Since returning from Camp Grounded, Anastasia Savvina sees the world differently. “On the bus, everyone stares at their cell phones,” she says. “People don’t look each other in the eye anymore. And I, who only have an old phone without any connection, I look at them.”
Camp Grounded is a retreat for those who want to unplug. Three days in the California Redwoods — no screen, no phone, no Wi-Fi. The only link between the participants and the rest of the world is an emergency phone number. Anastasia, 27, works for an insurance company in Los Angeles. She attended the camp last summer and is already registered for next summer, for around $500. “It was magical,” she says.
The camp was founded by 28-year-old Levi Felix. Not long ago, when he headed a start-up in California, he was living in the heart of the tech bubble. “I lived and breathed computer screens, seven days a week. In my house, I kept an iPhone and a BlackBerry under my pillow.” Stuck in this virtual whirl, he finally let out a cry for mercy. In 2009, the young man left it all behind and traveled. It was in Thailand, in a guest house that belonged to a Swiss couple, that he managed to truly disconnect. “You swim, you eat, you relax, you look at the landscape. No photos, no emails, nothing. You savor the moment.” Back in the U.S., along with his girlfriend and brother, he parlayed this “digital detox” concept into a business.
Disconnect to reconnect
The idea is not simply to wean the technophiles. During the whole stay, the 200 to 300 participants — who must relinquish their watches for the duration of the stay — are forbidden to say their name, age and occupation. “We were ourselves, with no social status, no prejudgment,” Anastasia says. “People talked about their childhoods, their passions, their fears, intimate things that you normally share only with friends. We were all vulnerable, and that truly made us respect each other.” Felix says that while we don’t realize it, everything we share on Facebook or Instagram is a way to sell a character to other people. “What is left without these props?”
As a getaway for wealthy overgrown kids, the retreat, in addition to offering local, organic food cooked by a chef, provides myriad activities for participants: yoga, improvisation, archery, bread-making … and, finally, a retro 1980s-themed farewell party. “I was first drawn by the summer camp aspect of it all,” Anastasia explains. “When I was a child in Russia, our family used to vacation at a cabin in the woods for three months. Coming to the Redwoods is a way to go back to my childhood.”
Of course, there is some disbelief among the friends and family of these two-day retreat participants. “Many colleagues and friends of mine thought I was joining a cult, a hippy thing where people would try to cut me off from civilization. They were either worried or skeptical,” Anastasia says.
Adults leaving their normal lives to have fun in the forest? This makes some cynics snigger. “We don’t force anyone to join us,” Felix retorts. “Even on holiday, most people are unable to refrain from checking their emails or reading the news on their tablets. Resisting the temptation is difficult. We provide some freedom.” He explains that the retreat is not about excluding technology completely “but about putting things into perspective.”
In any case, there is obviously demand for what Felix offers. Last August, he had to turn away 2,000 would-be participants because enrollment was full. Digital Detox and similar companies such as Restart provide company retreats, phoneless parties or “off” seminaries. Across the U.S. and the world, many feel the need to disconnect. Hotels now offer stays with no Internet access for those who want to be free from interruption.
True addiction is rare
Dr. Larry Rosen, a psychologist specializing in information and communication technologies at California State University, says “digital detox” is not effective in the long term. “The term ‘detoxification’ itself is misleading, in the sense that it is not an addiction, but an obsession or a compulsion,” says Rosen, who is also the author of iDisorder. “Plus, an addiction does imply the notion of pleasure, which isn’t the case here.” He advocates simply placing limits and boundaries to create a healthy relationship with technology.
Christine Davidson, a Swiss psychiatrist and advisor to the International CyberSpace Addiction Organization (ICSAO) who studies Internet-related addictions, shares this opinion. “We rarely see people who are only addicted to their smartphones,” she says. “It generally includes an addiction to the web and to work — or very socially isolated people.”
In complex cases, the brain needs three months so that its neurotransmitters can truly rest. “Ideally, those who present problematic symptoms should be able to disconnect completely.”
The concept of disconnecting is expected to expand in the U.S. and places such as Switzerland, which is a hyper-connected country. According to a study last year by the Swiss consumer organization Comparis, 48% of residents there have a smartphone with access to the Internet, up from just 3% in 2007.
For his part, Felix has established some rules for his technology use. Once a week, he gives himself a “technological Sabbath.” Anastasia, meanwhile, has decided not to buy a smartphone. “I wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of going on the Internet,” she says. But she has nevertheless managed to keep in touch with the people she met at the camp. “Actually, we have a group. On Facebook.”