Should I try a digital detox?

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Apr 5, 2023

Should I try a digital detox?

Nearly one in three of us take a break from our devices each day, while a quarter of us ensure we have a social media detox on a weekly basis. But how effective are social media detoxes, and do we really need them?

When was the last time you disconnected? We’re spending more and more of our time online, whether that’s browsing social media to catch up with friends, following our favourite influencers, or catching up on the latest shows being streamed. Many of us get our entertainment, news, and updates from those we love, all through a device. It’s no wonder that one 2021 survey revealed almost a third of us (31%) feel like we are ‘almost constantly’ online – and a whopping two-thirds of us (64%) feel that social media is having a mostly negative effect.  

Could taking a break from social media and having a digital detox be the answer we’ve been looking for? Or are there any pitfalls to switching off and disconnecting from our digital lives?

What is a digital detox?

From digital detox retreats to phone-silencing pouches, some of us are even switching off our smartwatches and fitness trackers to go back to analogue solutions to help us decrease our time spent online.

A ‘digital detox’ refers to taking a break from your devices for a set period of time. This could mean not using your smartphone, computer, laptop, tablet, or other smart devices to access social media. Taking a digital detox doesn’t just mean turning off TikTok or switching off Snapchat; it also can include decreasing how often you check your emails, play video games, send texts or other messages, and even catch up on the news using your devices.

As of January 2023, globally, we spend an average of 2 hours and 31 minutes using social media each day - around five times the recommended 30 minutes per day maximum that some researchers suggest could lead to significant improvements in our wellbeing.

What are the benefits of having a digital detox?

The benefits of taking a break from tech can vary from person to person depending on how much time you’re already spending on there, how you’re interacting with it, and how it makes you feel. Overall, decreasing your social media use can help you not only get more time back in your day but can help to decrease your likelihood of other negative experiences including:

  • encountering cyberbullying
  • experiencing fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • feelings of isolation, anger, or upset
  • comparing yourself to others

A growing body of research suggests that internet addiction may be a real worry - including screen addiction (also known as net compulsions). Over time, this can lead to further financial, relationship, or work-related problems.

Therapist Laura Colquhoun, MBACP, BPS, FdA, BA (Hons), Adv PG Dip Couples and Individuals, explains more about how internet addiction can affect us.

By taking a break from our devices, it’s thought that we can:

  • improve our concentration and focus on immediate tasks
  • experience less stress and upset (as we are bombarded with fewer outside negative views and a constant media cycle of bad news)
  • have fewer distractions, making our in-person social interactions more focused and appreciated
  • feel more in control of our time (how we use it, how and when others interrupt our free time)

How effective is a digital detox?

A 2021 systematic literature review into digital detoxes revealed that although more studies show positive outcomes rather than negative following a digital detox, most studies showed no or mixed findings about the success of digital detoxes.

Participants across the studies did show a decrease in depression symptoms, however, there were no consistent improvements found in cognitive or physical performance. Essentially - while some of us will experience some or many improvements thanks to a digital detox, it’s not guaranteed that we will see these benefits, nor that they will have a long-term benefit.

Do I need a digital detox?

How do you know if you need a digital detox – and is it even worth trying? While the benefits of switching off from social media aren’t guaranteed, we do know that too much social media use can significantly disrupt our sleep, create unrealistic views of other people’s lives, impact our relationship with food and our bodies, and even put us at heightened risk of ill mental health and poor wellbeing. Studies have suggested links between high social media use, depression and anxiety.

If you find yourself feeling increasingly irritable, frustrated, angry or insecure; are having trouble getting to or staying asleep; feel pressured to check or respond to social media (or feel anxious or stressed if you don’t); or find yourself frequently doom-scrolling (mindlessly scrolling through social media), it can be a sign that you need to readdress your relationship with your devices and consider taking a break.

Is social media always bad? How using social media can benefit us

Using social media isn’t always a bad thing. For many, online communities and digital spaces can provide much-needed support, connection, access to information, and the chance to find others with similar life experiences.

Online support groups and communities can help us to connect with others when we may feel isolated, alone, or lost. Digital spaces can also provide easier access to support in the form of online therapy, particularly for those living in remote areas, with mobility issues, or other disabilities which may make it difficult to attend in-person sessions.

Find out more about how online communities help us access support or check out these different ways you can find positivity on social media.

Using social media more mindfully: How to do a digital detox

Whether you’re considering trying a full-on digital detox, or just want to start using social media more mindfully, there are a number of different things you can try.

Try digital minimalism - Life Coach Directory recommends trying to minimise, rather than completely cut off, your digital use. Turning off push notifications can help to remove the temptation to ‘just check in for a minute’ each time someone tags you or interacts with one of your posts.

Streamlining your social media feed can also help you to minimise scrolling; while don’t like, don’t interact can be a motto to live by, it’s also hard to keep in mind when we see posts that are upsetting or make us feel bad about ourselves. Unfollowing, unfriending, or unlinking people, brands, news outlets, and even entertainment sources can be good for us in the long run.

Pick a day to go phone-free - For some people, going all-out can help to break that initial habit to reach for your phone, check your messages, or document everything you are doing. Having a single day – or evening – which is completely phone-free can help you to notice any unhelpful habits around your device usage, prompting you to be more mindful of when and how you use it.

Start small - If going a whole day without your device sounds daunting, pick a time instead. One study suggests over half of us (55%) check our phone during dinner – even when with friends and family. While the habit may have become automatic, it’s not nice for anyone involved to feel like a screen is getting more attention than the person they are spending time with. Leaving your phone on charge in another room or switching it off entirely can be a good start to breaking the habit.

Get analogue alternatives - We use our phones for just about everything: as an alarm clock, to set calendar reminders, to track our shopping, do our banking, arrange nights out with friends or a quick cuppa with family. But when we use our phone for everything, it can be tempting to keep scrolling. Go tech-free in the bedroom by picking up an alarm clock and moving your phone charger to another room. Consider muting your notifications on your smartwatch or getting back to basics with a more traditional watch instead. Try carrying your physical cards with you to make payments, instead of relying on your phone.

If you’re worried you may be experiencing an internet addiction, counselling and psychotherapy can help you to explore other ways of feeling connected without relying on digital stimulation. To find out more about internet addiction and how therapy can help, visit Counselling Directory or enter your postcode into the search below to find a qualified, experienced therapist.

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