Bombarded by bad news during the pandemic, 25-year-old Aykhan Aghayusifli decided to unplug.
Aykhan, a resident of the Azerbaijani capital Baku, did more than just a digital detox, however. He left the city and disconnected from his entire life.
“Before the lockdown, I would go to a pub…I would drink my beer quietly, sitting far away from everyone else. Sometimes I would meet with my friends. The quarantine brought some restrictions into my life like everyone else. But I could get rid of all those restrictions by traveling to the countryside.”
Aykhan, who is self-employed, started camping alone about a decade ago. His first night in nature was a disaster. “But the next day the weather was beautiful and I had a wonderful day. I later realized that it was better to be alone and that my brain was at rest. After that, I often went somewhere alone, and began to go to the regions, mountains and forests,” he says.
Since the pandemic started, he has found himself leaving the city and civilization more frequently. Often he stays in the wilderness for weeks at a time.
"While in woods and mountains, I stay away from all kinds of necessary and unnecessary information. Sometimes it's much more interesting to play a musical instrument at the campfire than to read the news that would upset me,” he says.
Statistically, Aykhan is a minority in Azerbaijan. Like most nations, Azerbaijanis have increasingly turned to social media and other online platforms for news and community since the pandemic started in 2020.
Data Reportal, an online data portal about internet use, found that the number of internet users increased by 2.5 percent from January 2020 to January 2021. The number of social media users increased by 16 percent during the same period.
Social media expert Elchin Taghiyev says the pandemic and the war led to Azerbaijanis spending more time on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
He noted that while social media and digital detoxes are still rare—and there is little data on the trend—the increased interest in camping and hiking tours could indicate that is changing.
"I think it is because of the desire of people to get offline. But it is not a conscious step like a "digital detox,” he underscores. “People simply realize that they spend a lot of time on the internet and they need to rest on the weekends. But these are not huge numbers.”
Aykhan says that while people react differently when they see him alone in the woods, overall they have grown more accepting of the idea. Even his friends thought he was being irresponsible in the beginning. A few even offered to drive him when he decided to ride his bike from Baku to Ismayilli district, about 173 kilometers away.
He recalls that initially, people who came across him in the woods would usually ask him “what the hell” he thought he was doing out there alone. But that is less common now.
"Some people really want to do it, but they don't have either enough time or courage,” he says. “The main thing is not what others think, but what you think about it. Whether you enjoy it or not, whether you are happy or not. ”
Sociologist Sanubar Heydarova underscores that the concept of a digital detox is still foreign for most Azerbaijanis, although people are already exhibiting signs of digital dependency.
"In recent years, centers have been opening around the world for people suffering from digital dependency,” she notes. “Although the technology was created for the sake of developing science, it has revealed how prone people are to addiction.”
She underscores, however, that a full detox away from computers or social media is not necessary. Instead, she recommends finding ways to meet up with friends in person and learning how to manage free time.
“This way, we can enjoy more the place where we are and the people that surround us,” sociologist Sanubar Heydarova notes, adding that erasing social media accounts is a lot less effective than determining how much time you spend online and adjusting it accordingly.
“That is one of the best ways to detox. Digital dependency statistics show teenagers are more prone to [online addictions]. The older generation has their own commitments and they have to deal with them.”
For Aykhan, a mixture of selective social media use and totally unplugging have been the best fit.
For example, he earns part of his income from a FB-based plant store. He also spends plenty of time online and on social media when he is in the city, sometimes checking his phone several times a day.
But once he leaves Baku, Aykhan does not miss the constant pull of the internet.
“Being in nature is different from life in the city. I'm not bored when I am alone. I really enjoy it,” he says.
Published with the support of COBERM, a joint initiative of the European Union (EU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the organization Chai Khana and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of either the EU or UNDP.