Digital detoxes don’t actually work

Each Monday, I get a “digital well-being” alert on my phone. It tells me how much time I spend staring at the screen each week, and highlighting the apps I use the most. It helps me cut down on unnecessary use. But a more extreme approach to dealing with technology overwhelm has become popular: digital detoxes.

A digital detox is a period in which a person voluntarily refrains from using digital devices including smartphones, computers and social media platforms. However, recent research has shown that digital detoxes can negatively impact our overall well-being. Is there a healthier, more sustainable way to improve our relationship with the digital world?

The popularity of digital detoxes

Today, the search term “digital detox” is three times more popular than it was in 2004.

Digital Detox – Google Search Trends

People have concerns about internet addiction, or worry that social media is causing them anxiety. They may also attempt a digital detox to refocus on real life social interactions.

Media hype around the supposed harmful effects of technology have also increased the popularity of digital detoxes. For example, it is common to describe a correlation between mental health problems and overuse of technology as if the latter was the cause of the problem, rather than a co-occurring symptom.

It is therefore no surprise that many of us have considered ditching our devices to help us feel more present or to find more time for self-reflection.

Why digital detoxes don’t work

Although it seems that a digital detox could solve problems including FOMO and comparison anxiety, as well as giving us back the hours we lose to mindless scrolling, research has suggested that digital detoxes may do more harm than good.

A collaboration between Oxford University, The Education University of Hong Kong, Reading University and Durham University has found “no evidence to suggest abstaining from social media has a positive effect on an individual’s well-being.” The researchers noted that this contrasts popular beliefs about the benefits of digital detoxes.

Moreover, this international study found that those who took a break from social media didn’t replace online socializing with face-to-face, voice, or email interactions, as the researchers had expected. Taking a break from social media therefore led to reduced overall interaction and loneliness as social media was not replaced with forms of socializing.

In 2019, a research paper published in the Perspectives in Psychiatric Care journal showed that individuals who abstained from using social media developed a lower mood and demonstrated reduced life satisfaction. They were also lonelier than the control group.

The researchers concluded that while excessive social media use can be associated with negative consequences, abstaining will not necessarily lead to positive results. Crucially, the outcome of detoxing may depend on what you use your devices for.

Focusing on Instagram and Facebook, Sarah Manley and colleagues reported that abstaining from the platforms for one week had no impact on passive users. For active users—who share content and participate in conversations—taking a “social media vacation” led to a lower overall mood. She concluded that social media use can be beneficial for active users, but must be balanced with the risk of addiction.

We have all become more reliant on our devices. While they sound like a good idea, digital detoxes are unsustainable because they cut us from the world. This can have a negative impact on our overall mood, as well as leading to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Rather than trying to detox, we should strive to develop a better relationship with the digital world.

How to cultivate healthy digital practices

Much like the difficulties experienced by fad dieters, heavily restricting our online behavior is unsustainable. Rather than starting a detox, we should aim for digital re-enchantment. The following strategies can help to cultivate a healthier, and more realistic, relationship with technology:

  • Become an active participant in the digital world. Multiple research papers have shown that passively consuming information via social media may lead to upward social comparison, depression, and anxiety. Reassuringly, active participation, through comments and conversation has been shown to increase social connection and support, as well as enhancing positive emotion and well-being. Interacting with others on social media, rather than mindlessly scrolling, can therefore support your mental health.
  • Cultivate awareness. A lot of the frustration with social media comes from the feeling of wasting our time. Interstitial journaling is a way to track your time meaningfully. Each time you go on social media, write down what you did. Did you just scroll through your timeline? Did you reply to a friend’s post? Did you learn something new? This will help to acknowledge when you are using your social media sensibly and when you might be getting distracted.
  • Make small changes. The key to cultivating new practices is to implement changes progressively. Whereas going cold turkey will be an unpleasant shock, gradually changing the way you use your phone will make it far easier to maintain a healthier digital lifestyle.
  • Consume a healthy information diet. Choose your sources of information wisely to assist your learning. If you get distracted by the news throughout the day, set aside 30 minutes each morning and evening to catch up on current affairs. Try to consume an information diet that is valuable to you and helps you grow.
  • Foster deeper connections. Harness the power of the internet to connect with like-minded people or to learn about topics that excite you. The internet has made it possible to talk at length with strangers who share your passion for any subject—make the most of it.

Digital detoxes are popular, but like a crash diet they are unlikely to boost your well-being or improve the way you consume online information. In fact, those who attempt a detox may notice low mood and feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Instead, focus on using technology to your advantage by cultivating genuine connections with others, only consuming information that will help us grow personally and professionally, and reflecting on the way we use our devices.

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