Digital Detox: Your 10-Step Guide

The key to staying healthy in our hyperconnected world is adopting sustainable habits around the way we use tech.

There's no denying we're more plugged in than ever before. Sure, this level of connectedness has benefits—it's simple to stay in touch with friends and family; you can express yourself on social media; multitasking is easier—but there are also some pretty serious drawbacks.

Staring at our devices may be pleasurable in the moment, but "pleasurable behaviors are addictive," said David Greenfield, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. And they come at a cost.

One survey from the American Psychological Association, published in 2017, found that nearly one-fifth of people say technology is a source of stress. And 43% of respondents checked their emails, messages, and social media "constantly." There are potential physical effects of being "always on," from neck pain (and wrinkles) to elevated blood pressure.

But giving up all your screen time? It's just not practical. Thankfully, experts agreed that you don't have to break up with your phone completely—you just have to relax your grip on it. Here, those experts guide you to a healthier relationship with your tech.

Turn Off Push Notifications

Getting constant updates on what's happening in the world is informative—but it can also be distracting. "If you're allowing yourself to get interrupted five times in a half an hour, you're never actually focused in that time," said Jesse Fox, PhD, head of the Ohio State University's Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab. One easy fix is to turn off as many notifications as you can live without.

Convert to Black and White

One reason our devices are so alluring is that they're vibrant. Go retro, Greenfield recommended. Many smartphones now allow you to change the settings so the entire phone appears in grayscale.

Put Away Your Phone During Meals

It's a common sight at restaurants: a gleaming smartphone next to the bread basket. And yet, research published in 2014 in the journal Environment and Behavior showed that, even if we're not checking our phone, simply having it on the table during a conversation can reduce the quality of the interaction—our brains are just waiting for it to light up, and as a result, we are not fully present.

"The more energy we direct toward our devices, the less energy we're directing toward whoever is in the room with us," explained Elisabeth LaMotte, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.

Designate Tech-Free Hours

Many of us feel "naked" when we're without our devices, but taking breaks from technology can do wonders for our well-being. "Start by designating a certain time each day that's tech-free—like while you're eating lunch," said Adam Alter, PhD, a professor at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. "Then see how you feel after a week or so. Most people feel happy with the change, and they go on to expand it."

Make Your Bedroom a No-Tech Zone

"Most people use their phone for an alarm clock," Greenfield said. But when you reach for your phone to switch it off, it's easy to start scrolling through Twitter. In fact, it's best if you can leave your phone outside the bedroom at night and invest in an alarm clock.

Also, if you're getting cozy with your cell in bed, it's less likely you're getting cozy with your partner, said Jennifer Taitz, PsyD, author of How to Be Single and Happy. Make your bed a device-free zone and invite greater opportunities for intimacy—and sex. Oh, and you'll also sleep better. Screens' blue light tricks our brains into thinking it's daytime, which makes it harder to drift off.

Rediscover Paper

If you've ever noticed that reading a book feels more satisfying than reading a tablet, you're not imagining things. Not only do books offer fewer distractions, but a review published in 2019 in the Journal of Research in Reading suggested that, when we read on paper, we are more efficient and aware than when reading on a screen.

Additionally, consider getting your news from a newspaper, said Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before.

Limit Yourself to One Screen at a Time

When we're attempting to work, and we start scrolling, our brains go a little haywire. "Multitasking is really bad for us," Fox said. "If you are focusing on a task and you get distracted—like, oh, I'll just click over to this other window or I'll just look at this text message—it takes several minutes to recalibrate our brains back to the original task." Make a habit of only looking at one screen at a time to improve concentration—and, in some cases, enjoyment.

Spring Clean Your Social Media Accounts

Social media helps us connect with people in unprecedented and truly gratifying ways. But the more time we spend on social media, the worse we feel, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which found that the more time study participants spent on Facebook, the worse they felt over time in terms of their mental health. That's not surprising, given the fact that we see only a heavily curated version of friends' and celebrities' lives, which can be toxic for self-esteem. How can we stay on social while also staying healthy?

Fox, who has studied the impact of social media on society, said the key is to be proactive about who and what you follow. "Think about what—and who—makes you feel bad," Fox said. "And what makes you feel good." From there, clean house—don't be afraid to block, mute, unfollow, or delete, until you've created a list of connections who make you laugh and smile and fill you with happiness.

Download the Right Apps

Plenty of us feel addicted to our phones—and for good reason. Checking our devices activates the reward circuitry in the brain, triggering the body to release a hit of the "pleasure hormone" dopamine, which is exactly what happens when we gamble, Greenfield said.

It seems counterintuitive, but these apps can actually help you cut back on, well, all things digital: The Freedom app lets you block whatever sites distract you on your mobile device or computer, with the goal of helping you focus; and Off-Time (available on Android) allows you to selectively block calls, texts, and notifications (an iPhone's "Do Not Disturb" setting offers a similar service).

Protect Your Body

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, teenagers spend an average of nine hours on devices with digital screens. This can cause digital eye strain, which can cause dryness, blurred vision, and headaches, according to a 2016 article in Optometry in Practice.

To avoid eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule. Following the rule, after 20 minutes of looking at a screen, you should look up at an object 20 feet in the distance for 20 seconds. Also, don't forget to blink!

Excessive texting can also cause "text neck" and "smartphone thumb," found a 2019 study in the Journal of Public Health. To avoid bending your neck, hold your phone higher so you can look at it straight on and avoid inflammation, irritation, and pain. To avoid thumb pain, mix up the way you type, using different fingers. Above all, remember to take frequent breaks from your phone.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles