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Science

Contemplating digital fasting: How much Internet is too much?

A new book published this summer in Germany describes the merits of staying offline, detailing what scientists are only now beginning to understand from a neurophysiological perspective.

Christoph Koch

Koch's "So I'm going offline" was released in late July

In recent months, American scientists have been arguing for what some in the technology community have already observed on their own: voluntary digital fasting.

According to new research published late last month in The New York Times, scientists from the University of California, San Francisco have shown that rats, after having just learned a new experience like exploring a maze, need time to recuperate afterwards in order to create persistent memory. Likewise, researchers argue, people who are overly consumed with digital devices to check email, play games, or update their Twitter accounts, may not be allowing themselves to learn as well as they might otherwise.

This school of thought has percolated across the Atlantic, where new German books have recently been published on the subjective experience of staying offline for an extended period of time.

One, in German is called "Ich bin dann mal offline," or simply: "So I'm going offline."

In the book, Christoph Koch, a journalist who writes for GQ magazine and the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, described his experience of staying off the Internet and his mobile phone for an entire month.

"I am not a critic or an Internet skeptic," he said. "I have used all technology quite extensively. I have my own blog, I'm on Twitter, I'm on Facebook. I happily email people back and forth."

The cover of the book Ich bin dann mal offline

Koch stayed offline for a month

Withdrawl symptoms

But Koch started to worry about how addicted he really was when one day his Internet stopped working and he started observing withdrawal symptoms.

"The first two days I had headaches, I wasn't relaxed at all," he said. "I was nervous, and also bored. Because, of course a very big part of my day, which had previously been taken up by email, by Google, and being online, had disappeared suddenly."

Corporate studies have shown that over half of Germans check business emails while on holiday. Also, more and more people are in fact, working after-hours at home, beyond the daily flood of email that they receive at work.

But Koch wanted to prove that he could actually stay offline for more than just a few hours, or even days.

But not everyone is convinced that digital fasting is a real trend, in Germany or elsewhere.

"I don't think this is a trend at all," said Stefan Mohr, the head of Jung von Matt, a digital marketing advertising agency in Hamburg. "I think this 'slowing down' is just a counter-trend so that more books can be written and then sold. I don't believe this is a real trend."

He added that computers and mobile phones aren't doing anything substantially different than what televisions and stereo systems did for home relations decades ago – they still provide a distraction.

"I am part of the television generation, and when there was no computer, for me it's totally normal to turn on the TV in the evening," he said. "So now I just have my computer on my lap, my phone on, and I talk to my wife."

But Koch also noted that after his month offline, he's found time for quiet contemplation.

"It was an interesting feeling, more than just being alone, also because I was sort of cut off from the other people," he added. "And that was at first, a feeling of loneliness, but then that changed. It's up to me as what to make of my time. It was up to me to make appointments to see people rather than complain that no one emails me or sends me an SMS."

An ethernet network cable lies unplugged on a desk

Now Koch unplugs from the Internet every Saturday

Unplugging every Saturday

Now that the experiment is over, Koch stays offline every Saturday.

But spending Sundays offline? No way.

"With me it's more that I think the Sunday is a bit dull and a dreary day when nothing happens," he said. "So I'm happy if I can be a little distracted through the Internet."

But on the other hand, Stefan Mohr isn't worried about pulling his digital plug just yet. He remains convinced that the now is the time for people to learn how to deal with digital media, and figure out their own balance, which will be different for each person. And he's happy with the balance that he has.

"I don't think you need any special skills to do something like this," he said. "This is sort of an evolutionary movement that is taking place. The more you do with technology, the more you know about it and the more you can figure out what level is right for you."

Now that Christoph Koch is back online, he reflects about his time online more critically than he did before.

In fact, he says that people can spend their free time online doing something constructive – like contributing to Wikipedia – rather than simply watching TV.

But then again, he's also back on Twitter, posting a few times each day.

Author: Dirk Schneider (cjf)
Editor: Stuart Tiffen

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