‘I went offline and spent 6 weeks trekking in the wilderness’

New evidence every day tells us that the time we spend on our phones is not only interfering with our sleep, attention spans, memory and productivity, but it is also affecting our relationships, self-esteem, creativity and decision-making skills. By raising levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, research shows that the increasing amount of time we spend on our phones could be threatening our long-term health – so what happens if we actually put a halt to the spiralling effects of our social media use and completely, totally log off?

After a dizzying 12 months of living in the bustling and beautiful city of Sydney this last year, I packed up my belongings, sold my furniture and bought a one-way ticket to Nepal.

A long time ambition of mine, I planned to hike in some of the highest mountains in the world, testing myself physically and mentally by ascending to altitudes of over 5000m, hiking 20km or more every day for six weeks and living out of a backpack, taking with me only what I could physically carry. While I could have no idea exactly what the trip had in store for me, what I was well aware of is that I would be visiting remote regions, hillside hamlets and mountain settlements where WiFi simply wouldn’t reach and phone signal would be sparse.

Before setting off on the trip, I made the decision to embrace the situation – and my travel experience – fully, by completely logging off and staying away from my phone and social media – even if some of the places I would be staying in had an internet connection.

I told friends, family, and work colleagues of my plan, not for any kind of kudos but mainly to explain my silence ahead of time in case anyone wondered why I had left Australia and then seemingly dropped off the face of the earth.

That may sound a little dramatic, but when our phones have become such a normalised and ingrained part of daily life, you do genuinely notice when a friend or someone you follow goes completely quiet online and can’t help but wonder why.

How many times have you woken up in the morning and reached for your phone as soon as you have blinked your way into a new day? Or perhaps a more pertinent question would be, how many times have you woken up, gotten out of bed, and started your day without checking your phone, reading texts and emails, or scrolling through social media?

We’re all guilty of it on an almost daily basis and you don’t realise how habitual your phone and social media use is until it’s taken away. According to the Pew Research Center, 46 per cent of people say they ‘couldn’t live without’ their phone, and further research has shown that those of us that own smartphones interact with them an incredible 85 times every single day – from first thing in the morning to even checking them during the night.

While my first week or so travelling in Nepal passed in a blur of new experiences, a sensory overload of ‘firsts’ that meant I barely thought of my phone, once I had set out on the trekking trail and had days on end to myself, just walking, I began to notice a change.

After a day’s hiking through the remote and rugged hills of the Manaslu region in Nepal, I would collapse, tired but content onto my bed in a tea house where we were staying overnight. With two hours to kill before the daily dinner time Dal Bhat (a quintessential Nepalese dish which is essentially veg curry with rice, dhal soup and pickle – and also delicious) I found myself reaching over to the table next to the bed, grabbing my phone, unlocking it and opening WhatsApp.

No new messages. No new activity at all in fact as I hadn’t had signal or WiFi since leaving Kathmandu.

Lying there, looking up at the quiet, inactive phone, I realised I had literally nothing to do on it other than plug my headphones in and listen to some music, a podcast or an audio book.

Insanely, in the days that followed, I started to find myself wondering about inane things like, had Meghan Markle and Prince Harry had their baby by now? I wonder if it’s a boy or a girl? I wonder what name they decided on… It’s not that I am a particular royal family obsessive or essentially interested in the hidden meaning behind Meg’s potentially unconventional title for her firstborn (big fan of the name Archie though, well done Meg) but it’s more that after being pummelled with an overwhelming amount of information day in, day out, via social media and the internet – some that you actually want to know, most that you do not – I think I was experiencing what I can only describe as withdrawal symptoms from my previously unknown online info addiction.

I have often found that the best place to process emotions and make new plans for the future is out in nature, away from my phone and other digital distractions. Whether that be hiking or out on the ocean surfing, being alone with my thoughts has never particularly scared me and I’ve always welcomed the active digital detoxes.

But this time was different.

As cliche as it may sound, instead of knowing I was only a matter of hours away from reconnecting with the digital world, I was potentially weeks away from having WiFiagain, faced with the only option, which was to reconnect with myself first. Social media can serve as a glossy highlight reel of not only our own lives but the lives of other people too. Platforms created to share ‘the best bits’, it’s only human to compare and contrast our journeys to the lives of others – or the lives they want us to think they are leading.

Even if you are a savvy and realistic individual that has heard this all before and self-aware of your phone use, there’s no way that constantly scrolling through the edited highlights of other people’s lives without a conscious break isn’t going to slowly grind you down and affect you. Results from two experiments published in the University of Chicago Press Journals show that even people who are good at avoiding the temptation to check their phones are affected negatively by their smartphones, as “the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity.” Yikes.

What I found, taking time away from the sometimes overwhelming and all-consuming pull of social media scrolling and the glare of my phone screen is that I had much more time, not just to do other, much more important or practical things, but also to think and to reflect and to process.

It sounds so simple, but the world seems so much bigger when you’re not spending time looking at just small parts of it through a tiny touchscreen. I also became much more detached from my phone in general, something which despite the perhaps tardy and apologetic responses to friends and family on messenger, is no bad thing – especially considering the negative effects research shows our phones are having on our health.

I found myself leaving my phone in my room or in my bag, no longer carrying it around in my pocket or in my hand, a digital extension of my physical being that I had before gripped onto like a necessary lifeline.

Now back down from the surreal and otherworldly environment of the Nepalese mountains, I can’t claim to be a complete convert to a life totally devoid of social media and my phone, but my online habits have certainly changed. I no longer have the Facebook app on my phone, only logging on occasionally on my laptop to check-in on event invites or big group messages, and I haven’t posted on Instagram in some time, only occasionally scrolling through the feed of perfectly curated and beautifully edited photos of friends or interesting accounts that I follow to like the content they have carefully selected to post and share with the world.

It’s hard to say if my overwhelming happiness and sense of contentment during the trip was down in any part to logging off for a while, or whether it was purely down to the travel experience itself. But what I can say is that switching off from the digital world allowed me to live more fully in the real one, and this is an exercise of ‘living in the moment’ that I would recommend to anyone.