More to this story

Al Jazeera's Phil Lavelle is constantly connected, and can rarely be found without his face buried into one of his many mobile devices. He diagnosed himself as a digital addict - after researching the symptoms online, of course - but now feels the need to disconnect.

We follow him as he checks into a digital detox facility and attempts to adapt to a life without his devices. Along the way, we explore the modern phenomenon of digital addiction.

From the correspondent:

By Phil Lavelle

Would you - a shy Brit - spend a weekend locked up in a forest with a load of crazy Americans? Would you give up your phone, tablet and every other digital device you own? I did both this summer - and initially felt like I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

My journey started in a hotel restaurant in February. As I sat there, minus my laptop (which was charging in my room), I surveyed the table in front of me. There was a smartphone, a tablet, a pair of noise cancelling headphones and a Kindle, not to mention the fitness band on my wrist.

It hit me as clear as day: I was an addict, a digital addict. I hadn't even been able to leave my hotel room and travel two floors without taking my swag along with me.

I discussed it with friends and realised that I wasn't alone. A 10-minute walk to the station isn’t complete without a pair of white headphones; a dinner date isn’t fully realised unless we break off mid-conversation to talk virtually with a person in another time zone about something trivial.

So I went on a quest to find out why. Travelling across the US, I spoke to a psychiatrist who explained the chemical release that comes from being connected - it's the same one cocaine addicts get; to a former Apple employee who revealed why their stores have ex-SWAT team members hiding in them; and to Randi Zuckerberg, who shared her fears about what all of this technology is doing to the brains of children the world over. The message was clear: we are hooked on a legal, electronic drug.

My next stop was a digital detox camp deep in the Californian countryside, where, along with all the other addicts there, I had my electronics confiscated. It is a place where all talk of age and employment is considered blasphemous. The logic is simple - when we meet people, we tend to ask a name and what a person does and instantly form a first impression based on that. The camp organisers wanted everybody - from whatever background and with whatever issues - to be on a clean slate.

I hated it at first. I really did. It is a place that aims to take people back to a point in their lives when they were truly happy and carefree: childhood. Hence the traditional American summer camp. The problem was that, as a Brit, I’d never been to a summer camp and just didn’t get it. On my first night, as I watched the campers dress up, dance on tables and sing Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know - but replacing every word with 'miaow' - I couldn’t think of anywhere I wanted to be less.

More on this topic

But I soon warmed to it. Perhaps it was the tranquility, the laughter yoga (Google it), the campfires, rediscovering the art of meaningful conversation or writing a journal with the aid of a typewriter, but four days later, as I sat with 300 strangers who'd become friends, I cried. I had just had one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, and I was dreading the moment when that paper bag containing the keys to my digital identity would be handed back to me.

As I left the camp, I pondered what would happen when I turned the smartphone back on. But, when I eventually did - three hours later - the barrage of notifications didn’t deafen me. In fact, I was surprised by how few people had tried to contact me during the four days I'd been off the grid. It was a testament to what I'd learned at the camp: that only a handful of interactions are really worth our time and emotions.

From the filmmaker:

By Jonathan Richards

Digital addiction is a subject that's rather too close to home. You see, I feel that my 'attachment' to my phone and the internet (justified by being a busy filmmaker and needing to be always available), is in no way different to that of Phil Lavelle, your correspondent. And that's the power of this film. It resonates very personally. Addiction to our hand-held devices is everywhere. And I'll let you into a little secret: some of my viewing-guests didn't even have time to watch the whole edit as they were drawn away by an important SMS, Facebook post or some other digitally inspired malady.

At the heart of this story, is an unease about our digital futures. It's unclear what the future holds for the human race with regards to our use, or over use, of devices. But one thing is quite clear: we are chemically and psychologically addicted.

Whether this is an actual problem, simply a phase or the start of the downfall of our ability to form analogue relationships, is unclear. And while our film offers, on the one hand, a solution to the 'problem' of digital addiction, it also raises many more questions than it answers.

My puzzlement with this issue was neatly summarised by a fellow filmmaker, who said of the film: "Are they really all so weak that they need someone to nanny them and tell them to put down their phones and stop playing with their computers?" And I guess that’s that problem. We really all seem to be too weak to simply do this - turn off the phone, put it down and step away. The forces at play in the centre of our digital addiction seem real and powerful. Dopamine released by using Facebook and Twitter, along with a psychological condition called the Variable Ratio Schedule, point ominously to a future where only our own will can save us.
 


 

When Al Jazeera correspondent Phil Lavelle came to the conclusion that he was addicted to his digital devices, he headed to a digital detox camp. After four days of cold turkey, he left feeling exhilarated. But did it last? [Al Jazeera]

Phil Lavelle with Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, who shared her fears about what technology is doing to the brains of children [Al Jazeera ]

Camp Grounded is one of just a few digital detox camps. Set in the Californian countryside, it confiscates electronic  devices and encourages camp-goers to refrain from mentioning their age or profession, believing that that puts everybody on a clean slate [Al Jazeera]

Of the digital detox camp, Phil says: " I hated it at first. I really did …. The problem was that, as a Brit, I’d never been to a summer camp and just didn’t get it" [Al Jazeera] 
The eclectic group of digital addicts at Camp Grounded were taken back to a time when they were truly happy and carefree: childhood [Al Jazeera]