Today’s world is a digital one for the vast majority of the population. Work keeps us tied to emails and Slack feeds, and as soon as our day is done, we “unplug” from the real world, retreating into a fake land of travel reels and fashion influencers. From work to social media, the online world consumes enormous amounts of our time, despite the pitfalls to our health. Researchers have been telling us for years that excessive social media can lead to self-esteem issues, increased anxiety, and a slew of other mental health negatives. If you’re feeling an increase in any of these issues, perhaps it’s time for a digital detox.
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Why We Might Need a Digital Detox
A digital detox is just what it sounds like—unplugging from digital devices for a short period of time to allow your brain to reset. It’s a chance to spend quality time with loved ones, reconnect with nature, and get some rest from the constant influx of (usually negative) information. While hyper-connectivity certainly keeps us more connected and informed in some ways, it has also been shown to decrease productivity and focused action due to the constant barrage of extra information that pops up on our screens throughout the day.
According to the digital marketing researchers at Neilson, the average American adult spends more than 11 hours a day interacting with media of some sort. This last report was conducted in 2018, before the pandemic! The lockdown drastically increased the screen time of most Americans, so the numbers are likely far higher than this now. That is almost half your day, and during several hours of the second half, you’re sleeping. When do we have time for family? How do we get fresh air? When do we exercise, stretch, and think on our own, without the influence of a feed?
Who Needs a Digital Detox
Multiple research studies show that overuse of digital media has contributed to weight gain, increased anxiety, low self-esteem, a decline in healthy sleep patterns, a decline in work ethics, and a decrease in proper time management in the general population. While interacting in stimulating conversation online can have benefits, most social media use is geared towards passive scrolling, which actually has the opposite effect. It can cause information overload and apathy. Recent research studies in the Journal of Biomedical Biotechnology and Scientific Reports show that each comment, like, and follow caused a hit of dopamine equal to that of a gambling or drug addiction. This repeated dopamine blast has now been officially linked to a decrease in dopamine receptor response and a significant change in the gray matter volumes in the brain. Technology addiction is a real thing, and it’s actively affecting our physical brains.
While we can all benefit from some time away from the screen, research shows that it’s far more important in young adults. It is well-known that the human brain does not fully mature until the mid-twenties. The thinking patterns of young adults are highly influenced by incoming information and can be easily overwhelmed. This is also the time of life when the most important relationships are formulated. Young adults need traditional social interactions. They also need to engage in stimulating conversation and spend quiet time cementing their own personalities. To survive the negative effects of social networking, young people need to have a strong sense of who they are, what they stand for, and what they will not subscribe to. Determining those values and barriers takes thought time outside of social media influence.
Digital Detox and Health
A social media detox is really a form of self-care. Unplugging, even for a short amount of time, can have drastic benefits on your physical health and mental well-being. Let’s take a look at the research.
Physical Health Effects of Technology Use
If you work from your computer, you know personally (as I do) that a digital life leads to a sedentary life if you don’t make a conscious effort to avoid it. Sitting for hours a day leads to increased circulation and blood pressure issues, weight gain, and eye strain. We’ve already discussed the negative effects of constant connectivity on the brain, but it seems pretty much every area of our body experiences some level of atrophy from a sedentary life.
According to researchers at the American College of Cardiology, students who had more than five hours a day of smartphone use suffered a 43% increased risk of obesity. They were also twice as likely to consume unhealthy food and sugary drinks while mindlessly scrolling. All of these aspects lead to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.
The Physical Benefits of Digital Detox
Taking a digital detox to enjoy some physical activity has a significant effect on physical health. Eliminating blue light in the hours before sleep leads to deeper and more regenerative sleep. Spending time in nature, feet in the dirt, allows for the natural detox of toxins and absorption of essential minerals. Sunshine is essential for vitamin D absorption, which is a key component in bone, gut, and immune system regulation. Go outside today!
Mental and Emotional Effects of Technology Use
It’s no surprise to any social media consumer that increased time on platforms can lead to a feeling of general anxiety, increased FOMO, self-esteem hits, and the act of comparing yourself to others. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between increased time on social media platforms and decreased satisfaction with real life. Absorbing oneself in a highly cultivated and mostly fake digital world can cause us to become dissatisfied with real life, which seemingly pales in comparison. Surprisingly, all this “connectivity” actually causes deep-seated feelings of depression and loneliness according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
The Mental Benefits of Digital Detox
Stepping away from mobile devices for a small amount of time and filling that time with mindful practices can help us reset. Prayer or meditation, taking a quiet walk, going for a swim, or even taking a nap allows our brain to relax and focus on hormone regulation and healing. Spending quality time with family and friends helps to reinforce important social values, sharpen interpersonal skills, and produce genuine life satisfaction.
How to Do a Digital Detox
The need for a digital detox is a no-brainer for most of us. The research is abundant and conclusive. The health benefits—mentally, socially, and physically— are immense, but how do we make it happen? Expecting teens or young adults to go without their cell phones for days or even hours is unlikely to go over well. Also, if your idea of a digital detox is just to use willpower to put down your phone, you’ll find yourself bored and fail pretty quickly. You need a plan to replace your scrolling time.
While a full day of detox may be necessary every once in a while (especially if you’re feeling the mental health issues associated with overuse), for most days, you can just institute a few small changes to break up the monotony. For a digital detox to be effective, you must be realistic with your boundaries and start small. Here are a few tech-free changes you can incorporate into your day to decrease the effects of technology overuse.
