Digital behaviour in a social context

Dr Linda K. Kaye reviews 'Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting' by Trine Syvertsen.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I was expecting Digital Detox to be a typical self-help book, but it took a wider, more considered approach, which was a refreshing change in my view. What I appreciated from Syvertsen was the concerted effort to frame detox and digital behaviour as occurring in a system of political, social and economic circumstances with various influences, and not isolated to an individual-level issue. A helpful anchor throughout is Syvertsen’s use of three themes – presence, productivity and privacy – to provide a ‘golden thread’ across chapters, arguing that these are reasons to restrict one’s own digital media use.

Each chapter presents a useful overview of issues relevant to understand ‘detoxing’ and these are discussed in reference to a series of relevant wider influences. Starting from the premise that digital use is harnessed around attention, Syvertsen discusses how the attentional aspects of digital media may feed into how and why we are drawn to certain types of online engagements, and how the overload of information has resulted in the depletion of our attentional capacities. This section does a good job of drawing out the commercial and technological influences which impact on our ability to detox digitally.

Syvertsen takes things up a gear and discusses the political forces which interact with digital detox. Syvertsen asserts that despite the fact that governments have implemented policies of digitalisation across many sectors, and seek to get everyone online, it is users themselves who are burdened with self-regulating their use and managing risks associated with their use. At the heart of this discussion is the implicit concern that digital detox may be unachievable in light of these forces.

Syvertsen presents a useful summary of the approaches for self-optimisation and self-regulation, which are common to self-help books in this field. These approaches include offline periods, time management and screen-free zones, deleting apps and platforms, muting/blocking, and reverting to analogue media forms. Syvertsen is cautious about asserting the efficacy of these approaches, from the perspective that they cannot be achieved by being considered in isolation from other forces. Further, Syvertsen makes the profound claim: ‘I argued that studying digital detox is not just a way to understand digitalisation and how people manage online media, it is also an opening to understand more about how people express dislike, resistance and protest in the 21st century.’ A point well made in my opinion.

I especially appreciated Syvertsen’s view that social contexts have to be understood to make digital detoxing meaningful, a point which is nicely illuminated from the detox stories shared later in the book. Indeed, these stories of real lives serve to highlight just how much policy makers, practitioners and researchers have to learn about the external forces which govern individuals and groups to determine their digital media use.

Whilst reading this book, I pondered how achievable a full digital detox would be, and if it would help my presence, productivity and privacy – Syvertsen’s three themes. Presence – perhaps. Detoxing may help us feel more connected to events in the here and now, but let’s remember that social presence takes a range of forms in 21st century communication, and these can be immensely useful for a sense of connection and interaction (especially if we’re self-isolating due to coronavirus).

Productivity – perhaps. Having fewer distractions from digital devices themselves may be beneficial but much of our efficiency in communication, work tasks and commerce comes from digital connections. Privacy – yes, although this doesn’t necessarily protect privacy of historical data from pre-detoxing.

I came to a resounding conclusion that while digital detoxing may be possible to some extent as a short-term exercise, the reality is that fully digital detoxing is otherwise more or less impossible.

Reviewed by Dr Linda K. Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University and Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Cyberpsychology Section

Digital Detox: The Politics of Disconnecting by Trine Syvertsen, is published by Emerald Publishing (2020). ISBN101787693422 (ISBN-13: 978-1787693425). 

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