I Tried it! The 7-Day Digital Detox

Could you get through seven days without looking at a device? I tried—here’s what happened 

By Julien Blanc-Gras from L’Obs Updated: Jun 17, 2024 12:53:48 IST
2024-06-17T12:36:49+05:30
2024-06-17T12:53:48+05:30
I Tried it! The 7-Day Digital Detox photographs by Vicky Lam

It's well-documented: Our screens are cognitive prisons that pulverize our attention span, erode our mental health and spark polarized rage, all while exacerbating our carbon footprint. But can we free ourselves? I’ve decided to try to live like it’s 1996, and go back to my pre-internet life, with a one-week digital detox—no computers or cellphones. But before the big shut-off, I need to do a little preparation.

The Day Before

First, I need to explain the concept to my friends and family so they’re not wondering why I’ve suddenly fallen off the map. I set up an out-of-office reply: “I won’t have access to email until Sunday. If this is an emergency, call my landline at xxxx.”

Then I scribble a few useful phone numbers in a notebook—which will be my daily diary. I borrow my eight-year-old son’s watch (the last time I wore a watch, it was the 20th century), jot down my week’s appointments and map out routes. Next I find my long-abandoned landline phone and plug it in.

My digital detox hasn’t even begun and I’m already conscious of the fact that I underestimated my screen dependency. I feel nervous. I had envisioned the challenge as a soothing lull, but now, on the edge of the analog abyss, I’m gripped by dull angst. I type these final words on my Mac, which I’ll put in the drawer along with my iPhone. I’ll shut the drawer and tape it closed. Once it’s sealed, there will be no turning back.

Day 1

The alarm clock goes off. I reach towards the bedside table. My phone isn’t there. I feel a void already. I’ve only been awake a few seconds.

No checking messages before I empty my bladder. No news roundup with breakfast. No weather forecast. I have no choice but to look out the window: It’s the early hours of a beautiful day.

I hop on my bike. I’m on my way to lead a writers’ workshop for middle-school students at a school I’ve never been to, so I bring a map of Paris with me, just in case. At the first traffic light, I pat my pocket, checking for my phone. Have I done that at every light these past few years? Possibly.

At the school, I’m aware that these kids, born in the 2000s, don’t remember life before the internet—and have only a vague idea that such a time existed.

As I chat with them, I’m not thinking about the emails piling up in the phone I don’t have. But during breaks, I feel around in my pockets. Very Pavlovian.

Afterwards, I realize I’ve survived much of the day offline. And all my vitals are stable. Back at home, I spend an hour reading a novel before hunkering down to write. On paper. I manage to produce more than 10 lines before my inspiration abates slightly, and the digital devil tempts me.

It’s moments like this when I would normally reach for my phone and check the news in case something occurred on planet Earth in the last seven minutes.

We all know how it goes. You grab your phone for a very specific reason (to read an article, call your mom, check your bank account), then get caught up in a social media post, a WhatsApp chat (group gift for a friend’s birthday!) or a grabby bit of breaking news. When you put your phone down, you wonder why you picked it up in the first place.

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But not today. When I can’t muster up enough motivation, I have a piece of chocolate. That’s what’s known as compensating. After my son comes home from school, he asks: “So, Dad, did you manage without a phone?”

“Yep, no problem at all,” I lie, just a little.

“But why are you doing this?” he asks. Subject to screen restrictions, he’s flabbergasted that an adult would willingly give up their digital privileges.

After dinner, my partner pushes back from the table; she has a series to binge watch. I’m not allowed. “I don’t want to hear about your detox,” she says. “Go read on the couch.”

I fall asleep on the sofa, my book on my chest, with a little less blue light in my body and without a last glance at my emails, just in case. In case of what exactly?

Day 2

Before leaving for school, my son wishes me good luck. I gaze at my taped drawer. What if something terrible happens? What if the school wants to call to say my son broke his arm at recess? What if Putin goes nuclear? What if The New York Times wants me to write a story in Japan? There may be a message in my voicemail at this very moment: “Hi, Julien. This is Martin Scorsese. I’d love to make your latest book into a movie. Get back to me as soon as you can.”

