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
“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
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,
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
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
“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
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.
“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!