1. Turn notifications off.
If all of your apps have push notifications on, you’re being constantly bombarded with mostly useless distractions. Turn off notifications for social media and news apps. Then, you can restrict use to your designated social media time.
2. Set your mobile devices to “do not disturb.”
When you’re working or when you go to sleep, set your device to “do not disturb.” You may also choose to do this for scheduled hours during the day. You’ll be surprised by how immersed you get with other things when your phone isn’t constantly dinging. At night, this is a must. Remember, you are not paid to work 24 hours a day (unless you’re on call). Mute that Slack feed. Turn off the email notifications. Enjoy your “do not disturb” time.
3. Restrict phone use before bed.
We’ve discussed the physical health issues of phone use before bed. Instead of scrolling your phone, which results in dysfunctional melatonin regulation, take a warm shower in the dark instead. A low-light shower helps calm your brain and prepare you for deep sleep.
4. Lock up your devices.
When you’re having your tech-free hour, put your phone and laptop out of sight. If you have to, lock them in the safe for a while. It’s one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind kind of things.
5. Delete social media apps that don’t serve you.
If you find that a certain app tends to result in frustration, decreased self-esteem, or a feeling of being overwhelmed, delete that app. Focus your decreased social media time on the apps and people that make you feel challenged, encouraged, and fulfilled.
6. Go out without your cell phone.
Take a walk with your dog or your spouse, and leave the phone behind… that means the smartwatch, too. Small outings without your phone will not result in disaster. It will allow you to focus on the person you’re walking with, have some time to think, and notice new things about your environment that you usually miss.
7. Don’t sleep with your phone.
For most of the world’s citizens, our cell phones are the last thing we look at before bed and the first thing we pick up in the morning. Changing this small habit can make a huge difference in your day. When it’s time for bed, put your cell phone on the charger in the kitchen. Wake up to a traditional alarm clock, and spend those waking moments in thought, stretching or cuddling with your partner instead of mindless scrolling.
8. Plan tech-free activities with friends or family.
Having a plan is what keeps you from unconsciously picking up the phone. Call your besties, and plan a few activities each week that are tech-free. Meet up for coffee. Play some lawn games. Plan a card game or board game night. Having your loved ones on board with the detox plan makes you far more likely to succeed.
9. Institute mindful practices.
Putting down the phone isn’t enough. We need to fill that void with something purposeful. Schedule time each day on your calendar, and set a notification to put the phone away and do something mentally challenging. Work on a crossword puzzle. Play a game of sudoku. Spend a few minutes in prayer or meditation. Do some yoga or stretching. You have plenty of time! Remember, you’re likely currently wasting hours a day on technology.
10. Pick one type of digital detox.
There are many types of digital detox. You can choose one day a week each week to limit your tech use, like Phone-free Friday. You could also do a digital fast. This involves giving up all technology for a short period of time. It could be daily or weekly. Do what works for you. Some mindful tech users like to do an app-specific detox. This means you go an entire day or week without looking at a specific app that tends to suck your time. Remember, you don’t have to do it all. Baby steps!
11. Schedule time away from technology.
It might sound counterintuitive to set an alarm on your phone to put away your phone, but it works. Whether you do it daily at the same time or make a new schedule each day, put in time for tech-free interactions. Put it on the calendar, and keep your appointments.
12. Set limits on screen time.
Both iPhone and Android users have the ability to set screen time limits through phone settings. Limit your time. When it’s up, go do something else.
13. Create no-phone zones.
We love the idea of no-phone zones in the house. My mother’s no-phone zone was the kitchen table. When you were at the table, there were no phones, toys, or distractions allowed. That was the time for family conversation. Your no-phone zone may be the couch, your bed, or the porch. Wherever your family tends to gather together, make that space a no-phone zone.
14. Get loved ones on board.
Having an accountability partner is a tried and true way to succeed with a goal. If you’re planning on doing a digital detox, tell a friend or two. Detail your plan to them, and ask them to help keep you accountable. You may find that your trend spreads throughout your social circle, having a positive impact on not just you but your loved ones, as well.
15. Incorporate healthy tech use.
Like any area of research, you can find articles that debunk the benefits of digital detox. Like any fast, you will rebound and return to normal after the fast is done. While there are certainly benefits to momentarily stepping away from technology altogether, what the research does universally show is that using technology in a mindful and self-serving way is more effective.
Focus your social media use on genuine connectivity. Engage in stimulating online conversation and educational material instead of mindlessly scrolling. Scrutizine your online world. Really take a look at the time you spend, where you spend it, and what gives you joy. If it doesn’t serve you, get rid of it, and focus your efforts on the people and online communities that challenge and better you as a person.
The digital world has become such a large part of our daily lives that we often don’t even consider its negative impact. In an effort to be healthy, whole, and satisfied human beings, we need to make conscious efforts to spend time in real life. That may require a digital detox from time to time. Be open to putting down the phone. You may find that you not only feel happier and healthier but that the time you spend online is actually more productive when you’re not constantly connected.
If you’re going to be spending less time online and more time with friends, you’ll need some conversation fodder. Check out this ultimate list of “130+ Deep Questions to Get To Know Friends Better.”
If you want to spend your new-found time bonding with your boo, check out these “Quick Date Ideas for Couples High on Love but Low on Time.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Social media isn’t inherently bad for you. But multiple research studies show that mindless scrolling has a negative effect on mental health, like increased FOMO and decreased life satisfaction.