Power up your mental health by powering down digital devices and adopting sustainable, healthy habits in a hyperconnected world
A screen is probably the first thing you look at when you wake up and the last thing you see before turning off the light. You may sit in front of one for work and most likely sit in front of one for pleasure, and use it to connect with others without being physically present.
In fact, one 2022 report revealed that the average screen time among UK adults is now five hours per day (in addition to screen-related work). This is an increase of two hours a day since 2020.
But there are many reasons why you might want to take a digital detox away from the screens and digital media that surround us and fill our lives. These range from mental and physical health benefits to wanting to spend more time being present with friends and family.
While going tech free would be untenable for most of us, here’s our expert guide to taking a break and how reaching for your phone could become less of a priority.
What is a digital detox?
"A digital detox means voluntarily deciding to reduce, or even refrain from using electrical devices such as laptops, tablets and computers for a specific period of time," explains Joey Owusu-Ansah, psychotherapist, wellness coach and founder of The K.I.N.D.E.R. Therapist and Kind Kulture Club, a coaching service for female professionals.
"The old approach to a digital detox was to take time away from screens entirely, whether that be TV, laptop, mobiles – but this is no longer sustainable in the world we live in," adds Subira Jones aka 'The Corporate Hippie', certified lifestyle coach, burnout specialist and corporate keynote speaker.
"Moving into 2023, following a pandemic that forced the world to go virtual, the best way to have a digital detox is to take a quality not quantity approach to a digital detox – being intentional about the type of information and media you’re consuming, as opposed to the amount of screen time you’re having."
One approach is to try a social media detox, suggests Michelle Elman, a five-board accredited life coach, broadcaster, public speaker and author. "This means taking a break from social media and the time you’re spending on social media platforms by deleting the app from your phone without deleting the accounts," she says.
What are the signs you need a digital detox?
"A digital or social media detox is likely needed if you find that your digital life is taking you away from your reality," explains Michelle.
"Whether that be texting in the presence of others or even being distracted mid conversations by notifications. If you feel anxious at the idea of stepping away from it, or turning your phone off, that is a sign you may have some dependence on your device."
Here, Joey provides a list of signs to look out for:
• Fearing you’ll miss out on things unless you check social media apps constantly
• Being unable to concentrate for long periods at a time, without looking at your phone or browsing social media
• Using social media first thing after waking up or going to sleep
• Noticing changes in your mood, like feeling low, anxious, or upset after spending time on social media
• Noticing physical changes in yourself, like eye strain, tension headaches, excessive tiredness and disturbed sleep
• Becoming overly preoccupied with the number of likes, comments and re-posts you have and negatively comparing yourself to others
"If you’ve noticed one or more of these signs, you may want to consider taking a digital detox," she says.
What may be the health benefits of a digital detox?
"There are many health benefits of a digital or social media detox," says Joey. These include:
• Reduced stress
• Better sleep
• Greater focus and clarity
• Improved wellbeing
• Better connection with others and yourself and having more time to spend doing the things that are important to you
Are there any negatives to a digital detox?
"If your phone is your only method of communication with the outside world, this isn’t the ideal time for a digital detox. But the worst thing that happens if you try a digital detox and you don’t enjoy it, is you turn your phone back on," explains Michelle.
"It’s important that we sit through the initial discomfort, because that is likely highlighting why the digital detox is needed if going without your phone creates so much unease."
Joey adds: "Our brain automatically receives a 'hit' of dopamine every time we receive a notification on our phones.
"This chemical release helps us to feel good in the moment and sends a message to our brain's reward system to constantly seek out experiences that give us that same 'feel good' experience. Learning to interrupt that cycle can be extremely helpful to reduce the hyperactivity our brain is used to."
How long should a digital detox last?
"I’d go with the upper limit you can manage away from digital media before you start worrying," suggests Michelle.
Subira suggests three days as a minimum. "If you’re taking time offline entirely, I’d start from perhaps Friday to Sunday, depending on your reason for taking a digital detox," she says.
Joey recommends two weeks or a month to "fully reset and reduce the hyper-activated mindset that we’re used to." She adds: "The goal here is to create healthier habits and have a better relationship with social media."
Do you need to cut out tech or social media completely?
"If you don't want to do a complete digital detox, you can reduce screen time by setting limits on specific apps from your phone," says Michelle.
