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4 tips for a successful digital ‘detox’
November 19, 2023

4 tips for a successful digital ‘detox’

Reading Time: 5 minutes

These strategies will help you get the most out of unplugging.

There’s a reason you’re here. Something about your social media or tech use isn’t sitting right.

Maybe it’s the creeping dread you feel when scrolling on X, formerly Twitter. Or the stress of nonstop notifications. Or perhaps it’s the guilt of hearing your child demand that you put down your phone and play with them instead.

These unpleasant feelings are a sign: Your social media and tech use habits need to change.

While science can’t yet prescribe a plan guaranteed to make a digital ‘detox’ a success (because it’s an emerging field of research), there are promising tips and tricks worth trying, according to experts.

It’s worth noting, too, that while we might use the word ‘detox’ as shorthand for restricting social media and tech use to improve mental health and well-being, there is little evidence to prove that excessive use is an addiction on par with disorders like substance or drug use.

With that in mind, here are four strategies for limiting your social media consumption and phone use:

1. Identify what’s driving your stress or unhappiness.

In studies that attempt to understand what happens when people tune out of social media or more frequently put down their phones, researchers have often focused on a narrow range of apps or behaviors — like deactivating only Facebook or changing notification delivery — so it can be hard to draw universal conclusions from their findings.

Dr. Kostadin Kushlev, who leads the Digital Health and Happiness Lab at Georgetown University, says identifying the digital experiences that affect you most can be difficult. In fact, he believes a powerful solution would involve tech companies helping users ‘implement research-backed digital detox strategies more easily or use better defaults.’

Kushlev points to the iPhone’s Driving Focus and notification summary settings, which pause notifications during specified time periods, but argues that more needs to be done.

Until then, it’s up to individual users to figure out what’s affecting them most.

If it’s just that TikTok, while entertaining, has become a time suck, start by planning to reduce your time on the platform. If you find that constant phone pickups are wrecking your focus, consider making your phone inaccessible for periods of time throughout the day. You can combine these and other goals, too.

The important part is tracing any tech-related dissatisfaction back to its source and really understanding what about that particular use is leading to stress or unhappiness.

2. Start with realistic expectations.

Once you know which aspects of your digital life you’d like to prune, develop realistic expectations about what’s possible.

Kushlev says that while some studies show that certain restriction strategies work well, many studies are far from conclusive. Instead, findings in this field of research are often mixed. Positive effects can be statistically significant but small.

For example, in a 2018 study Kushlev co-authored, participants were randomly assigned to have their phones at the table or place them in a lockbox while eating at a cafe. Those with the device nearby enjoyed the experience significantly less than those who’s device was inaccessible. Still, both groups enjoyed their experience overall, indicating that the device’s presence didn’t ruin the meal outright.

Kushlev does note that many longer experiments, like restricting Facebook use for four weeks, show improvements, perhaps because participants firmly establish new habits that are beneficial.

Kushlev’s past research, which includes a study on batching notifications so they’re less disruptive, suggests that people who restrict smartphone use can experience important benefits, like improved attention and productivity and reduced stress.

But some might experience negative emotions, perhaps because they miss the affirmative feedback they’ve become accustomed to receiving on social media. This is a separate effect from feeling fewer positive emotions.

In a new study published in PLOS ONE researchers found that 51 university students who significantly limited their use of all social networking sites for a week, including Facebook, Twitter/X, and Instagram, experienced both a reduction in positive emotions like cheerfulness and happiness as well as signs of decreased negative feelings and boredom. (Participants could still use instant messaging or voice/video calling apps.)

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Dr. Niklas Ihssen, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University and the study’s senior author, says that an encouraging aspect of this finding is that it indicates people can manageably restrict their social media consumption without seeing really ‘severe adverse effects.’

Still, maintain reasonable expectations as your ‘detox’ unfolds. You may be disappointed if you anticipate remarkable gains overnight. Or you may see improvement only to fall back into old patterns. That doesn’t spell failure, says Ihssen.

He noted that only several of the subjects completely abstained from social media during the study period. In other words, it may be too ambitious — and ultimately self-defeating — to attempt a total blackout of social media.

Still, some people try a version of inspiring movements like the ‘dumb’ phone trend. MediaDownloader’s Elena Cavender covered this in her story about the Gen Z’ers bringing flip phones back.

Nevertheless, if a version of this feels out of reach, simply don’t try it. Start small, instead, because it could make a difference.

3. Plan how to spend your time.

Deciding how to spend the time you would’ve otherwise passed by scrolling is crucial to success. In a Reddit thread on how to handle short downtimes during a ‘detox,’ several commenters noted this was unexpectedly difficult.

The key takeaway? Get comfortable with boredom.

Kushlev says this is admittedly hard for humans. In a 2014 study, which Kushlev wasn’t involved in, participants actually chose to deliver an electric shock to themselves rather than sit in a room quietly and think.

While this study wasn’t related to digital media use, Kushlev says it may help demonstrate why people struggle with the absence of social media or their phone.

The challenge, however, is that banishing one app from your phone, then turning to a different app with its own drawbacks, might cancel out whatever positive effects you were hoping to experience.

In Ihssen’s recent study, participants reported increases in online shopping and playing video games while they were avoiding social networking sites.

It’s unknown whether those activities eliminated the potential for improved well-being, but it’s one example of what can happen when people restrict their social media use.

Ihssen says it’s important to understand what motivates you to use certain platforms or phone features. If it’s social reward or connectivity, look for other rewarding opportunities to get those benefits.

If you’re highly motivated by social reward, consider spending the three hours you would’ve passed on social media on any given day volunteering instead.

For short periods of downtime, consider simply observing fellow shoppers in the checkout line or noticing your breath as you wait for the traffic light to turn green.

However you decide to spend the time, anticipate the discomfort of boredom, understand what aspects of digital and tech use motivate you, and look for other fulfilling opportunities instead.

4. Focus on in-person experiences.

Kushlev specifically recommends replacing time spent on social media or on a device with gratifying in-person experiences.

As daunting as this may seem, it doesn’t require you to become a social planner. Rather, consider the moments you might otherwise be absorbed by something on your phone — at the bus stop, the dinner table, on a date — and connect with another human.

‘It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing; physical interactions are generally better than digital interactions,’ he says.

This can be as quick as acknowledging a stranger waiting in line, or even striking up a conversation with them. As social animals, human beings can derive surprisingly positive feelings from such quotidian interactions, especially over time.

While Kushlev doesn’t subscribe to the notion that a smartphone at the table destroys dinnertime, for example, he does believe that the presence of the device can impede people’s ability to reap the benefits of our in-person social experiences. Indeed, Kushlev’s research demonstrates how the device can undermine our relationships.

So, if you’re hoping to get the most out of a tech break, make sure you’re engaging in even the briefest of in-person interactions regularly, and put your phone away while you do so.

Kushlev, whose own smartphone is in silent mode most of the time, tries to keep his approach simple: ‘Take control over your phone; don’t let it control you.’


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