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Don’t look down

It was bound to happen. The digital detox retreat has emerged as a new kind of vacation for the legions of tweet-ers, texters, all-around posters and Googlers needing a break from their smartphones and flickering computer screens.

Vacation – a time to switch off, relax and escape from the stresses of daily living, right? Wrong. Or at least it’s wrong for the multitudes seeking alternatives to a getaway that is fast becoming anything but. Whatever the cause – whether it’s the anxiety of being away from the office or it’s social media-­driven FOMO (fear of missing out) – we’re more likely than ever before to be tied to our smartphones even when we’re taking time off – inadvertently piling more stress onto our own well-being as well as onto our relationships. 

So many of us are so concerned about our use of technology that all over the world “digital detox” retreats, from the farthest reaches of Norway to the Australian Outback, are increasingly gaining in popularity. 

So how do we recharge and reconnect with one another and our true selves (rather than our digital selves)?

“It’s crazy when you read the statistics. Digital detoxing is important for our mental health and helps focus our concentration. It’s liberating to be able to spend time off, away from your phone, not getting constant notifications. And once you realize you’re not dependent on it, you rely on it less, even when you have it,” says Perri Rothenberg, Digital Strategy director of Norwegian tour operator Pukka Travels. This agency offers digital-­free sailing trips out of Tromsø, where guests ”detox” by sleeping in protected bays, going hiking, having barbecues on the beach and spending quality days watching wildlife and meditating. 

The statistics she refers to paint a rather sobering picture of the way mobile usage has crept into our leisure time – specifically during our vacations. According to Adobe Digital Insights, more than 35% of consumers say they use their mobile device more frequently on vacation than they do at home, while of course social media only helps feed the digital deluge – what with 97% of millennials using their mobile phones to share pictures while they’re traveling. 

Little surprise then that a backlash of sorts, in the form of digital detox retreats, has gained traction, with participants logging off and engaging in everything from meditation and yoga to hiking and cooking classes. 

According to an Expedia study, the average vacationer spends nine hours out of a week-long trip browsing social media – that is, nine hours being less physically present on their vacation. Out of the 2,000 study participants, nearly half admitted to missing out on “vital holiday experiences because of time spent on social media,” and 44% felt that “social media had ruined their holiday.”

Facts like these have helped feed a boom. By 2016 and in 2017, digital-free holidays went from being a niche product to one that appealed to a broader consumer base. Not only have such retreats proliferated in recent years, but the goals for participants have apparently shifted, as well. In the early years, these time-outs were discussed as a means of escape and a way to de-stress. More recently, the emphasis has been on building skills and attributes that could be maintained long-term. 

Anecdotally, many retreat participants have the intention of merely taking “time out,” similar to drying out during an alcohol-­free month after Christmas. But then they come away from the retreat with their habits totally changed. One tour operator even pointed out that she has seen several clients quit their jobs and start out on completely different life journeys after returning home.

Although numerous choices are available these days, one common theme stands out for those seeking a tech-free break – the need to go outdoors and experience nature. 
“It’s a huge focus for us,” says Maja Steensberg of the holistic study center   Dragebjerg, in Frederiksværk, Denmark. “In the morning, we always take attendees for an hour-and-a-half-walk in silence. It’s a way of trying to tune into yourself and your surroundings. Our activities also include restorative yoga, nature therapy, coaching, body treatments, even mindful cooking. They are all part of a general need to help people slow down and remind themselves what life is without their phones, and what they actually value in life, such as being in nature, eating nourishing healthy food, or being good to their bodies. I would call it a holistic form of detoxing.” 

“Just being outdoors helps slow down the body and the mind,” agrees behavioral scientist and self-dubbed “awareness agent” Karina DiLucia, who has been running retreats for the past several years at Villa Insikt, a digital detox camp in Swedish Lapland. 

“Today, life is all about ‘I must do this, must do that.’ The need to rest the brain has been sidelined,” DiLucia continues. “Getting out into nature gives us a chance to reflect and to properly train mindfulness. In a sense, we have been kidnapped by technology, and this is a chance to regain control. You need to train yourself to use your brain, just as you do to use a bicycle – this is a good way to start doing so.” 

Situated beside a lake, ­Dragebjerg is perfect for disconnecting and relaxing.

Scandinavia offers ideal conditions when it comes to getting away from it all. Despite being one of the world’s most “connected” regions, it’s also one with pockets of land where mobile reception is patchy at best and nonexistent at worst. Almost inadvertently, it was that fact that led to Pukka Travels offering digital detoxing.  

Pukka’s Perri Rothenberg explains it this way. “We run sailing and outdoor pursuit tours through the Norwegian fjords. That’s when we noticed people turning off their phones and putting away their computers – partly because there was no coverage anyway. But we could see how much they appreciated not being connected. When they came back from their trips, they were almost high – high on life, reconnected with the people around them and mentally on another level. So we paired up with a mental health app provider and started offering digital-free tours.”

Despite recognizing the need for feeling “present” as a main motivating factor, those offering retreats are all keen to stress that they’re not trying to turn their back on technology or encourage others to throw away their mobile phones for good. They merely want to offer an alternative and a chance to reflect even for a few days on their mental well-being. 

“Over-reliance on digital media is a behavior that people already have; it won’t be changed overnight,” DiLucia says. “They come on a digital detox retreat not necessarily to have fun – they can go to a spa or many other places for that. What they want from retreats like ours is deeper – a longer-lasting solution. That, above all, is why we do it.” 

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