Digital detoxing: Myth, or backed by science?

By Alistair Gardiner
Published May 10, 2021

Key Takeaways

Consider this: Americans are spending the majority of their waking hours consuming digital media. According to The Nielsen Total Audience Report, published in March 2021, US adults spent an average of 10 hours a day using their phones, computers, or televisions in the third quarter of 2020. 

It would be easy to blame the pandemic for all this screen time, but the truth is, it’s an ongoing trend. The rise of social media has significantly contributed to this increase. Between 2005 and 2021, social media use among American adults increased from 5% to 72%, according to the Pew Research Center. And all of that screen time can take a toll. Studies indicate that excessive social media consumption can lead to adverse psychological outcomes like anxiety and depression.

For physicians, it’s all but impossible to avoid a certain amount of screen time on the job, but the evidence suggests that curtailing screen time outside of work might be a worthwhile endeavor. 

In a world surrounded by so many seemingly unavoidable screens, a digital detox—that is, a voluntary break from your electronic devices—may sound like another trendy-yet-vacuous fad. But data suggests that a majority of us could benefit from this burgeoning practice. Here’s why health experts recommend taking some time off from phones and screens, and some tips on how to do your own digital detox.

Negative impacts of digital media consumption

Much of the research conducted in this field focuses on specific types of media, and the study findings are mixed. However, there is growing evidence that varying degrees of media consumption can negatively affect psychological well-being. 

One study, published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, monitored the association between hours of time spent on social media use and psychological distress among a cohort of roughly 19,000 adults. Researchers compared social media use to other activities—like exercise, sleep, and housework—and found that social media had one of the largest per-hour unit associations with psychological distress.

Another study examined the effects of social media use and digital detoxes among a cohort of 68 undergraduate students. Researchers pointed to evidence from previous research, which suggests that excessive internet use has been associated with psychiatric morbidity, with impacts including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, psychotic disorders, impulse control disorders, and distress. In addition, excessive social media use has been associated with low self-esteem, sleep disturbances, loneliness, social impairment, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and poor academic performance among students.

In their study, participants responded to a survey during the academic year 2018–2019 during which 40% voluntarily underwent a social media detoxification. Researchers found that most of those subjects reported positive changes in their mood, improved academic productivity, better quality sleep, and reduced anxiety. By the end of the study, 46% of subjects reported  they would consider doing a digital detox in the future, which researchers concluded “suggests [it has] a potential therapeutic benefit.”

Other studies have also found that eliminating or limiting social media can have a positive impact on well-being. For example, a study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology looked at 143 undergraduates who were randomly assigned to either limit their daily social media use to no more than 10 minutes, or to continue their social media use normally, over a 3-week period.

Researchers found that the limited-use group experienced severe reductions in loneliness and depression over the study period, compared with the control group. “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being,” the authors concluded.

Interestingly, both groups reported experiencing significant decreases in anxiety and “fear of missing out” (aka, FOMO). In light of this, researchers hypothesized that there may be a benefit to self-monitoring social media use.

Tips for digital detoxing

Are you a candidate for a digital detox? According to an article published by the online mental health resource VeryWell Mind, the following signs indicate you might benefit from a digital breather:

  • Feeling anxious if you can’t find your phone

  • Being compelled to look at your phone every few minutes

  • Experiencing negative feelings after looking at social media, or being preoccupied with "likes" or other feedback

  • Staying up late or getting up early to check your phone

  • Having trouble concentrating on tasks at hand because you're checking your phone 

A digital detox doesn’t necessarily involve eliminating all forms of media, and you can tailor a detox for practicality according to your schedule. The trick is to set boundaries. 

For example, you may want to limit or avoid your digital media consumption during certain times of the day, like during mealtimes, when first waking up or before going to sleep, when you’re spending time with friends, or during a workout.

To make your detox easier, consider informing family and friends, so they can be aware and supportive. You may find that deleting certain apps from your phone can reduce temptation and that scheduling activities outdoors is a good way to keep those digital distractions at bay.

When you think about it, what do you have to lose? Or, what might you gain? Digital detox techniques could prove helpful in decreasing stress, improving your mood, and increasing sleep quality.

Read more here about how a digital detox could make you a better doctor. 

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