The 2016 Communications Market Report from Ofcom has shed some fresh light on the latest behavioural trends of UK consumers and how they are connecting with traditional and digital media.
As expected, this latest offering is a comprehensive digest which draws on a range of primary and secondary research looking at – among other things – our TV viewing habits, how we use our mobile phones and how we’re going online.
But it is the section dedicated to digital detoxing which is generating headlines.
Much has been written about the yearning for, and challenge of, spending time away from the digital environment.
Michael Harris’ The End Of Absence is a good read on the subject and I spotted the seemingly less academic How to Unplug guide on a shelf in Debenhams just a couple of days ago.
Even a cursory search online provides a stream of organisations (digitaldetox.org, digitaldetoxing.com, itstimetologoff.com etc.) who offer advice as well as specially disconnected getaways for the digitally addicted.
But to date, little hard data looking at how broad populations are making moves to reintroduce analogue activity time into their increasingly digital lives has been published. So this latest Ofcom data will no doubt please the detox assistants and commentators alike.
A third of UK netizens have taken a digital detox
The key trend among UK internet users is that a sizeable proportion are making a conscious decision to allocate time for offline pursuits in their lives.
More than 30% say they have taken time away from digital at least once in the past year. 11% say they have taken a digital detox as recently as during the past week.
Intriguingly, it’s the UK’s most connected demographic – 16-24 year olds – who are most likely to make moves to spend time offline. More than 50% of internet users in this age group have purposefully disconnected in the past year according to the research.
A third say they’d never want to detox
The flipside of this data is that around a third of UK internet users stubbornly insist that they “would definitely not like to do a digital detox.”
This leaves a further third, a kind of middle-ground of the connected UK population, who appear at least intrigued by the prospect of a period without using their phones, tablets and computers.
Most of these admit they “might like to” give digital detoxing a go, while 10% of UK internet users say they “would like to do a digital detox” but have not yet found the opportunity to take the plunge.
Why consumers are changing their habits
Perhaps some of the more surprising takeaways from the research are the fairly mundane reasons UK internet users are giving for choosing to take time away from the digital world.
The most common reason cited was simply “to spend more time doing other things,” according to 44% of detoxers. 38% said they wanted “to spend more time talking to friends and family.”
Notions of reconnecting with the natural world or trying to live healthier lives were not mentioned, despite digital detox websites being fairly keen to appeal to such desires.
How consumers are detoxing
Precisely how UK consumers are re-injecting offline time into their digital lives will be of particular interest to the aforementioned detox-assisting companies offering holidays and retreats from the over-connected world.
16% of UK internet users say they have chosen to go “on holiday to a destination with no internet access”, while 9% have opted to venture “to a place with no connectivity at all”.
But a vast majority of those detoxing are implementing more everyday strategies.
Setting specific rules which keep certain times free from digital intrusions is the key way to disconnect, with 36% simply forcing themselves to refrain from looking at their phones and/or tablets during mealtimes. One in ten also agree that they consciously regulate how much time they spend online.
Are we benefitting from digital detoxing?
The good news for those planning a detox and those who are trying to promote the need for taking time away from digital is that Ofcom finds UK consumers who have detoxed have a very positive response to such activities.
More than 30% of digital detoxers said they “felt more productive” and/or “got more useful things done.” Nearly 20% “found it liberating.” And around 25% said they “enjoyed life more.”
Such responses will be keenly noted by the detoxing companies promising ways ‘to discover new ways to look at the world, each other and ourselves’ and giving ‘people the permission to pause, reflect and reconnect with what’s most important to them.’ I’m also reminded of the summing up in Harris’ The End Of Absence in which he writes:
“There are no ten steps to living a healthy digital life; there is no totalizing theory, no maxim, with which we can armor ourselves. Nor is digital abstinence the answer, absolute refusal being just another kind of dependence, after all… What do real problems, big problems, call for? Experimentation and play. Ask yourself what might come from all those silences you’ve been filling up. Experiment. Live a little. And remember that fear of absence is the surest sign that absence is direly needed.”
This latest Ofcom data certainly signposts an increasing hunger among the UK population to re-inject some offline time into their online lives.
Negative responses to digital detoxing were visible too, if fewer in number. But ultimately, it is good to see that the means to engage in offline time is within our reach even if we’re seeing digital and connected technology still managing to become increasingly entwined with our lifestyles.
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