Shut It Down: A Digital-Detox Plan for the Holidays

Three levels of unplugging

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Two Thanksgivings ago, I turned off my phone — for five days. My social life and academic deadlines were stressing me out, and I decided to reboot. I’m the kind of person who considers her phone an extension of her hand, so losing text and e-mail was a bit like having an adult time-out. I felt phantom buzzes. I dreamed about my friends cutting me off forever for not responding to their messages. But in the end, I felt refreshed (and very popular) when I turned my phone back on and saw dozens of texts and e-mails from people who apparently missed me.

While I finished my college thesis, I set a blocker that kept me off social-media sites for eight hours. And once I even asked a friend to change my password when I went through a breakup and didn’t want to see what my ex was doing on Facebook.

Having friends block your social media for you is still popular among college students finishing up their exams during the holidays. It’s low tech, but it works. Amanda Black, 22, a student at Harvard, says she and some of her friends have deleted the Facebook app from their smartphones and deactivated their accounts until they’re done taking their tests. “It’s funny. I don’t really look at it all that much during the semester, but for some reason I always go on when I’m studying,” Black says. “You just think you’re going on to look at your newsfeed for a few seconds, and then you spend like an hour reading articles.”

The temptation to procrastinate expands beyond Facebook to browsing viral-cat-video sites like Buzzfeed, binge-watching shows on Netflix or tapping away at addictive iPhone games like Candy Crush — just until you beat this next level, right?

And it’s not just students. Once the holiday vacations start and we’re faced with extended time with relatives, there’s a distinct urge to disappear into your smartphone and escape those inevitably awkward family conversations. But this is supposed to be bonding time, right? So if you’re one of the many who feel guilty about ignoring your family, or find yourself not living in the moment because you’re so busy posting pictures of the moment online, maybe it’s time to take a break and unplug for a few days. It’s all the rage, really. Arianna Huffington is doing it. People are even paying $1,400 to go on digital-detox vacations.

And if you’re a parent, you might want to find a way to set digital limits for your children too. I know the much-talked-about iPhone commercial below is supposed to be heartwarming: the kid looks like he’s on his iPhone ignoring everyone all of Christmas Day (a common thing in homes with teens), but he’s actually doing something sweet (much less common). This kid seems adorable. But then you watch it again and think, Wouldn’t everyone have enjoyed the holiday more had he actually talked to his family while they were sledding instead of filming them? The sweetest part of that commercial was when he didn’t have his phone and grabbed his sister’s hand!

But what are the best ways to beat iPhone addiction? Whether you’re trying to study or trying to be a good family member, here’s how you can go on that digital diet.

Impulse-Control Tactics

Quiet — The Quiet app blocks notifications and changes your status on things like Skype to “busy.” This is a helpful studying tool, but it also can keep those distracting noises and flashing signs from popping up when somebody sends you an instant message while everyone’s watching a movie on your computer screen.

Deleting the apps on your phone — Make it a tad harder for yourself to access Facebook or Twitter by deleting those apps from your phone. Sure, you can still get to your profile by going through the Chrome or Safari app, but this method is really more of a speed bump.

Addictive-Activity Blockers 

Anti-Social — This app blocks social-media sties like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube. So you can, you know, talk to people in the real world.

LeechBlock — For those who need to study, this app blocks time-wasting sites (think AddictingGames.com). You can also target specific sites (great if you’re a parent trying to keep your kids off World of Warcraft).

Get a friend to change your password — This old-school method has its pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it’s easier to work around in an emergency (no, checking the latest gossip about Pippa Middleton isn’t an emergency) since you just have to call or text your friend and ask them for the password. On the downside, if that friend is busy or doesn’t pick up the phone, you’re stuck. That is an awful lot of power to hand over to someone else.

Shut It Down

The Huffington method — Arianna Huffington is spending seven days void of TV and social media. She’s limiting herself to checking her e-mail twice a day at precise times. Great if you have that kind of self-control. If not…

Freedom — The $10 app, endorsed by the likes of Dave Eggers and the late Nora Ephron, bars you from surfing the Internet entirely for eight hours at a time. That means no Twitter, no Hulu and definitely no Facebook albums of Aunt Sally’s trip to Saskatchewan. Perfect for Christmas Day.