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Here's How a Digital Detox Will Benefit Your Mental Health

Overusing technology can be bad for your mental health. Here's how to know if it's time to take a break.

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We go about our day-to-day lives attached to our phones. They wake us up in the morning, and we check our emails and social media as soon as we open our eyes. We spend a big chunk of the day glued to a screen, be it a computer, laptop or phone. In fact, nearly half of smartphone users in the US say they can't imagine life without their phones.

According to a February 2021 survey, 46% of respondents said they spend an average of 5 to 6 hours a day on their phones for non-work-related use. Another study conducted by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed that, on average, Americans spend around 3 hours a day watching TV

It's safe to say that we've become heavily dependent on our phones for pretty much everything. But, how is the use of technology affecting our mental health? And what can we do to offset that dependency?

Many have turned to digital detoxes as a way to disconnect from technology. Research links digital detoxes to the improvement of depression symptoms, among other mental health benefits. Ready to try a digital detox? Here's what you need to know.

Man sitting at a desk using a smartphone.
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What is a digital detox?

A digital detox is when you completely abstain or intentionally reduce your time using electronic devices like smartphones, computers, TVs and tablets. The idea of a digital detox is to disconnect from the online world to focus more on the present moment without distractions. The most common things people avoid during a digital detox include:

  • Emails
  • Text messages
  • Video games
  • Watching TV
  • Smartphones, tablets, laptops and computers

What is a social media detox?

Like a digital detox, a social media detox is when someone refrains from engaging with or using social media for a period of time or indefinitely to improve their mental health and well-being. It's one of the most popular forms of digital detox.

A quantitative study conducted on college students who underwent social media detoxes that lasted from one to seven days found that most students reported positive changes in mood, better productivity, improved sleep and reduced anxiety.

Another study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that limiting social media to 30 minutes a day can significantly improve one's overall well-being.

How social media affects mental health

There's no denying we benefit a lot from social media. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok keep us connected to friends and family while also serving as an outlet to find inspiring people. However, the constant comparison, fear of missing out and highly curated content we're exposed to on social media can come with some drawbacks.

A 2020 systematic review linked social media to detrimental effects on the mental health of its users. The same study found that those people's levels of anxiety and depression are affected by social media envy -- being envious of someone else's life as perceived on social media.

"Time spent scrolling through social media has the potential to promote unreasonable expectations as we see influencers posting an often filtered and edited version of their seemingly perfect lives. This can trigger feelings that others are having more fun or living better lives than you are, potentially causing a negative impact on your mental health. The increasing popularity of photo filters has also been linked to poor self-esteem and self-image as we manipulate our photos to change our reality online," says Myra Altman, who holds a PhD and is VP of Clinical Care at Modern Health

Man staring at his phone looking disappointed.
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Benefits of a digital detox

There may be personal reasons to consider a digital detox. It could be that you feel like technology is a distraction, or you just need some time away from the stressors of the online world. Whatever the reason may be, you are sure to see many benefits from taking a break from technology.

Here are some of the most common benefits of a digital detox.

Reduced anxiety and depression

According to a recent study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, a social media break of just a week can reduce anxiety and depression. The same study found causal evidence that even short breaks from social media can positively impact a person's overall well-being, life satisfaction and emotions.

Enhanced focus and increased productivity

This one should come as no surprise. When we are free from distractions, we allow ourselves to be more present. Mindless scrolling on social media, checking notifications on your phone and feeling the urge to reply immediately to emails are time consumers. When we set aside distractions, we allow more time to focus on our responsibilities. 

Improved sleep

Disconnecting from electronic devices a few hours before going to sleep can significantly improve our quality of sleep. One study found that people who used social media before bed were more likely to have anxiety, insomnia and short sleep duration on weeknights.

Avoiding screen time before bed also reduces our exposure to blue light, which has been associated with disrupted sleep.

Meaningful connections in real life

Think about the last time you were anywhere alone at the doctor's office, standing in line at the grocery store or waiting for your friend at a table in a restaurant. How much of that time was spent glued to your phone? The answer is probably a lot. 

A small 2019 study found that smartphones alter the fabric of social interactions. In the experiment, a group of strangers was put in a waiting room with or without their phones. The study found that those who had their phones present were less likely to smile at someone compared to those without a phone.

Setting your phone aside can help you stay engaged with those around you.

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More time for things that bring you joy

Have you ever thought about how many times a day you pick up your phone to check your emails, respond to messages and check social media? According to a survey conducted by Asurion, a global tech care company, respondents checked their phones on average 96 times a day. To put that in perspective, that's once every 10 minutes.

