Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Going offline

ANN/THE KOREA HERALD – College student Kang Min-gu got ready for his final exams by securing his cell phone in a special locker known as the ‘Room of Immersion’. This device, also called a ‘smartphone prison’, can only be opened before the set time by breaking it.

Kang, who is studying Korean medicine, intended to set the timer for 60 minutes to stay focused on his studies. However, he accidentally set it for 60 hours and realised his mistake too late.

“I seriously thought about breaking it but decided to just go without the cell phone for 60 hours,” the 25-year-old told The Korea Herald during an interview this week.

“At first, it felt empty and strange, but in the end, it was a blessing,” Kang said, noting that the incident happened when he was already worried about his potential cell phone separation anxiety. Spending nearly three days without it turned out to be an excellent experience.

Lee In-ha, a manager at a book cafe in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, experienced a similar revelation about disconnecting from the internet for a few days. During a trip to Boracay in July last year, she and a friend purchased a limited data service package that only allowed them to use a digital map. “I had plenty of time to think without a cell phone and solved many of my concerns and worries. The trip proved that going without cell phones can be a wonderful thing,” Lee said.

Both Kang and Lee stumbled upon the joy of living without cell phones by accident, underscoring how challenging it has become to detach ourselves from our devices.

The B Lab’s ‘Room of Immersion’. PHOTO: THE B LAB & YOKMANG BOOK CAFE
ABOVE & BELOW: Yokmang Book Cafe’s announcement banning smartphones; and people at the cafe. PHOTO: THE B LAB & YOKMANG BOOK CAFE
People stare at their phones as they ride the Seoul Metro. PHOTO: THE B LAB & YOKMANG BOOK CAFE

According to a 2022 survey by the Ministry of Science and ICT, 23.6 per cent of smartphone users are at risk of excessive dependence on their devices. Another survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that smartphone ownership in South Korea has reached its peak, with 98 per cent of the population reporting they own a smartphone.

Despite our increasing reliance on our phones, taking a break from them for a few hours can have some benefits.

“I don’t want to be just a consumer of endless content; I want to be a creator. To achieve that, one needs to take breaks from digital devices to think and to cultivate their own ideas and inspirations,” Kang said.

Having experienced the benefits of a digital detox firsthand, Kang spends hours without a cell phone, which he says motivates him to write on his blog and think about how to run a book club he leads.

For others, a digital detox can represent a sense of achievement. Kim Ga-hyun, who will be in the second grade of middle school next month, spent the past month reducing her screen time almost by half.

“I’m still worried about falling behind in conversations with my friends and I really want to keep watching videos of Riiz (a K-pop boyband),” Kim said. “But, it does give me a sense of achievement that I finished what I’m supposed to do for the future.”

But, giving up one’s phone, even only for several hours, can come at a cost, as undivided attention has become a precious commodity in the modern world.

Lee, the 25-year-old manager of the Yokmang Book Cafe in Gangnam-gu, saw how difficult it was to keep people’s attention on books, even at a book cafe.

At the cafe, visitors must hand in their cell phones before entering the venue. However, this policy is fairly new introduced in May 2023 and was not a requirement at the cafe when it opened in 2022.

The cafe’s management team assumed that, since it was a ‘book café’, people would go there and read books, instead of looking at their phones.

“More people seem to start by reading books after banning laptops first, but they soon succumb to their smartphones and that’s why we decided to ban smartphones, too,” Lee said.

The book cafe offers the optimal environment for reading books, including book stands, blankets, timers, ear plugs and even vitamins. The cafe also has a curated list of books, in addition to recommendations by the cafe’s founder, who goes by the pen name Jachung.

Jachung has long warned about the harm of the addiction to dopamine stemming from smartphone use. “The brain is messed up thanks to short-form videos. The problem will only become more serious in 10 years,” he emphasised in a YouTube video.


As was the case for Kang and Lee, a digital detox can begin when one realises the joy of life without a smartphone. For those who have no clue where to start, here are some recommendations, other than the strict study cafes targeting students and test-takers.

Doing activities such as exercising and hiking are good ways to start. The temptation to go on your phone can be kept at bay if you store it deep in your bag or somewhere that is difficult to reach.

Going to watch live shows and performances is another way. Tickets for all kinds of shows are often affordable and, if you select a genre with which you are less familiar, you might just discover something you have never experienced before. Movie theaters are not recommended for those wishing to digitally detox, as they involve watching digital content on screen.

Like Lee, travelling abroad with limited data service will allow you to pay attention to the novel surroundings, not to the things on your phone. – Park Ga-young