Home World NewsKorea [Weekender] Discover the joys of life without a smartphone

[Weekender] Discover the joys of life without a smartphone

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People stare at their phones as they ride the Seoul Metro on March 21, 2023. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

People stare at their phones as they ride the Seoul Metro on March 21, 2023. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

In December, college student Kang Min-gu was preparing for his final exams when he decided to put his cell phone in a special type of locker called the “Room of Immersion.” Once items are placed in the cylinder, also called a “smartphone prison,” and a timer is set, it can only be opened before the time is up by breaking it.

Kang, who majors in Korean medicine, meant to set a timer for 60 minutes so he could focus on his studies. But when he realized he had accidentally set the timer to 60 hours, it was already too late.

The B Lab's

The B Lab’s “Room of Immersion” (The B lab)

“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, adding, “The accident happened at a time when I was already worried about whether I had separation anxiety with my cell phone, and spending almost three days without it was such a great experience.”

Lee In-ha, a manager of a book cafe in Gangnam-gu, southern Seoul, also had a similar epiphany about being disconnected from the internet for a few days.

When she made a trip to Boracay in July last year, she and her friend purchased a minimum 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 added.

Both Kang and Lee stumbled upon the joy of living without cell phones unexpectedly, and their experiences reveal how it is becoming more and more difficult to separate ourselves from our phones.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Science and ICT in 2022, a total of 23.6 percent of smartphone users are at risk of excessively relying on their devices, and another survey by the Pew Research Center showed rates of smartphone ownership have hit their highest in South Korea, where 98% report owning a smartphone.

However, despite our growing reliance on our phones, leaving them behind for a few hours may 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.

People read books at Yokmang Book Cafe. (Yokmang Book Cafe)

People read books at Yokmang Book Cafe. (Yokmang Book Cafe)

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 cafe,” 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 emphasized in a YouTube video.

Yokmang Book Cafe's announcement that it bans smartphones. (Park Ga-young/The Korea Herald)

Yokmang Book Cafe’s announcement that it bans smartphones. (Park Ga-young/The Korea Herald)

Digital detox recommendations

As was the case for Kang and Lee, a digital detox can begin when one realizes 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.

Going to a public bathhouse is another way to force you away from your phone. Some people wrap their phones in transparent plastic bags to watch videos while they relax in the saunas, but take the opportunity to store your phone in a locker and enjoy the quiet and relaxing atmosphere instead.

Exhibitions that do not allow digital devices are another option, one example of which is “Dialogue in the Dark.” It is a unique experience involving walking in pitch darkness and feeling different objects. The exhibition lasts 100 minutes, giving you a substantial break from your device.

Like Lee, traveling abroad with limited data service will allow you to pay attention to the novel surroundings, not to the things on your phone.

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