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Photo illustrationof the social networking site Facebook (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Photo illustrationof the social networking site Facebook (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Detox du jour: unplugging from Facebook Add to ...

Jan. 1, 2010: The first day of Monique Haugen's Life Without Facebook.

Jan. 3, 2010: Ms. Haugen fails to keep her resolution to log off forever, and tries to get into the social-networking site. It's only then that she remembers she deleted her account.

"It was just by force of habit," says the 27-year-old, who had typically logged on three times a day. Before her resolution, the Ottawa chef would check her account before and after work, and then make one last stop later in the evening. The Jan. 3 slip-up made her realize exactly what kind of challenge she had signed up for. "I was like 'Wow, I really was addicted.' "

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Forget that stomach-churning concoction of lemon juice, cayenne pepper and maple syrup. Wiping your life of addictive technology is the new year's detox du jour - and even some devoted social networkers are jumping on board.

On New Year's Day, musician John Mayer began what he calls a " digital cleanse." For one week, the twitterer - who's fond of frequent self-analysis tweets - and other willing participants, whom he has inspired to follow his lead, are e-mailing only from a laptop or desktop computer.

They are restricting cellphone use for calls only. If texts or e-mails are received, they will be returned via a phone call or computer. And the participants are abandoning any social-networking sites. Visits to gossip and entertainment sites are also verboten.

While many have jumped on board Mayer's train, Twitter has also been flooded with naysayers who say they may agree with the experiment in theory, but don't believe that their peers - or they themselves - will ever be able to stick with it.

Still, a broader move to set boundaries across the digital world speaks to a growing desire to quit overdosing on technology, says Maria Bakardjieva, a professor of communications at the University of Calgary. "The gesture of a New Year's resolution [is]some kind of a shock therapy" that involves "teaching oneself that you can do without it," she says. What people are telling themselves, she adds, is that "going back to it, you'd better do it in a more moderate, balanced way."

For Ms. Haugen, it was missing the sound of her friends' voices, going out for coffee, and reading books in her downtime that led to her resolution to quit Facebook. "I've got better things to do, and yet I'll check my Facebook all the time," she says.

In Prof. Bakardjieva's research, she has seen the fatigue that comes with being bombarded by little pings and messages, especially since Facebook and Twitter have become nearly ubiquitous.

The benefits to unplugging, even just for a little while, are significant, says Gary Small, a psychiatrist at the University of California Los Angeles Health System and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. "I think unplugging and trying to be thoughtful and getting into issues and problems will enhance our creativity," he says. "It strengthens our face-to-face contact skills. There's evidence that use of technology interferes with recognizing emotional expression of a face, that it impairs our ability to cue into nonverbal communications."

Dropping some technology can also help people become more productive, says Julie Morgenstern, an organizational expert in New York and the author of Never Check E-mail in the Morning. Focusing on too many things, she says, impairs our ability to get anything done. "And the feeling of not getting anything done," she says, "is very, very, very de-energizing to people."

But detoxing has its drawbacks, too. Removing yourself from technology completely - or even just giving up social networking for a short time - can make people feel isolated, Prof. Bakardjieva says.

And those who do choose to unplug from technology shouldn't go cold turkey, says Carl Honoré, author of In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. He likens an extreme digital detox - a life lived offline - to a very restrictive diet. "I'm certainly in favour of people having a cleanse," he says. "But you want to avoid the savage January-diet scenario - drop a couple of pounds, but the next week you're back on Krispy Kremes."

Instead, he advises baby steps. Turn off your phone on Sundays, he suggests. And resolve not to answer text messages or BlackBerry e-mails while on a romantic date, while visiting friends or family, or while engaging in any kind of in-person conversation.

Karyn Howard is taking baby steps in following her New Year's resolution to dial back on Facebook. The 31-year-old Torontonian realized that she didn't necessarily need Facebook to connect with others when the site suggested she reconnect with her fiancé.

"We live together," she says, adding that since Jan. 1, she's gone from checking her Facebook three times a day to perhaps once.

But would she ever cut herself off completely?

"No," she says. "I would be afraid of total social suicide."

 

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