Life during the most connected era in human history has many positives – communicating with faraway family members, and the answer to nearly any question that pops into your mind are just two good reasons. But too much technology, whether it’s time spent on smartphones, social media, or in front of other digital screens can have unintended consequences that may signal the need for a digital detox.
“Excessive technology use can take away time from activities such as sleep, exercise, and socialising, which are all important for wellbeing,” says Carol Vidal, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
A research review noted that frequent technology use has been linked to heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep in some cases.
Technology is not inherently bad, says Madeleine George, PhD, a public health research analyst at RTI International, a non-profit research institute, in Durham, North Carolina. “Technology and social media can have positive or negative effects, depending on what someone is doing online and who they are.”
Other research suggests that social media use can help you build and maintain connections when you’re more actively interacting with others, but tends to have the opposite effect when people use it more passively, such as when scrolling through an Instagram or Facebook feed without interacting with the content, according to research.
You’ll know you’re overdoing it and may need a digital detox if technology interferes with your work, relationships, mental and physical health, or finances, according to Brittany Becker, a licensed mental health counsellor based in New York City and the director of the Dorm, a holistic treatment centre for mental health.
Dr. Vidal agrees. “When something is consuming a lot of your thoughts and conditioning your behaviour, and when it is interfering with your life – like your job or schoolwork or your relationships – it may be time to consider cutting back on its use,” Vidal says.
A study from 2021 found that students who completed a social media detox reported positive changes to their mood, sleep, and anxiety. And another study found that women who quit Instagram reported higher life satisfaction and more positive effects than women who continued using the social media app. (It should be noted that both studies were small, with 68 and 80 participants, respectively.)
7 WAYS TO DO A DIGITAL DETOX
For most people, ditching technology altogether isn’t going to happen. “Cutting down seems like a more realistic approach,” Vidal says.
To do this, make a plan, Becker says. Pinpoint your unhealthy habits and then decide which ones you want to change. “I think it is really helpful to get a clear picture of your tech use and review the time spent on your phone,” Becker says. “How that time is divided up with different applications is a great place to start, and then you can identify which areas to begin to limit.”
Dr. George suggests cutting back on anything that makes you feel worse or stressed, or that takes you away from your life rather than adding to it. And remember, what constitutes healthy technology use varies from person to person. “There’s no magic amount of screen time that is good or bad,” George says. “You have to find out what works for you and your family.”
Here are seven strategies to help you manage your technology use and experiment with your own personal digital detox.
1. Schedule Time Away From Screens Throughout the Day
If you work at a computer, it’s hard to avoid screens, which means it’s all the more important to prioritise breaking away. Set up time in your calendar or with an alarm on your phone to remind you to go for a walk or to eat lunch away from your desk, Becker says. And remember to leave your phone behind.
2. Take Periodic Breaks From Technology
Breaks can reduce stress, particularly among heavy users, Vidal says. She says more research is needed on digital abstinence before there can be specific recommendations on what this looks like, and how long it should last, but it could mean joining others who are committed to disconnecting, or deleting problematic apps from your phone, temporarily or for good.
“If the Facebook app is something that you click on often and find yourself scrolling through for long periods of time, getting rid of the app and having to go through the search browser takes an extra step and allows for a moment to pause and decide if it is a good time to engage in this activity,” Becker says.
3. Downgrade Your Phone
If you’re having trouble staying present, eliminate the distractions by replacing your smartphone with a simple cell phone that cannot support apps.
“It can absolutely be helpful to downgrade from a smartphone if that is possible,” says Jennifer Kelman, LCSW, a social worker based in Boca Raton, Florida. In fact, this is what she uses with her own children. “They have simple call or text features and that’s it,” she says.
4. Turn Off Your Phone at a Specific Time
Try powering down before dinner until the next morning. Apple and Android users can enable do-not-disturb settings that can silence alerts, notifications, and calls. Becker says it’s a good idea to take advantage of the tools that are built into your devices.
5. Adjust Your Phone Settings to Limit Certain Apps
Apple iPhone users can set limits with Screen Time (find it in your phone’s settings) and schedule Downtime, when only phone calls or specific apps are allowed and specified apps have a time limit. Digital Wellbeing works similarly for Google devices. People who didn’t use these features were more likely to experience problematic smartphone use and worse wellbeing than those who did use them, according to a research analysis.
6. Create No-Phone Areas
Kelman believes that setting limits on certain apps doesn’t always work. Instead, she suggests removing yourself from device use completely. Banning phones and screens from the bedroom for instance, can keep screens from interfering with your sleep, Becker says. And if you have to go into a different room or part of your home to use a device, it may deter you from mindlessly scrolling.
7. Consider Reaching Out to a Mental Health Professional
“We are all using technology constantly, and therefore it can be hard to always know the difference between having a problem or not,” Becker says. If your behaviour regarding technology or certain apps and sites begins to interfere with your daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help, Becker says. Kelman adds that if your self-esteem plummets or you find yourself dealing with anxiety or depression, it’s definitely time to talk to someone.