Following reports that Hong Kong residents are some of the most gadget-addicted in the world, the latest wellness trends at Mandarin Oriental spas are about turning off technology
The new-generation detox has nothing to do with cold-pressed juices or kale salads. Rather, it's about disconnecting from technology: unplugging from Facebook, taking time out from emails, and pressing the 'off' switch on your phone – even if only for an hour or two. The statistics lay bare just how hard we find it to power down. Research by Deloitte has shown that the average person checks their phone 46 times a day and a third of us look at our messages in the middle of the night, while a report from communications regulator Ofcom states that we spend 25 hours a week online.
'Things have changed drastically in the last decade,' says Dr Richard Graham, who runs the Technology Addiction programme at the renowned Nightingale Hospital in London. 'The evolution of smartphones – which are, effectively, highly portable personal computers – makes you reachable and connected 24/7, so it becomes increasingly hard to differentiate between being at work or not, or being socially involved or wanting time for yourself.'
Spending such a chunk of our days enveloped in the online world has a multitude of effects, from insomnia and arthritis to eye strain and, reportedly for heavy Internet-users, depression. So it's little surprise that terms such as 'text neck', 'iPosture' and 'cell-phone elbow' are starting to muscle their way from the doctor's waiting room into the popular lexicon.
Terms like ‘Text Neck’ are now part of the lexicon
At its most basic level, being 'plugged in' prevents people from doing other activities that make them healthy and happy. Exercising, reading a book and interacting with loved ones are easily substituted for absentminded scrolling. A recent Ofcom survey found that a third of people sacrificed spending time with friends and family as a result of being online.
All this has led to a pushback. Holidaying in a place without Wi-Fi was once a deal-breaker, but it's fast becoming a selling point. For example, there's a growing market for holiday companies such as Unplugged Weekend and Time to Log Off, who send you off-grid to plush resorts in Hawaii or Italy for a week of yoga, hiking and stargazing. The only rule is that any digital device with a screen is surrendered on arrival.
The Jasmine Suite at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
Holistic health expert Deepak Chopra has gone so far as to label technology as an addictive drug. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal, his advice is to not let it infiltrate all areas of your life: 'Think of your day like a pizza with many slices – one slice is focused work time, another slice is relationship time, another is sleep time, down time, play time, eating time…' He suggests dividing the day into 'compartments' for technology use – half an hour mid-morning, half an hour mid-afternoon and half an hour in the evening.
In an increasingly connected world, it's more important than ever to effectively manage our online lives, warns Dr Graham. 'The number of things that we have to do online, from job applications to banking, is constantly increasing, as we also enter the next phase of augmented and virtual realities.'
The need to balance our digital consumption is behind Mandarin Oriental's new Digital Wellness programme, devised with assistance from the Mayo Clinic. Available at every spa in the Group, it's a 360-degree approach to being more mindful about technology, from the Himalayan salt lamps placed in-room to absorb electromagnetic fields, to targeted massages, mindfulness activities, and simple, smart advice like wearing a watch so you don't constantly check your phone for the time.
At The Spa's check-in, guests are invited to hand in their phone before entering the relaxation room, where there are anxiety-alleviating distractions, such as journaling, colouring and letter writing. For a full immersion, book the Digital Wellness Retreat: 80 minutes of soothing downtime, including an aromatherapy bath, that allows your mind to unwind in preparation for a bespoke massage. This pinpoints the areas of your body where, as a gadget-user, you may hold tension – the hand, wrist, shoulder, neck, temple and eye area.
Disconnect on a Hong Kong Island hiking trail
The aim of the Digital Wellness treatment, says Jeremy McCarthy, Mandarin Oriental's Group Director of Spa and Wellness, is 'to create some awareness of the sacrifices that people may be making for their technology use and to provide strategies to find balance around their digital lives. People are now turning to social media for the comfort and approval that they used to get from their parents or family. As Dr Amit Sood, Chair of the Mayo Clinic's Mind-Body Initiative, told me, “Technology is rewiring our heads and our hearts.”'
McCarthy is based in Hong Kong and admits to finding it hard to switch off, like a good deal of local residents. 'In Hong Kong, people are always wired to their devices, whether commuting on the MTR, walking around, or out with friends in bars and restaurants. We've had guests lying on the massage table, looking down at their phone through the face cradle.'
Hong Kong ranks as one of the most tech-savvy countries in the world. And, according to statistics database Statista, 99 per cent of its Internet-users between the ages of 25 and 44 access the web every day, as do 92 per cent of over-55s. 'Hong Kongers are now used to documenting everything they do in a day,' says Erica Fong, founder of the blog Healthy Hong Kong. 'That includes a spa treatment or facial. There's no real etiquette as to where you can't use your phone. It goes everywhere and that's part of the problem. If I'm having a foot massage I won't stop to relax, I'm usually on my phone the entire time.'
Relax minus technology in the rasul room at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental
Tech entrepreneur Kate Unsworth believes in going cold turkey. Last year, she took a group of 35 CEOs and influencers to the Moroccan desert to allow neuroscientists to observe how they behaved both with and without their gadgets. At the end of the tech-free days, they noted an improvement in body posture, memory, sleep and improved personal connections.
'My first tech detox lasted two weeks. It was a wake-up call for me, as at the time I was connected 16-plus hours per day as a management consultant,' says Unsworth. 'But it made me realise that I'm happiest when surrounded by inspirational people or while being creative, and this was being stifled by my digital habits.'
Unsworth admits that taking two weeks out is, at best, a once-a-year opportunity. But the key to nailing a healthy balance is to incorporate four simple rules into your everyday life: 'Have a tech-free bedroom; don't be a slave to your inbox; go offline all day every Sunday; and turn off your social media notifications. For most people, digital habits are a “keystone habit”. That means, if you can crack this one, the other bad habits in your life (eating too much, not exercising or having enough sleep) will start to correct themselves.'
So what could be a simpler cure? It's time to head to the spa – but remember to check in your phone at the door.