With over 14 million Australians subscribed to the internet, imagining life without it for most is no easy feat. But with physical and mental health issues rising due to excessive smartphone use, taking a break can be beneficial. Elle Conway explores what it’s like to switch off for five days.
It’s the light seeping through my blinds that wakes me before my alarm. Reluctantly, I stretch an arm out from the warmth of my covers, and fumble around my bedside table for my phone. I click it awake.
I roll onto my back. I’ve got a couple of minutes before I’ll need to commandeer the bathroom before my roommate does.
My phone unlocks under the print of my thumb. I squint blearily up at the screen’s assaulting glow. Subconsciously, I swipe through the menu towards my social media folder.
All of the folders on my phone are practically empty.
It only takes a moment before the realisation sets in: I’m going internet-free for five days.
Last night, I spent an hour going through my phone and laptop deleting apps. Subsequently, I turned off my data and notifications, and ‘forgot’ my home internet connection.
I realise I’m still staring at the empty folders. I put my phone down and haul the covers off me. Grabbing my dressing gown, I traipse across the apartment towards the bathroom.
By the end of December 2017, Australia was home to 14.2 million internet subscribers. Approximately 86% of households had internet access, a number which, interestingly, has remained consistent since 2014.
Contrarily, the volume of downloaded data has been rapidly growing.
Initially, I’d planned to disconnect for 10 days. But that proved to be physically impossible, owing to both university and work. For university, one of my units requires me to be online, constantly editing and uploading content for an online publication; at work, I need to fact check, answer emails and monitor national TV wires. So as it happened, I had to cut the experiment down to five days.
The next thing I needed to do was prepare. In the days leading up to switching off, I printed out my current work rosters, as they are only accessible via email and through a private Facebook group. I also printed my university readings, and tutorial materials for classes.
The day before, I began to delete apps from my phone and laptop. When my roommate found out, she couldn’t understand why.
‘You’re deleting your apps?! That’s crazy. Why don’t you just use the offline setting?’
But in the case of this experiment, I figured offline downloads defeat the purpose; I needed the internet to download the apps in the first place, and I then needed it again to download the content. So for five days, there would be no more ‘Fleetwood Mac – Greatest Hits’ or How I Met Your Mother reruns.
I went offline from 10am on Thursday the 12th of April, to 9am on Tuesday the 17th of April. Here’s how it panned out.
Thursday: the addiction is real
Waiting seems longer without music.
I’m standing at the bus stop, the early morning sun on my face. The weight of my backpack tugs at my shoulders. Usually, I’d have my earphones plugged in, my latest playlist blaring me awake.
The bus ride is slow, but I notice the lack of music makes me more observant. I’m on the same route I take most mornings to university, and yet on this trip, I’ve spotted several houses and buildings I’ve never noticed before.
Throughout the day, every time I subconsciously pick up my phone to check for notifications, I feel uncomfortable. But whilst it unnerves me, it doesn’t shock me.
According to a report released by Deloitte last year, Australians are checking their phones more than 35 times a day.
Upon waking up, 35% of Australians admit to checking their phone within the first five minutes.
I’m not proud to say it, but I’m in that demographic. The study also found that 70% of people use their phones when spending mealtimes with family and friends. Again, guilty.
The next time I catch myself reaching for my phone, I try to pin-point what it is exactly that I want. I realise that all I’m looking for are images, captions and hash tags to waste five, ten or thirty minutes between writing this article.
It occurs to me that these chunks of ‘forced’ entertainment may well be what’s causing my writer’s block.
Friday: distraction is key
I watch the morning news over the rim of my cup of tea.
As a student journalist, it’s strange to be limited to accessing news, and being restricted to just the stories that have been selected to run in the bulletin.
I feel out of the loop.
When the program ends, I sift through the television guide and settle for a radio channel: Double J. I’m thankful for the music – if there’s one thing that I’m really starting to miss, it’s Spotify, and its endless stream of tunes.
But as song after song plays, with the occasional commentary from Zan Rowe, I realise how dependant I am on being able to select exactly what music I want to hear, at any exact time. And even if that artist, album or playlist isn’t quite right, then I can simply change it.
Later, I find myself waiting for an appointment at university. Staff and students pass me in the corridor, all carrying themselves the same way; heads bent, eyes occasionally darting forwards, their fingers flying across the screens of their phones.
Whilst this is nothing new, it looks slightly bizarre when you remove yourself, and observe others. I couldn’t help but think, “Will humans evolve with stooped necks?” Maybe. But smartphones are damaging our backs.
Medical professionals have dubbed the term ‘text neck’ for the strain placed on the upper back when looking down at an electronic device for too long.
