Could 'digital detox' cabins be the solution to city burnout?

Could ‘digital detox’ cabins be the solution to city burnout? Mini lodges where guests PAY to have their phones locked up are a hit with tired workers – but experts say ’emotional roller coaster’ stay isn’t always beneficial

  • An increasing number of Britons are opting to take a break from technology
  • One popular solution to city burnout includes luxury retreats which ban phones
  • Unplugged is a British start-up that manages several off-grid cabins near London

A growing number of people are opting to take a temporary break from technology as the pandemic fuels tech fatigue, and an array of products and services have sprung up to meet the demand.

From apps that temporarily lock people out of their devices to restaurants that ban phones at the table, such fixes promise to help boost well-being by letting people reconnect with real life.

One popular solution to city burnout includes luxury retreats where guests pay to have their phones locked away in the hopes they reconnect with nature and enjoy the benefits of doing so.

Unplugged, a British start-up that manages several off-grid cabins near London, opened five new locations this year after launching the first in 2020.

Proving to be a hit with exhausted couples in need of a break, the mini lodges (costing £195 per person) were booked all summer, according to co-founder Hector Hughes. 

One popular solution to city burnout includes luxury retreats (pictured) where guests pay to have their phones locked away in the hopes they reconnect with nature and enjoy the benefits of doing so


Unplugged, a British start-up that manages several off-grid cabins near London, opened five new locations (pictured) this year after launching the first in 2020

 The stay, an hour or so outside of London, sees guests’ phones padlocked into a box for 72 hours (pictured)

‘People really just want a break and I think this is a direct result of lockdown and spending all this time on screens,’ he said.

‘We put cabins an hour from city life. People go and literally padlock their phones in a box. We give them a map and a Nokia and leave them to it for three nights,’ he added.

The dog-friendly cabins – which can comfortably fit two people and a little one – are available for three nights, costing from £195 per person.

They are all within an hour or so of London, run on solar power, and are secluded in picturesque countryside areas – but with pubs and shops still nearby if guests want to venture out. 

The stay, which sees guests’ phones padlocked into a box for 72 hours, includes luxurious bedding, kitchen equipment, shower and toilet, a map of the area, books, cassettes, games and an old-school Nokia, to get in touch with the hosts or to use in emergencies.

Proving to be a hit with exhausted couples in need of a break, the mini lodges were booked all summer, according to co-founder Hector Hughes (pictured with his business partner Ben)

The dog-friendly cabins (pictured) – which can comfortably fit two people and a little one – are available for three nights, costing from £195 per person

All the cabins (pictured) run on solar power and are secluded in picturesque countryside areas – but with pubs and shops still nearby if guests want to venture out

Unplugged’s website explains how the vacation doesn’t include ‘unwarranted emails, pushy push notifications, aimless scrolling or Netflix binges’.

Founders Ben Elliot and Hector created the idea of the cabins following a ‘growing frustration of the inability to switch off’.

Ben was clocking up 14 hours of screen time a day, but soon saw Hector be completely recharged after he spent two weeks at a silent retreat in the Himalayas.

The friends wanted to let ‘busy city folk unplug from their devices and recharge without flying halfway around the globe’.

Even before the pandemic struck, interest in digital detoxing had been growing steadily in recent years, industry experts said.

The stay, which sees guests’ phones padlocked into a box (pictured) for 72 hours, includes luxurious bedding, kitchen equipment, shower and toilet, a map of the area, books, cassettes, games and an old-school Nokia, to get in touch with the hosts or to use in emergencies


Unplugged’s website explains how the vacation at the cabins (pictured) doesn’t include ‘unwarranted emails, pushy push notifications, aimless scrolling or Netflix binges’

A 2018 survey of more than 4,000 people in Britain and the United States by market research firm GWI found one in five had been on a detox, with 70 per cent trying to limit the time they spent online.

Taking a break from tech is often billed as a way to boost overall well-being, helping to fight sleeping disorders, anxiety and depression – but some researchers are sceptical.

The advertised benefits are often linked to other variables rather than mere tech abstinence, said Theodora Sutton, a digital anthropologist who has been researching an off-grid retreat in the United States.

‘People say they feel better after a weekend in the woods, but they have been on holiday enjoying themselves,’ she said.

‘If you just take technology away and don’t replace it with anything else, you are not automatically going to have a better time.’ 


Founders Ben Elliot and Hector created the idea of the cabins (pictured) following a ‘growing frustration of the inability to switch off’

Ben was clocking up 14 hours of screen time a day, but soon saw Hector be completely recharged after he spent two weeks at a silent retreat in the Himalayas. Pictured, inside one of the cabins

Wenjie Cai, a lecturer in tourism and hospitality at the University of Greenwich whose work focuses on digital detox holidays, said the experience was an ’emotional roller-coaster’.

Holiday-goers report higher levels of anxiety when they are separated from their phones at the start of a stay and again at the end, when they prepare to be reunited with them, he said.

A 2019 study by Loughborough University found a 24-hour period of smartphone abstinence had no effect on mood and anxiety.

Participants in a similar study by Oxford University researchers this year did not report improved personal well-being, such as feelings of greater self-esteem or satisfaction, when they quit social media for a day.

Lead author Andrew Przybylski, an experimental psychologist at the Oxford Internet Institute, said the possible mental health impacts of digital technology are often exaggerated.

The friends wanted to let ‘busy city folk unplug from their devices and recharge without flying halfway around the globe’. Pictured, one of the mini lodges 

A 2018 survey of more than 4,000 people in Britain and the United States by market research firm GWI found one in five had been on a detox, with 70 per cent trying to limit the time they spent online. Pictured, one of the cabins

‘It’s very likely nonsense to say that one simple trick like switching off your phone can lead you to live a happier life,’ he said.

Still, using tech occupies time and attention that some might feel could be better used elsewhere.

‘As human beings, we’re always trying to fit together all kinds of things, like being a father, being a husband, being a professor… there’s always a balance that you have to strike,’ said Przybylski.

For some people, a digital detox retreat can be an opportunity to evaluate daily habits and consider whether they need changing, Cai said.

Participants in his research reported engaging more in self-reflection during an out-of-town tech break.

And while most people returned to their previous phone usage after the detox, some resolved to reduce the amount of time they spent using their devices, he said.

‘Many people found there is nothing urgent waiting for them when they turned their phones back on and this gets them to think about how they can actually do away with the device a few hours a day and be more focused on work or leisure,’ he said.

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