Perhaps I could give myself permission to check my messages in the middle of the week? For goodness’ sake, it’s been barely 24 hours and I can hardly take it anymore! Time to get out of the house before it’s too late.

I grab the print edition of Le Monde, which I haven’t done since who knows when. Ensconced in a café, I leaf through it with delight. Climate change, inflation and coups: The world’s tragedies seem much further away when they’re laid out on paper. There’s less assault on the brain, eyes and nerves.

But I’ve got to get back to work. The manuscript I’m working on is due in a few weeks. After a studious day, I decide a well-deserved cocktail is called for, and the stars aligned: I have an invitation to the launch of a magazine I’ve contributed to.

At lacklustre cocktail parties, a phone is an invaluable ally that confers a sense of composure, of being engrossed in an urgent matter when you’re actually checking football stats. I’m now in envy of others here because I’m empty-handed. Naked. Bereft of something to hide behind.

But I realize I’ve got a great topic of conversation: my detox. I assumed people would think it was a dumb idea (“Why do that to yourself?”), but instead I get admiration (“Good on you! I couldn’t do it.”). I’m a hero of Big Tech resistance: the man who hasn’t checked his email in nearly 36 hours and who, even after this historic achievement, remains a model of voluntary simplicity.

I go home early. Everyone is already asleep. The apartment is silent, and I’m not feeling tired, so instead of drifting in cyberspace, I write.

Day 3

From a professional perspective, today is going to be a problem. I have to write a column for a magazine I’ve been contributing to every month for the past four years. I usually type it in Word on my Mac and send it as an email attachment to my editor.

How did we used to do it? In the early 2000s, I was the editor of a regional newspaper. Local correspondents would bring in handwritten articles. Typists (do they still exist?) entered them into the system for us to edit.

That’s what I’ll do: hand in my article on paper. The editors will think I’m crazy, especially since they’ve never seen me. (Yes, these days you can work for a magazine for years without ever meeting any of the editorial staff.)

I quickly get to work and, oh joy, I’m interrupted by a call on the landline. Someone must have read my out-of-office message and made the effort to call. It must be urgent.

(Scorsese, probably: “Please call me back, I beg you, Julien.”)

No. It’s a journalist inviting me to appear on the Internet Show. I tell her point-blank that I don’t have the internet. “No problem,” she replies, once she gets past her bewilderment. They want me to talk about a book I wrote and need me to send her an image of its cover.

But how? My publisher can take care of it. I’ll call them. But I don’t know the number (who can remember numbers?), and I don’t have a phone book handy (remember those?). Does directory assistance still exist?

My attempt to manage my professional life is failing. A quick email exchange and it would have all been taken care of in no time. Regardless of what anyone says, the internet comes in pretty handy sometimes.

Day 4

As soon as I wake up, I reach toward the taped bedside table. Clearly, I still have a long way to go. What is it that drives us to feverishly check our email inboxes? The promise of a reward, the prospect of good news, someone who’s thinking of us. We’re all well aware that most of what we get is spam, bills and unwanted solicitations, but—and maybe this is heartening for humanity—we can’t help but hope.

I go check my mailbox—my real one—then follow up with a trip to the grocery store. I break out in a cold sweat as I come to the realization that I’ve forgotten my loyalty card. My partner is going to be ticked off at me when I get home: “I sent it to your phone so you’d always have it,” she’ll say.

Is my detox undermining my relationship? Will this ridiculous challenge shatter so many happy years with a wonderful woman?

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If I keep disappointing her, she’ll end up leaving me, I’ll have a breakdown, stop bathing and end up homeless. Lurching in my ragged clothes, I’ll yell at passersby: “Never forget your phones!” Children will laugh at me, and the cashier at the local shop, eyeing me as I rant, will explain to customers: “It’s so sad. He was a travel writer, he was on TV, and then one day he got this dumb idea and it was the beginning of the end.”

