My name is Kat Tancock, and I’m a social media addict. I’ve tweeted 29,500 times since I joined Twitter in September 2008. That’s roughly 13 tweets a day, or one tweet every waking hour for the past six years of my life. Add to that well over 1,100 photos on Instagram, seven years of depressingly consistent Facebook use and dalliances with Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Foursquare. I’m a web and social media consultant, so these tools are essential to my job, but I also use them at dinner (as my boyfriend complains), and even now, as I write this article, I can’t get through a paragraph without scanning Twitter for the latest Rob Ford joke.
With the time-honoured denial of an addict, I didn’t think I had a problem. That is, until this spring, when I visited a sensory deprivation spa called Ovarium in Montreal. I entered an egg-shaped pod filled with Epsom salt water, closed the lid and floated weightlessly. Would I emerge, as sensory deprivation research suggests, a deeply relaxed woman with improved blood circulation and better communication between the hemispheres of my brain, leading to enhanced creativity and concentration? Not likely.
The experience was torture. I lasted only 20 of the prescribed 60 minutes before sneaking out to battle my ever-expanding inbox. That’s when I realized I can’t manage a single hour without a steady stream of new information and digital clutter. I craved peace, but once I got it, I wanted to jump out of my skin.
The current comeback of sensory deprivation spas suggests I’m not the only one experiencing this push-pull. The tanks first flourished in the 1980s, when a sudden explosion of TV channels, Walkmans and PCs prompted the same kinds of fears for our mental health and attention spans that we see now in the era of social media. The owner of Spa Ovarium, Bernard Meloche, opened his first location in 1982 based on an instinct that technology would lead people to seek new ways of coping with increased anxiety and overstimulation. Decades later, his facility has been joined by several new float spas, including Float Space in Kelowna, B.C., Floatique in Edmonton and H2O in Toronto. The urge to unplug has spread throughout the zeitgeist, too, with celebs such as Shailene Woodley abstaining from social media (Instagram fosters narcissism, she believes), and the comedian Patton Oswalt leaving behind his 1.77 million Twitter followers and 339,000 Facebook fans for an Internet-free summer, so he can reflect on things instead of feeling pressure to, as he puts it, “have an instant take.”
I don’t use the word addict lightly. I have long wondered if being hyper-connected is melting my brain. Dr. Nancy C. P. Low, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University, tells me it does indeed affect my head’s chemistry: the stimulation provided by new posts and alerts can release dopamine and epinephrine and may trigger a desire for more (similar to the response my brain would have to cocaine). That explains the rush I feel when one of my Instagram photos is instantly “liked” by a dozen friends.
On the plus side, Jesse Hanson, clinical director of Toronto’s Helix Healthcare Group, which provides treatment for addiction, says he’s not worried about our brain chemistry being permanently altered. Neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt to change, means our brains are resilient and can be trained back into healthy patterns (if we change our habits, we can restore long attention spans and deeper focus). The real risk, he says, is avoiding intimate relationships or missing out on real-life experiences due to technology use. When I’m on my deathbed, I think, will I regret curating my Tumblr when I could’ve been hanging out with my friends and family?
I fear the answer may be yes—and so, I decide to detox at a retreat. There’s now a bounty of unplugged options for people like me. Last year, in what could be seen as peak nostalgia fetishism, a U.S. organization called Digital Detox launched Camp Grounded, a four-day, off-grid, device-free grown-up summer camp packed with analog activities, like painting and pickling. Plus, hotels from the Westin Dublin to the Renaissance Pittsburgh offer digital detox packages, the latter including lock-and-key storage of your devices.
I choose Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, two-and-a-half hours outside of Kamloops, B.C., which offers signal-free detox weekends that include communal meals for reconnecting with real humans, and rooms without TVs. The first evening, I’m joined for dinner by a few European couples. We chat, make eye contact and eat without taking a single photo of our food.
The next day, I’m twitchy. Tweets form in my head never to be sent; I’m dying to Instagram the baby goats as they reach for the rose leaves I hold out to them. But after another night’s sleep, I wake up and watch the mountains, listening to the rain, doing nothing. I fill my day with yoga, horseback riding and hiking. Truth is, I’m enjoying being offline. Part of my habit is fulfilling people’s expectation that I’m always available. Those weirdos who check their email just once a day may be on to something.
Before I leave, one of the ranch’s border collies brings me a stick with a plaintive look in his eyes, and I laugh at how anxious he is—and how anxious I’m not. I’m both dreading and looking forward to turning the pipe back on. Like a glass of wine with dinner, it has a place in my life, but I vow to close my laptop more often, set my phone to airplane mode and do the things I know I’ll regret not doing—like Shakespeare in the park, and brunch with besties. My Twitter friends can wait.