"One reason to consider a social media detox is to regain authority in your life and time. Many people find themselves scrolling for hours a day and then feel unproductive, leading to anxiety and depression. A detox can help put a pause on social media consumption and allow you to regain interest in other hobbies that bring happiness. The detox can also allow you the time you need to be with those you love in real life," says Raghu Kiran Appasani, MD Psychiatry and Founder and CEO of The MINDS Foundation

Signs that you might need a break from technology

If you made your way to this page, chances are you are already considering a digital detox -- which is a sign itself that you might need a break from your electronic devices. The best way to know you need a digital detox is to check in with yourself and see how interacting with social media and technology makes you feel.

  • If you feel any of the following when engaging with the online world, it's time to say goodbye (for now) to technology:
  • Anxiety, stress or depression after checking social media
  • Social withdrawal
  • Urge to check your phone every few minutes
  • Trouble concentrating and staying focused on the task at hand
  • Imposter syndrome or feeling insecure about where you are in life
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Feeling obligated to respond immediately to emails and text messages

How to do a digital detox

If you're ready for a digital detox challenge but aren't sure where to start, we got you. It's important to remember why you're detoxing from your digital devices in the first place. The goal is to create boundaries that ensure you're using technology in a way that benefits and works for you. Ultimately, you want to feel good about the time you are dedicating online.

Set realistic goals

A digital detox can be anything you want it to be. It can be refraining from using any type of technology, disconnecting from social media or just limiting daily screen time. The most important thing to keep in mind is that whatever you want to achieve has to be realistic. For example, if your work requires you to be in front of a computer all day, it may not be wise to set a goal that won't allow you access to your computer. Instead, you can opt to set screen time limits on your free time.

Create healthy boundaries and limits

Sometimes disconnecting completely from electronic devices isn't possible, but setting boundaries is a great way to limit how much time we spend on electronic devices. 

Here are some ideas of other times you can create limits for:

  • When working out: If you want to get the most out of your workout, try to avoid any distractions. If you like to listen to music while doing so, you can download your music beforehand and set your phone to airplane mode so that you don't get any notifications.
  • Before going to sleep: Smartphones were designed to keep us alert and productive, so the last thing we want is to bombard our brains with more information. Sleep experts recommend cutting off screen time 30 minutes to 1 hour before bed.
  • When waking up: You never know what you will encounter when you look at your phone. Seeing bad news as soon as you wake up can trigger your stress response and leave you feeling anxious all day. Allow yourself some time to wake up without outside distractions and enjoy the present moment.
  • While enjoying a meal: If you're scrolling through your phone while you eat, you may not be aware of how much you are eating and miss your body's cue that it is full. Instead, you can practice mindful eating and savor every moment of your meal.
  • When spending time with the people you love: It's good to keep your phone away or silent when socializing and spending time with people. When you limit your distractions, you can have deeper and more meaningful conversations.

Occupy yourself with things that nourish your mind and body

You've decided to do a digital detox, you put away your phone, now what? It's easy to give in to checking your phone if you are bored, so you'll want to fill in this extra time with things that make you feel good.

If you are having a hard time figuring out what to do with your extra time, here are some ideas.

  • Pick up a new hobby, something you've always wanted to try.
  • Go for a walk or a hike
  • Call a family member you haven't talked to in a while
  • Go for coffee with a friend
  • Read a new book (or reread your favorite one)
  • Journal about how you're feeling right now
  • Volunteer at a local charity that is doing important work
  • Learn to cook a new recipe
  • Sign up for an exercise class like kick-boxing, yoga or pilates
  • Meditate or practice mindful breathing 
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Reward yourself for following through

It's easier to stay motivated when looking forward to something, so take this opportunity to celebrate your wins by rewarding yourself. It doesn't have to be something grand (though it can be if you want); it can be as simple as cooking your favorite meal or taking yourself out to the movies. Whatever you decide your reward should be, make sure it's something that excites you.

Tips for your digital detox

Some people will find it fairly easy to disconnect from digital devices, while others may find it more challenging. Luckily, there are some things you can do before you go off the grid to ensure that you have a successful digital detox.

  • If you're doing a social media detox, delete the apps from your phone and sign out from your account on your computer, laptop or tablet.
  • Let your friends and family know about your detox and the best ways for them to contact you and provide support.
  • Schedule activities to keep you busy beforehand.
  • Track your progress. You can write down how you're feeling each day, seeing tangible progress may keep you motivated.
  • Mute or turn off notifications on your phone and computer
  • Designate tech-free zones in your house, like your bedroom or dining room.
  • Remember why you started. If you feel the need to check your phone throughout your detox, think of how you felt before starting and why you decided to take a break.

Be patient with yourself

Deciding to disconnect from the digital world can make you feel anxious or even scared of missing out on important things, and it's okay to feel that way. As the days go by, you'll start to feel better about yourself and have a deeper understanding of your relationship with technology. Take the time to enjoy being present and do things that bring you happiness.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.