A digital detox refers to a period of time when a person refrains from using tech devices such as smartphones, televisions, computers, tablets, and social media sites. “Detoxing” from digital devices is often seen as a way to focus on real-life social interactions without distractions. By forgoing digital devices, at least temporarily, people can let go of the stress that stems from constant connectivity.
Before you decide if it is right for you, consider some of the potential benefits and methods of doing a digital detox.
Reasons for a Digital Detox
For many people, being connected and immersed in the digital world is just a part of everyday life. According to research from the Nielsen Company, the average U.S. adult spends around 11 hours each day listening to, watching, reading, or interacting with media.
There are many reasons why you might want to give up your mobile phone and other devices for a brief time. You might want to enjoy time to yourself without the interference that your phone and other devices create. In other cases, you might feel like your device use has become excessive and is adding too much stress to your life.
In some situations, you might even feel like you are addicted to your devices. While technology addiction is not formally recognized as a disorder in the DSM-5, many experts believe that tech and device overuse represents a very real behavioral addiction that can lead to physical, psychological, and social problems.
In a poll conducted by the organization Common Sense Media, 50% of teens reported that they felt that they were addicted to their mobile devices. A whopping 78% of the teen respondents said that they check their digital devices hourly.
What the Research Says
Technology can be stressful
While people often feel that they can't imagine life without their tech devices, research and surveys have found that technology use can also contribute to stress.
In the American Psychological Associations' annual Stress in America survey, a fifth of U.S. adults (around 18%) cited technology use as a significant source of stress in their life. For many, it is the ever-present digital connection and constant need to keep checking emails, texts, and social media that accounted for the majority of this tech stress.
One study conducted by researchers in Sweden found that heavy technology use among young adults was linked to sleeping problems, depressive symptoms, and increased stress levels.
Digital devices can disrupt sleep
Evidence also suggests that heavy device use, particularly prior to bedtime, can interfere with sleep quality and quantity. One study found that children who use digital devices at bedtime had significantly worse and less sleep. The study also found a connection between nighttime tech use and increased body mass index.
Researchers have also found that in-bed electronic social media use has adverse effects on sleep and mood. The study found that 70% of participants checked social media on their phones while in bed, with 15% spending an hour or more on social media while in bed. The results found that using social media when you are in bed at night increases the likelihood of anxiety, insomnia, and shorter sleep duration.
How Your Smartphone Affects Your Brain
Heavy device use may be linked to mental health concerns
A study published in the journal Child Development found that heavy daily technology use was associated with an increased risk for mental health problems among adolescents. More time spent using digital technologies was linked to increased symptoms of ADHD and conduct disorder, as well as worse self-regulation.
Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently published the first experimental research linking the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to decreased well-being. The results revealed that limiting social media use decreased symptoms of depression and loneliness.
Constant connectivity makes it hard to maintain work/life balance
That feeling of always being connected can make it difficult to create boundaries between your home life and work life. Even when you are at home or on vacation, it can be hard to resist the temptation to check your email, respond to a text from a colleague, or check in on your social media accounts.
In a study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, researchers found that technology use played a role in determining an individual's work-life balance. The study suggested that the use of internet and mobile technologies influenced overall job satisfaction, job stress, and feelings of overwork.
Doing a digital detox may help you establish a healthier, less stressful work-life balance.
Social comparison makes it hard to be content
If you spend time on social media, you have probably found yourself comparing your own life to your friends, family, total strangers, and celebs. You might find yourself thinking that everyone else seems to be leading a fuller, richer, or more exciting life based on the tiny, curated glimpse you see on their Instagram or Facebook posts.
As the saying goes, comparison really can be the thief of joy. Detoxing from your social connections can be a good way to focus on what’s important in your own life without comparing yourself to others.
The Stress of Social Comparison
Digital connectivity can make you feel like you’re missing out
Fear of missing out, known as FOMO, is the fear that you are missing the experiences that everyone else is having. Constant connectivity can feed this fear. Every time you see a curated image or post about someone else’s life, it can leave you feeling as if your life is less exciting than theirs. You might find yourself overcommitting to social events out of the fear that you’ll be left behind.
FOMO can also keep you constantly checking your device out of fear that you are going to miss an important text, DM, or post.
Doing a digital detox is one way to set limits and reduce your fear of missing out. The key is to do it in a way that doesn’t leave you feeling cut off from what’s happening in your digital world.
