The first time social media junkie Micah Daigle took a day off from his Facebook account, his friends joked that they needed him back.
"My news feed is empty," one said, laughing. "Where have you been?" The second time was more profound. It was 2008, and Daigle was heading back to San Francisco from Burning Man. After a week with no access to technology, he turned on his iPhone to a flood of emails, Twitter updates and Facebook notifications.
"It was really overwhelming," says Daigle, 28 and founder of the Collective Agency, a design and online branding company. "It was such a stark contrast to the sense of peace I had in the desert."
Craving more of that unplugged peace, Daigle started taking Ouija walks, his term for device-free strolls. "The world is my (Ouija) board," he says. "I leave my phone behind and let my intuition guide me. I know people who don't see the potential downsides of being connected all the time. But I know it's not good."
Hulu in bed. iPads at dinner. Twitter on the toilet. According to Pew research, the average American spends eight to 12 hours a day plugged in. Research shows this technology habit is having a negative impact on our health and relationships. Don't believe it? Internet Use Disorder may soon be included in the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, due out in May.
But, as the new year begins and we commit to making changes for the better, experts say learning to use social media with intention and spending more time off the grid can help us reclaim a balanced relationship with our digital devices.
Levi Felix started Digital Detox, a company in Oakland, as a way to help people disconnect from their gadgets in order to reconnect with themselves. A casualty of the tech industry, Felix had his own aha moment after 80-hour workweeks at a startup put him in the hospital with an esophageal tear and internal bleeding his doctors said were caused by stress and poor lifestyle.
He spent the next 21/2 years traveling the world with his girlfriend, Brooke Dean, working on remote farms and in poor orphanages. They meditated, did yoga and grew the food they ate. But they never touched a cell phone or laptop.
The experience was so transformative that Felix and Dean returned home to create digital-free retreats where anyone, from stay-at-home moms to Google executives, could disconnect from technology and recharge through hiking, journaling, art and massage.
"There's no seat belt or smoking section for the digital world," Felix explains. "It's not that all of these digital technologies are bad. But humans have never lived in a situation like this, and we need help to reconnect in a more meaningful way."
Felix and Dean apply the same concepts to their Device-Free Drinks events, where people trade in their cell phones for analog activities, like board games and playing on typewriters.
"Instead of staring at your phone or checking in online, you're meeting new people and having fun," Felix says. The bar events have drawn at least 200 people a night since launching last October.
But you don't have to go to an event to unplug. Among his tips for a balanced digital diet, Felix suggests taking the time to "like" people or things off- line with a simple "thank you" or other act of gratitude. Also, try waking up with an alarm clock instead of a cell phone.
"You'll sleep better, won't have the urge to check your messages or scan status updates from your sheets, and your REM won't be interrupted by random push-notifications," he says.
Another biggie: Don't take your digital device to the bathroom. "It was reported that over 75 percent of Americans use their (cell) phones on the toilet to text, play with apps, make calls and browse the Web," says Felix, referring to a recent study by 11 Mark, a Virginia-based marketing firm specializing in technology and health care. "But some of our best ideas come when we are sitting on the throne. Use it as a break. It's a perfect time to reflect and take a moment for oneself."
For author Gemini Adams, it was actually too much "me time" that led her to become addicted to her Facebook account.
"Most of my social group had moved away, and I found myself filling the gap of grief by going online," says Adams, who splits her time between London and Los Angeles.
Once, at a party, an acquaintance passed up the chance to chat with Adams, saying, "I don't need to talk to you. I see everything you're doing on Facebook." That prompted Adams to write her latest book, "The Facebook Diet: 50 Funny Signs of Facebook Addiction and Ways to Unplug With a Tech-Detox" (Live Consciously, $9.99), a tongue-in-cheek look at social media excess through cartoons.
Adams pokes fun at online obsessions but also provides useful tips on how to unplug, like trying to write reports with pen and paper or installing software such as MacFreedom and RescueTime on your devices. They allow you to cap the amount of time you spend online. RescueTime shows a breakdown of how much time you spent on each site or program.
FIVE DIGITAL DETOX TIPS
Seeking a more balanced relationship with technology in the new year? Follow these tips to unplug and revive, courtesy of Levi Felix, co-founder of Digital Detox.
Wake up with an alarm clock instead of your cell phone. You'll sleep better, won't have the urge to check your messages or scan status updates from your sheets, and your REM won't be interrupted by random push notifications.
Don't use your devices in the bathroom. It was reported that over 75 percent of Americans use their phones on the toilet to text, play with apps, make calls and browse the Web. But some of our best ideas come when we are sitting on the throne. Use it as a break from the chaos.
Treat your meals as a time to meditate and unplug. Eat with intention and mindfulness. Think about where the food came from and how it tastes. Enjoy clear conversation that is not interrupted by check-ins and Twitter updates.
Don't Instagram when you can draw. Next time you want to Instagram a sunset or take a photo of your lunch, try drawing a picture or writing about it instead. By taking the time to make the experience your own, you will create a deeper memory.
Like someone in person. Say "Thank you." Practice expressing gratitude and make appreciation your default status. Practicing gratitude increases happiness, improves sleep and stimulates anti-aging hormones in your brain.
Fifty percent of Americans say they prefer to communicate digitally rather than in person.
The average Web user checks 40 sites a day and switches activities, windows or programs 37 times an hour.
Sixty-one percent of Americans admit to being addicted to the Internet.
The average person, regardless of age, sends or receives about 400 texts a month, four times the 2007 number. The average teen processes an astounding 3,700 texts a month, double the 2007 figure.
Researchers analyzed 780 swab samples -- 390 from mobile phones and 390 from the hands that used them -- in 12 U.K. cities and found that 16 percent of both hands and phones were contaminated with E. coli, illness-causing bacteria that is fecal in origin.
FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT OUR OBSESSION WITH TECHNOLOGY
We may not realize it, but most of us have merged with our digital devices. As a result, technology is making us lonely, depressed, even addicted, according to research. If Internet Use Disorder, or IUD, is included in the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-V) this May, it will be a wake-up call for many of us to limit our time online and learn to appreciate life off the grid.
Until then, take a gander at these facts about just how obsessed we have become with technology, courtesy of Pew, 11 Mark, ForensicPsychology.net, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.