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Are you an internet and social media addict? A digital detox may be for you

The world is full of phoneys. In many cities on the planet people have their faces buried in their smartphones. Crowds of commuters marching to work stop erratically to check their devices, couples sit in restaurants checking WhatsApp, and the MTR is a sea of LCD screens.

Hong Kong is no exception. Statistically, we rank among the worst for the proportion of social media and internet addicts. Smartphone usage and social media penetration in the city is among the highest in the world, with a whopping 99 per cent of internet users between the ages of 25 and 44 accessing the internet every day, according to Statista. It tails off as you go up the age groups, but not by much; 92 per cent of over-55s use the internet every day.

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“If you look at the proportion of people that use social media in Asia, it’s very high among all age groups,” says Peter Andrews, of Hull University Business School in the UK.

That may also explain why digital detox holidays are more popular than ever in East Asia.

“People are becoming wedded to technology, and that’s why digital detoxes are starting to pop up because people recognise that they need a break from their devices and from social media,” says the lecturer in marketing, who teaches students at the University of Hong Kong extension HKU SPACE.

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The concept of a digital detox refers to a period of time spent away from smart devices. It’s an opportunity to destress and focus on the physical world away from being constantly contactable.

While that may sound novel to the younger generation – to millennials, the “always-on” society is just the way it’s always been – the idea is unfathomable to those who are older and feel they cannot be parted from their gadgets.

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“There is no such thing as a casual addiction,” says Dr Seamus MacAuley, lead addiction counsellor at The Cabin Hong Kong, one of growing number of clinics that have opened in the Asia-Pacific region to deal with the disorder.

“There might be a casual habit, but if someone has an addiction then the only way to cope is to work on a recognised programme of recovery.”

Internet addiction is very similar to drug and alcohol dependancy, says Andrews. “We have a chemical called dopamine that the brain produces and makes us feel good and self-confident, which we normally get from eating, alcohol and sex, but the use of social media gives people the same kind of release – so they can’t put their phones down.”

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There’s also a state called “smart boredom”, which is fuelling addiction throughout society.

“That’s the idea that when you’re stuck on a train or even walking around you can use your phone to do active things like paying a bill, checking a bank account or sending a message to someone,” says Andrews.

With the holiday season looming, is it time we all took a digital detox vacation?

According to Fang Fang, senior growth marketing manager at Skyscanner Greater China, its recent APAC Travel Consumption survey shows that 29 per cent of Asia-Pacific travellers now look for holidays that allow them “to be at one with nature and have an adventure”.

“At one extreme there are intensive places that take your phones away and get you to think about how much you use technology,” says Andrews. But there are just as many self-styled digital detox retreats that are about little more than turning your phone off and having a good time for a few days.

“Any time is a good time to have a break from a smartphone and start some real personal connection, and digital detox will be a necessity as a prelude to recovery if the problem is truly an addiction,” says MacAuley, “but apart from that it sounds a bit gimmicky.”

It may sound like a fad, but the concept of the digital detox is a hot topic in the travel industry right now, particularly in the spa sector.

“The spa is one of the last places in modern urban society where people can go to take a break from technology,” says Jeremy McCarthy, group director of spa with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, which has created a digital detox initiative at Landmark Mandarin Oriental. “Hong Kong people love their technology,” he says. “But there is a growing awareness that all of the wonderful benefits of technology are coming at a cost.”

The bad posture, sore neck and degrading vision are common issues, but there’s one that is often skirted; there’s been a drastic change in the way we relate to other human beings.

“People are realising that we need some boundaries on our technology use to maintain our health and well-being,” says McCarthy, though he’s relaxed about what the Mandarin Oriental is trying to do.

“Our goal is not to force people to separate from technology when they aren’t ready to,” he says.

Other approaches to the digital detox vacation are more strict. For instance, at Camp Grounded’s summer camps for adults around the US there’s a complete ban on digital devices.

That might help true technology addicts, but in this digital age not all gadgets are considered equal. The always-on smartphone often brings social pressures we need to escape from occasionally, but is that true of DSLR cameras?

“If I am about to have a digital detox vacation, I would definitely break the ‘no camera’ rule,” says Timmy Wong, a photographer from Hong Kong specialising in astrophotography.

“A camera is something far more than a gadget – it can maximise your creativity and make you do something you haven’t thought of doing before,” he says, “It keeps you focused on the world that lies in front of you.” For Wong, a camera acts as an antidote to a smartphone.

Perhaps we should start saying “phone detox” instead, but the core concept is here to stay because technology is only going to get better.

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“The allure of technology will get stronger over the years to come, forcing us to either succumb to our cybernetic future or employ strategies to establish more mindfulness and humanity in the ways we relate to our devices,” says McCarthy.

“This trend is not going to go away any time soon.”

Five digital detox destinations where you can unplug and unwind

Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong

As well as asking guests to surrender their phones as they enter, this spa in Hong Kong is hosting a special “Silent Night” event on December 14, where for one night only there is no music and no talking in the spa; quiet reflection, contemplation and digital disconnection are the (unspoken) buzzwords. (mandarinoriental.com)

Kamalaya, Thailand

This holistic spa retreat on the island of Koh Samui forbids phones and electronic devices to promote “calming energy”, though only once outside of your room. (kamalaya.com)

Retreat Kushunada, Japan

Removing guests’ devices at the door, this coastal resort near Mount Fuji’s two-day “Mindfulness programme with Digital Detox” course displaces digital addiction with meditation, a tea ceremony, hot springs, breathing exercises, and walking to a nearby shrine. (kushunada.jp)

Nomads Land, Cambodia

This eco-guesthouse on the island of Koh Totang, Cambodia is completely off the grid, with no electricity apart from solar panels, making phone recharges and Wi-Fi networks impossible. (nomadslandcambodia.com)

Camp Grounded, US

Probably the most famous “analogue” vacation of all, these summer camps for adults are held in off-the-grid locations in California, New York, North Carolina and Texas. Digital technology is banned, as is alcohol and asking anyone their age. (campgrounded.org)