Digital Fast

More people are becoming aware that smartphones are consuming a significant amount of their time. But it is not that easy to break out of the habit and lead a life free from the internet. That is why there are camps and smartphone applications to help with digital fasting, a notion for the guilt-ridden modern consumer.

Only 30 minutes to go before I board the London-bound plane. I am the type of person who incessantly checks the KakaoTalk group chat rooms on my smartphone even though I do not have much to say to my friends. I was a bit concerned whether I could survive with a “brick phone” because I did not sign up for international roaming.
“I can reach you through Kakao, right?” The call had come from my boss before I went through security, and I had replied, “No!” Of course, I could check for incoming messages whenever I had access to Wi-fi, but I did not want to be bothered while I was away. Because if I did that, I would still be tethered to my digital device and not be able to enjoy absolute freedom.

Life Locked in a Digital World
I do not remember when it began, but I started to leave my phone behind on my desk during lunch breaks. My three-year-old smartphone was getting heavy, and I decided it would be enough to have just my stomach sagging with food, not my pocket with my phone. Also, I am a firm believer in eye contact, during mealtimes at least. Being surrounded by smartphones and computers at work, I want to be free from them during lunch, and lunchtime does provide that liberty to a journalist like me. But I cannot count on it too much, because there will be dozens of missed calls waiting for me on my smartphone. One time, five missed calls that had come in one minute intervals were from the same person, a senior member of the team, asking me to have lunch with him if I did not have a lunch appointment.
Mr. Lee, age 32, commuting between Incheon and Seoul, starts his day by checking his phone. He reads the overnight conversation threads in the group chat rooms, and logs in to Facebook to read the updates. It would be more precise to say that he feels obliged to read them.
When he comes to work, he turns on his computer and is automatically logged on to the PC version of the mobile messenger. He must check the group chat rooms for business, but also other rooms he shares with friends so as not to miss anything. Throughout the morning hours he is distracted by the conversations that pop up on the screen. Much of the same happens in the afternoon.
He cannot let go of his smartphone even after work. When he gets on the bus and the subway, his hand is tightly clutching his phone. Eight out of 10 commuters on the subway have earphones on and a smartphone in their hands. When he comes home, he listens to music on the phone, surfs the internet, and engages in social media. His day ends as he sets the alarm on his phone for the next day.
Let us turn our attention to Mrs. Choe, age 38, mother of a four-year-old son.
After her husband goes to work, she eats breakfast at around 8 o’clock. Her son is not up yet, so she can enjoy a leisurely morning, but she knows as soon as her son wakes she will not be able to get through the day without her phone. It may be her fault her son got hooked. She tried to make him stop crying once by showing him the popular animation character Pororo on her phone, and it did wonders. Since that day, Mrs. Choe has relied a bit too much on Pororo and her phone whenever she needs to calm her child down. The nanny smartphone wields its magic even onboard public transport. Whenever she shows him a video stream, he becomes quiet and behaves. She cannot let go of her phone because it has proven itself as a competent nanny.
One day, Mrs. Choe took her son to the ophthalmologist because he was rubbing his eyes too much, and the doctor told her that her son had poor vision. His eyesight became poor because he spent too much time staring into the small screen, and the doctor warned that he may have to wear glasses. The mother was heartbroken, imagining her young child, who wasn’t even in kindergarten, wearing glasses.

Apps for Digital Fasting
The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning together with the National Information Society Agency surveyed 18,500 smartphone and internet users between the ages of 3 and 59 for the 2015 status of overdependence on smartphones and the internet. “Overdependence” was defined as experiencing withdrawal symptoms due to excessive use of smartphones and failure to perform daily routines. According to the degree of overdependence, the users were classified into the “high-risk group” and “potential-risk group.” The survey found that 2.4 percent of the respondents belonged to the high-risk group and 13.8 percent to the potential- risk group. The same survey in 2011 showed the percentages to be 1.2 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively, doubling in just four years.
Experts give out advice about how people must manage their smartphone addiction and people express their own desire to rectify their daily lives that are excessively smartphone-dependent. This has brought on a spate of bestselling books with “digital fast” or “digital detox” in their titles, youth camps for digital fasting, and smartphone apps which claim to cure smartphone addiction — using a smartphone.
When users’ feeble attempts at digital detox fail — in other words, when they feel deleting SNS (social networking services) and game apps on their phones is not enough — they can resort to tougher measures like using apps for digital fasting. These apps restrict the use of the smartphone for a preset amount of time, and some charge penalties for early termination of the lock.
A mobile program publisher promoted the following features of its application: usage monitoring, addiction index calculator, smartphone control using the timer function, and child protection by prespecifying usage. More interesting ones include an alarm that goes off when a certain app was used for too long and deactivating smartphone alarms or internet connection during certain hours, allowing the user to focus on offline activities. An application claiming more than 1 million downloads counts the number of times the smartphone screen was turned on. It can also track the total usage time of the smartphone as well as by each application.
I found many user reviews posted about the digital fast apps in Google Play Store, which say the users found the apps helpful because they realized how much time they were spending each day on their devices and could identify patterns of addiction. Some wished there were more powerful functions. I find it a bit absurd — why not just keep the smartphone somewhere far away and not look at it instead of using apps to keep one from using apps?