It would be a shame to ruin my life for this. What if I took just a peek? Come on! No one will know. It’s Thursday, 2 p.m. Three-and-a-half days in. Halfway through, that’s not bad. Critical messages are probably waiting for me in that drawer. Scorsese must be getting impatient. 

I feel dirty, ashamed and miserable. Yet I open the drawer and power up the phone. Hundreds of emails, notifications and messages pour in, not to mention all the spam. I handle three job-related things, but to be honest, it was nothing that couldn’t have waited a few days. 

Later, at school pick up, a parent asks me how my detox is going.

“Awesome,” I answer without batting an eye. “The first few days are tough, but then you get into it.”

I follow that up with platitudes about peace of mind (“WhatsApp groups, so annoying!”) and all the time I’ve gained, eliciting nods of assent.

I hadn’t planned on lying. It just came out. It’s a rude awakening: I tick all the junkie boxes. I’m addicted, and I’m shouting from the rooftops that I’m clean just after getting a fix.

Day 5

It’s a miracle: I left the house without checking my pocket for my phone. It took me five days. I feel lighter. I spot a friend in the street. I wave. She walks by at about arm’s length but doesn’t see me. Guess what she’s got in her hand.

For the past few days, I’ve been living out of step. Outrageous behaviours jump out at me. It’s like everyone’s on drugs. We’re all out of our minds. These amazing technologies that provide access to universal knowledge haven’t had the desired effect on our collective intelligence. (We’re living on a virtually free and perpetually available drug whose addictiveness was conceived by the most brilliant engineers of our time. It’s a losing battle.)

With school done for the week, my son throws himself on the tablet. Enforcing a zero-screen policy during the week is a daily struggle, and he gets his revenge on Friday evening by immersing himself in Minecraft. “When do I get a phone?” he asks far too often. As late as possible, honey. I’m in no hurry to watch Silicon Valley hack your brain.

Day 6

I don’t need a phone to go to the park with my son. Elderly people chat on a bench. A man throws his dog a ball. A couple embraces. They’re 20, they’re in love and they radiate happiness. The world around them doesn’t exist.

And I don’t need a phone to read a book. Just turn the pages and let your brain stay in one place for an hour.

I don’t need a phone at dinner with friends, as we reimagine the world. We all see it: Our daily Black Mirror, that series about techno-paranoia, reflects a softer version of the great literary dystopias: 1984, of course, because we’re being watched all the time, everywhere. Big Brother dissects our data, and we’ve all become Big Brother to each other.

Except Orwell never imagined that our servitude would be voluntary, that humanity would rush to consent to being scrutinized in its most intimate recesses—and that we’d even pay for it (there’s no denying the genius of capitalism) in exchange for the promise of the dopamine provided by a “like.” Lose your freedom, gain a heart emoji.

It’s Brave New World with narcissistic gratification as a stand-in for soma, the drug that keeps the citizens of the World State peaceful, subdued and compliant.

My son and I lose track of time. I should let my partner know we’ll be late. I ask a friend to lend me his phone.

Day 7

I’m allowed to open the drawer and return to my online life. But I don’t. Not just yet.

Before I get back to all the noise, I step outside to listen to the birds chirping. I’m not thrilled to be back in 2023. Life without the internet was happier. But it’s impossible. There’s no rewinding to 1996.

Still, we can make tomorrow’s world a little less bitter. Manage our addictions. Have good digital hygiene. Today, smoking in restaurants and driving without a seatbelt seem inconceivable. Maybe in a decade we’ll be wondering how we ever sat down to dinner without switching to airplane mode.

I’m going to consciously, slowly wade back in, with reluctance. To set an example. Because when my son wants to show me his drawing, I don’t want to hear myself say “one sec” as my brain gets hijacked by a device alerting me about Taylor Swift’s new love interest.

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