"You can also reduce the number of notifications you receive, which often helps with the number of interruptions your digital life is having on your real life. Or you can simply put your phone on silent or 'do not disturb' mode."
Subira adds: "A social media detox that focuses on the quality of the media you’re consuming should be a lifestyle. Permanently unfollow all the accounts that do not positively inspire you or align with the person you are or would like to become."
How to do a digital detox in 10 easy steps
Before you switch off…
1. Figure out your why
"What’s your motivation for starting the digital detox? Are you experiencing any negative effects from constant digital or social media use? What benefits will this digital detox give you? Identifying this at the start helps you keep going despite self-doubt and setbacks," says Joey.
2. Start disconnecting
"Switch off notifications on all apps across your devices. If you tend to use your phone as an alarm clock, consider using a physical alarm clock to help you start your day. Alternatively, try using a second device that has no access to the internet or WiFi connection," says Joey.
3. Set clear boundaries
"Limit the time you spend on digital or social media. For example, once in the morning or evening," suggests Joey.
"Start by reducing your digital or social media use by 15 minutes each day until you regularly spend no more than a small part of your day (morning or evening). You may also want to adjust the settings on your screen time to support the changes you’re making."
Subira suggests understanding "your purpose for being on social media." Try:
• Unfollowing any accounts that make you feel bad
• Replacing superficial content with educational and inspiring content
• Maintaining your privacy online, only post what you feel comfortable with
• Not comparing yourself to what you see online, and remember that people generally post their highlights
• Focusing on quality of content over quantity of time online
4. Delay gratification
"If digital or social media use is necessary, restrict your use to just one device (your computer or laptop). Also, use your internet browser (not apps) to access the information you need and sign out from your accounts each time to delay gratification and make it harder to revert to old routines," says Joey.
During your digital detox…
5. Determine your time limits
"Decide how long you will continue the digital detox. The ultimate goal is to create healthier self-care habits and have a better relationship with social media afterwards," Joey explains.
"Use in-phone apps to monitor how much time you generally spend on social media,’ suggests Subira. "Alerts will help you be conscious about the amount of time you spend online."
"Once you’ve decided to start the digital detox, delete the apps from your digital devices that involve you receiving or sharing information and that you would typically spend a long time on, such as email inboxes, games, shopping and social media," advises Joey.
"This will be easier if you have already completed steps two to four as you’re already reducing your digital and social media use."
If you use a computer for work, Subira suggests keeping work phones and laptops switched off outside of work hours and use them for those purposes only.
7. Re-establish your connection with others
"Identify how you will remain connected to others during your digital detox," says Joey. "Use this time to make calls to arrange in-person catch-ups where possible. Improve your confidence in communicating and connecting with others away from social media."
"The important thing here is to only use digital media to arrange in-person meet ups. You may find that this improves your confidence, communication and connection with others. It also means you don’t have to fear missing out on things and importantly helps you create new, enjoyable experiences that distract you from social media.
"If you need to respond to certain things by email or messaging, then I would suggest only accessing this through one device (eg, your computer or laptop) and ideally through a search engine. Taking this longer route will prevent you from unconsciously scrolling through social media."
Subira suggests archiving all chats other than those that are from your important contacts. "Put your phone on 'do not disturb' and add your important contacts to your favourites," she says.
8. Develop your self-care routine
"Develop your self-care routine by engaging in practical activities that physically get you moving, alongside other activities you really enjoy," says Joey. "This will help you create new, healthier habits and a consistent self-care routine long after your digital detox.
"You could consider mindfulness and combine it with a relaxing bath and exercise to activate your brain’s soothing system. This will help you fully reset and recharge your mind, body and spirit during your digital detox."
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9. Track your progress
"Remember to track your habits on a daily or weekly basis by using a physical planner to monitor your progress," says Joey. "Then give yourself little rewards for your achievements at the start or end of the day or plan a bigger reward, such as a holiday or a day trip with friends and family at the end of your detox."
After your digital detox…
10. Maintain your self-care routine
"Maintain your self-care routine by practising the new habits formed in steps six to nine," advises Joey.
"Most importantly, if you decide to begin using digital media apps again, carefully select and focus your online time (using steps two and three) on a small number of apps or activities that help you achieve your goals, meaningfully connect with others and enjoy your free time both on and offline."
Here’s to a better relationship with tech in 2023 and beyond.