and cortisol junkies. Our brains and our bodies are simply not set up to tolerate that."

An AOL study in 2010 on email usage found that 47 percent of respondents believe they are hooked on email, 59 percent check email in the bathroom and 60 percent check email on vacation.

The latest research by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the average child in the United States between the ages of 8 and 18 now watches more than 7 hours of entertainment media per day.


"It's shocking to a lot of people," says Payne, "but when they stop and think about it, they say, 'Well, yes, that makes sense.' That is tremendously out of whack."

Some companies, including Google, are insisting that their workers unplug for certain parts of the day, recognizing that to innovate, employees need time to unplug.

"Back in our early startup days, we found that great things happen more frequently within the right culture and environment," Katelin Todhunter-Gerberg, a Google spokeswoman, said. "That's why we offer Googlers a generous host of benefits today to help them unplug and unwind."

Google employees are offered use of bikes and walking trails for informal meetings, on-site fitness classes and on-site massage therapists to ensure they are refreshed.

The movement to unplug may be taking root.

"People are much more discerning and conscious about their use of technology now," says Payne. "It's like we got all caught up in technology, about how amazing it was, how wonderful it was, but now a lot of people want to control the technology rather than the technology controlling them."

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