Signs You Might Need a Digital Detox
You feel anxious or stressed out if you can't find your phone
You feel compelled to check your phone every few minutes
You feel depressed, anxious, or angry after spending time on social media
You are preoccupied with the like, comment, or reshare counts on your social posts
You’re afraid that you'll miss something if you don't keep checking your device
You often find yourself staying up late or getting up early to play on your phone
You have trouble concentrating on one thing without having to check your phone
Are You Addicted to Your Phone?
How to Do a Digital Detox
Some might suggest that a true digital detox would involve predefined abstinence from any and all digital devices and social media connections, but it is important to make your device usage work for your own life and demands.
Detaching from your devices can benefit your mental well-being, but doing a digital detox does not have to involve a complete separation from your phone and other tech connections. The process is often more about setting boundaries and making sure that you are using your devices in a way that benefit, rather than harm, your emotional and physical health.
If you can do a complete digital detox for a certain amount of time, it might be something you want to try. Being completely disconnected can feel liberating and refreshing for some people. For a lot of people, completely forgoing all forms of digital communication might not be possible, particularly if you really do rely on staying connected for work, school, or other obligations.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the benefits of a digital detox; the key is to make disconnecting something that works for your schedule and your life.
If you need your devices during the day for your job, try doing a mini-detox at the end of the workday. Pick a time when you want to turn off your devices, and then focus on spending an evening completely free of things like social media, texting, online videos, and other electronic distractions.
While it isn’t always possible or even preferable to completely disconnect, setting limits on when these digital connections are allowed to intrude on your time can be good for your mental well-being.
For example, you might want to use your phone to play your Spotify or Apple Music playlist while you are working out, but setting it to airplane mode will make sure that you aren’t distracted by phone calls, texts, other messages, or app notifications during your workout.
Setting boundaries on the type and timing of connections you’ll attend to helps ensure that you can enjoy real-world activities completely free of digital diversions.
Other times when you might want to limit your digital device usage include:
When you are eating meals, particularly when dining with other people
When you are waking up or going to bed
When you are working on a project or hobby
When you are spending time with friends or family
Before you go to sleep each night
Research suggests that limiting your social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day can significantly improve well-being, decreasing symptoms of loneliness and depression.
Restricting your mobile device usage immediately before you go to sleep may also be helpful. One review of the research found that using media devices was linked to poor sleep quality, inadequate sleep, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Skip laying in bed playing on your phone and instead try reading a book or magazine for a few minutes before you go to sleep.
Another way to start your digital detox is to turn off push notifications on your phone. Many social media apps including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and news websites send alerts every single time you get a message, mention, or new post.
Rather than checking certain apps or websites every time a new story or post hits, set aside a specific time each day when you’ll check your messages or mentions. Then set aside a certain amount of time, around 20 or 30 minutes, to devote to catching up and sending responses.
You might find that it's helpful to leave your phone behind for at least a brief time. Studies have found that the mere presence of a mobile device, even if you aren’t actively using it, lowers empathy levels and decreased conversation quality when interacting with other people, a phenomenon researchers have dubbed ‘the iPhone effect.’
So the next time you are having dinner with a group of friends, try leaving your phone at home.
Make It Work for You
A digital detox can be whatever you want it to be and can take many forms. You might want to try giving up all digital devices for a time, including television, mobile phones, and social media. In other cases, you might want to focus on restricting your use of just one type of digital device such as your phone or your gaming console.
Some ideas that you might consider trying:
A digital fast: Try giving up all digital devices for a short period of time, such as a day or up to a week
Recurrent digital abstinence: Pick one day of the week to go device-free
A specific detox: If one app, site, game, or digital tool is taking up too much of your time, focus on restricting your use of that problematic item
A social media detox: Focus on restricting or even completely eliminating your social media use for a specific period of time
Digital Detox Tips
Some people find giving up their devices fairly easy. Others will find it much more difficult and even anxiety-provoking at times.
There are some things that you can do to ensure that your digital detox is more successful:
Let your friends and family know that you are on a digital detox and ask for their help and support
Find ways to stay distracted and keep other activities on hand
Delete social media apps from your phone to reduce temptation and easy access
Try getting out of the house; go to dinner with friends or go for a walk when you are tempted to use your device
Keep a journal to track your progress and write down your thoughts about the experience
Going device-free can be uncomfortable and stressful at times. You might feel annoyed, anxious, and even bored without your mobile phone and other tech tools. While it may be hard, it can be a rewarding experience that will help you better understand your relationship with your devices.