Easier Said than Done
Freeing oneself from digital addiction is easier said than done. A higher-up at my workplace followed my lead and unplugged himself during lunch hours. Although he was tired of being tied to his smartphone, he was not brave enough to trade it for a phone without internet connectivity. Instead, he went cold turkey, albeit only for brief lunch breaks. It did not last long. His phone was poking out of his pocket during lunch several days later.
“Are you serious? You cannot keep your word that long?”
“I used to read the internet news while I was waiting for my order, and it felt strange not being able to do that anymore.”
Ms. Hwang who is in her 30s and working for a PR agency confessed that she was embarrassed she ever said she would go on a digital fast. She traded down her phone to an older model, but switched back to a smartphone in a week because she felt frustrated not being able to use the mobile messenger and the internet.
She said, “I felt free at first, but in three days I felt like I was cut off from the rest of the world. It was frustrating not to be able to use the internet during commuting hours.” She advises against not using the smartphone at all for digital fasting. She added, “I am going to approach it like a diet, not a fast, and try to limit the number of hours I use the smartphone.”

“I felt free at first, but in three days I felt like I was cut off from the rest of the world. It was frustrating not to be able to use the internet during commuting hours … I am going to approach it like a diet, not a fast, and try to limit the number of hours I use the smartphone.”

Friends try a group therapy tactic to break away though briefly from digital addiction, socializing during teatime with all their smartphones piled out of reach on one side of the table.

My Short-lived Bravado
I was free for the four days I was in London. I was not working, so I could afford to leave my phone off (well, I did turn on my phone to text my parents that I was well when I came back to my hotel where there was Wi-fi). I had my wristwatch to tell the time. I felt the trip and the digital fast plan went beautifully. I even wore a thin triumphant smile thinking I had won the fight against the smartphone. It was in Paris that problems emerged.
Before I left Seoul, I had searched the internet and written down places to eat in Paris. However, information in text only had its limitations for a traveler in a new town. My digital fast became a problem when access to real-time information became essential.
I remembered I had a screenshot of the map saved on my phone, and I turned on the “bricked” smartphone to show it to pedestrians to ask for directions. The locals thought they were looking at a Google map and they tried to enlarge it.
“What …?”
“Sorry, this is just an image. I can’t use the internet.”
I was supposed to meet with a Korean tourist staying in the same hotel at a Michelin three-star restaurant. We had decided to tour separately in the morning and meet up for lunch. When I finally arrived at the restaurant, my companion had given up waiting for me, ordered for himself, finished his meal, and was wiping the corner of his lips with a napkin.
“Why were you so late?”
“Why is it so hard to find my way here?”
It was past lunchtime. Hunger pangs had gone. Pain in the legs and annoyance set in. I asked for the menu. The waiter told me they were taking no more orders because it was past 2:00 p.m. What? I checked my watch. It was six minutes past two. Late by a mere six minutes and I was robbed of a chance to eat in a Michelin three-star restaurant. We stepped outside to look for another place and this time I was lucky to find a decent restaurant quickly enough with the help of my companion’s smartphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, soon we will be landing at Incheon International Airport…”
In the middle of the captain’s announcement, I turned on my smartphone. I was happy to see the LTE antenna sign in the corner of the screen. There were many unchecked KakaoTalk messages.
“Now this is life!”
So long, digital fast!

Kim Dong-hwan Reporter, Digital News Desk, The Segye Times
Shim Byung-woo Photographer
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