LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Sharon Sarmiento knew it was time to unplug when she realized she was blogging in her dreams and hearing imaginary instant messages.
For Ariel Meadow Stallings, it was the hours lost while surfing the Internet that left her feeling like she had been in a drunken blackout.
Both women are part of a new grass-roots movement in which tech geeks, Internet addicts, BlackBerry thumbers and compulsive IMers are deciding to wrest back control of their lives by daring to switch off -- if only for a day.
“I think there is some common-sense part of us that says, ‘Wait a second. This has gone too far. We are too plugged-in,’” said Sarmiento, a 30-something virtual business owner and professional blogger in Alabama.
“It’s like our mind is going in a million different directions all the time. So taking a day when you are completely cut off from technology forces you to re-engage with the real world,” she said.
Some call it the “secular Sabbath.” For others it is “unplugged day.” In Quebec, Canada, professional computer developers Denis Bystrov and Ashutosh Rajekar are organizing a global “Shutdown Day” in May.
Stallings, 33, a Seattle author, blogger and part-time marketing manager for Microsoft Corp, made a resolution in January to spend “52 Nights Unplugged” this year.
“I love technology. I’m not a Luddite. But I realized it was a problem when I would sit down to check my email and it was almost like I would wake up six hours later and find I was watching videos of puppies on YouTube.
“I’d try and think what I had been doing for the past two hours and I had no idea. I associate that kind of time loss with blackouts when you’re drunk,” she said.
So Stallings took the plunge, accompanied by twitchy emotional withdrawal symptoms, and turned off her computer, email, cellphone and television on Wednesday nights.
In an ironic twist, she quickly spread the word through her blog (52nightsunplugged.ning.com ), and connected with thousands of people across the world who habitually text while driving, take their laptops to the bathroom, or check e-mail during dinner.
“I thought it was just a problem that affected me and my geeky colleagues. But then I started hearing from Italians with similar issues, and Poles and Czechs, and I even got a query from someone in Colombia.
“So I realize it’s not just an American problem but an international one,” Stallings said.
THOU SHALT UNPLUG
Dr. Dave Greenfield, who runs the Center for Internet Behavior in Connecticut, said most people thought it was a joke when he first started warning about compulsive Internet use in his 1999 book “Virtual Addiction.”
Greenfield said various studies estimate that 1 to 10 percent of the U.S. population uses technology in a way that negatively impacts their lives, relationships, health or jobs.
But he says it’s rare for any kind of addict -- be it to drugs, alcohol, gambling or technology -- to take the kind of initiative seen by the unplugged movement.
“It is very unusual for somebody to present for help without having been dragged there by a parent or loved one, unless they have gotten in trouble with the law or with their job,” he said.
“The collective denial that any culture has around new technology takes a long time to erode,” Greenfield said.
Sarmiento, who writes a blog called eSoup (www.esoupblog.com/), said she has taken up painting again and become involved in volunteer projects since beginning her own "digital day of rest" two months ago.
Now she sometimes unplugs for an entire weekend. “I had to work up to that,” she admits. “It is nice. It feels like you are going on a little retreat. It has opened up more quality of life for me.”
“I have dream blogged. I have surfed the Internet in my dreams sometimes. If I start hearing imaginary incoming message chimes on my computer when I am out in the back yard, it tells me I have spent too much time online,” she said.
Stallings has started dance classes with her husband, meeting with friends for craft nights, and writing letters -- by hand.
She looks forward to when technology catches up to the need to unplug. “There will be phones that let you say you don’t want to hear e-mail after 5 p.m. or on Sundays,” she said.
“A lot of time you have nothing to show for hours spent online but a hunch back and a sore butt.”
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Eddie Evans)