Text neck causes pain, tightness and muscle spasms in the upper back, and can even lead to early onsets of arthritis.
That afternoon I pick up Heir of Fire, the third instalment in a fantasy series I got stuck into over the summer break. Every now and then, my concentration lapses between chapters, and I find myself reaching for my phone, to check…
The time. That’s all there is to check.
I call a friend, and we organise to meet at a bar.
Saturday: DVDs aren’t dead
I spend Saturday morning running errands in the city.
In Big W, I find myself passing the electronic section. My eyes catch on an aisle, its shelves brimming with shiny, plastic-encased titles. As I near, a sign proclaims: 2 for $20!
Do people still buy DVDs? It seems ludicrous to do so, when for less than $20, you can subscribe monthly to services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or SBS On Demand, and have a vast selection of films, television shows and documentaries at your fingertips. Not to mention, the hassle of having to worry about putting the correct DVD back in its case is nonexistent…
10 minutes later, I surprise myself by scanning About Time through a self-service checkout.
That afternoon I work on an assignment. I can’t help but notice the increase in my productivity. In a recent study conducted by Deakin University, it was found that excessive smartphone use can cause poorer academic performance.
54% of respondents admitted to being engrossed in their smartphones when they were supposed to working, which was problematic.
The study also found that prevalent smartphone use has negative effects on relationships, physical health and emotional wellbeing. Studying without the constant distraction of notifications and messages not only helped the clarity of my thoughts, but I produced high-quality work in less time than when I had my phone by my side.
Later that evening, I make dinner, and watched a DVD for the first time in years.
Sunday: sleep-ins and small inconveniences
I’m sleeping much better.
After a lazy morning of reading, I head into work at my second job – a bar. On arrival, I instinctively head towards the office to check the reservations for the day, and week ahead.
But it suddenly dawns on me – I can’t. Our reservations are run through an online booking system. So, I steer clear of the computer, and ask my colleague to run me through the day and events for the week ahead. I also have to pass all bookings onto him, so he can put them into the system.
Monday: embracing the disconnection
By day five, I feel much calmer.
My thoughts are clearer, I’m more productive and I feel less overwhelmed without the constant distractions of the internet.
I have three chapters left of my book. One of the things I thought I never had time for during university semesters is reading fiction. But as it turns out, mindless scrolling, internet-surfing and Netflix take up a lot of time, and they can also be damaging to your wellbeing.
The #StatusOfMind report released by the Royal Service for Public Health found that social media can be detrimental to a young person’s mental health. Its results have called for campaigning to introduce ‘heavy usage’ warnings on social media.
Over the five days without the internet, I’ve managed to stay on top of university, work and keep up with my social life. I’ve also managed to fit in exercise, reading and some art.
I’ve found that allowing time just to think, instead of reaching for your smartphone to fill a void of boredom, is crucial when it comes to imagination, creativity and fleshing out ideas.
I spend my final internet-free afternoon bowling with my friends.
Tomorrow, I reconnect.
Tuesday: reconnecting with the digital world
I’m filled with a strange sense of urgency.
Sitting cross-legged in bed, the covers nestled about my waist, my fingers fly across the screen of my phone. I’ve switched my data back on. I’ve reconnected to WiFi. And I’m currently in the midst of re-downloading all of my social media apps.
This urgency is one I can liken to returning to my small, coastal hometown at Christmas time. I’m excited to see my family, to catch up and swap tales with old friends; I’m eager to see how many emails, messages and notifications my absence has accrued.
Is that vain?
Perhaps you’d feel the same.
I log back into Spotify and select a playlist. I check the news, reading a few stories and skimming some other headlines. I log back into my social accounts, and begin trawling through my news feeds.
Again, that urgency niggles. But as I sift through friends posts, it slowly starts to dissipate.
Once you’re back there, wandering down that ever-familiar main street, or deep in the midst of an Instagram scroll, it suddenly dawns on you, harsh, yet obvious: nothing changes.
Sure, the town now has a new shopping mall, or a high school peer has just announced her engagement and or pregnancy. But this is nothing ground-breaking.
Five days without the internet was tough, yet doable. Whilst I may have missed some world news and family announcements, there was nothing I couldn’t research when I logged back on. Disconnecting was extremely beneficial; I procrastinated less, produced more work in shorter periods of time, and felt much calmer mentally.
Back online, my need to constantly scroll through Facebook and Instagram has depleted; I’ve found it’s one of those things where the less you engage, the less you crave.
Social media is notorious in the sense that it allows people to broadcast the best, and often edited, version of themselves. But sometimes, that ‘best’ version of you – physically, mentally, emotionally and intellectually – can be reached just by disconnecting for a while.