Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

5 Steps for How to Do a Digital Detox

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We are constantly plugged in to the virtual world. Our daily lives consist of regularly checking emails, responding to texts from friends, mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or TikTok, and getting news alerts. Since the pandemic, we’ve become used to socializing, going to school, and meeting with colleagues online as well. That makes the question “What is a digital detox?” even more essential.

Our hyper-connectivity can greatly enhance our efficiency and communications, as well as being convenient. However, being constantly plugged-in can also be a time drain on productivity and focused action, because we’re constantly distracted by the information overload. Furthermore, we may feel disconnected from real-life moments because we’re staring at our devices rather than engaging in eye contact. This can result in issues with family, romantic, platonic, and work relationships.

According to Nielsen research, American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media. Hence, people are becoming overwhelmed by the constant influx of content on their devices. In addition, our nervous systems are negative affected by the amount of time spent staring at screens. The concept of taking a break to disconnect is becoming more popular as people realize the digital detox benefits on mental and physical health.

Making time and space for a regular technology detox is important for people of all ages. However, digital detoxing may be especially important for young adults. For young people, the adolescent brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. As a result, the negative effects of social media and technology may have a greater impact on this age group. In this article, we look at why digital detoxes are beneficial and offer some actionable steps to complete a digital detox of your own.

“For young people, the adolescent brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. As a result, the negative effects of social media and technology may have a greater impact on this age group.”

What is a Digital Detox?

Some may ask, “Exactly what is a digital detox?” A digital detox refers to a period of time during which a person refrains from using technology devices such as smartphones, televisions, and computers. For young adults, a digital detox is a means to focus on real-life interactions with friends, family, and colleagues without distractions.

Unplugging regularly helps young people maintain a healthy balance between digital relationships and activities in real life. Furthermore, a tech detox allows time to get outside and experience nature through physical exercise. It provides more time for creative and mindful activities, including journaling, making art, and meditation practices. All of this can help reduce stress from constant connectivity.

However, it’s not realistic to expect young adults to unplug altogether for days, or even hours, at a time. So how can they digitally detox in small bites of time?

To protect both our mental and physical health, we need to create a more balanced relationship with technology. But it would certainly be unreasonable to recommend the type of full abstinence that is the best course for other types of addictions.

Don Grant, MA, MFA, DAC, SUDCC IV, PhD
Newport Director of Outpatient Services

Digital Detox Benefits

There are many benefits of a social media digital detox, in terms of both physical and mental health. Let’s look at some of those benefits.

Physical Health Benefits

In regard to physical health, technology usage often leads to more sedentary behavior. Sitting in front of a computer screen or looking down at a smartphone for hours takes away from time when young adults can be active outdoors doing a form of physical exercise. According to a study of 1,000 undergraduates, students who used their smartphones five or more hours a day had a 43 percent increased risk of obesity. These students were also twice as likely to drink more sugary drinks and eat more fast food, sweets, and snacks. Implementing a digital detox allows for more time for healthier activities such as exercise, yoga, and meditation practices, for example.

Another tech detox benefit is better sleep patterns. According to a Sleep in America Poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 67 percent of 19- to 29-year-olds bring their cell phones into their bedrooms and use them before going to sleep. This can disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle due to the blue light from phone screens. Further, the Sleep in America Poll found that 42 percent of this age group text in the hour before trying to go to sleep. The results of the study found that those who texted in the hour before sleeping were less likely to report a good night’s sleep, more likely to wake up feeling un-refreshed, and more likely to drive drowsy. Thus, limiting phone use at night before bed can greatly improve sleep and overall health.

Mental Health Benefits

Some of the digital detox benefits related to mental health can be life changing. Oftentimes, seeing others on social media can trigger feelings of FOMO—fear of missing out. Scrolling through other users’ curated images of their life may make you feel like your life is inadequate and lower your self-esteem. A study of 82 young adults found that as time spent on Facebook increased, life satisfaction levels decreased.

Additionally, according to a University of Pennsylvania study of 143 undergraduate students, high usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram can increase feelings of loneliness and depression. The study proved the benefits of disconnecting from social media, as students experienced reductions in feelings of loneliness and anxiety as their use of social media apps decreased. It also suggested that limiting social media time to approximately 30 minutes per day for young adults can improve overall mental well-being.

Further, constantly being connected to work, family, and social demands can be stressful for young adults. A study of 4,000 young people aged 20–24 showed that young adults who make particularly heavy use of mobile phones and computers run a greater risk of stress symptoms. Taking a digital detox allows more time to unwind and incorporate self-care routines such as drawing, journaling, breathing exercises, or meditation practices.

Stepping away from screens creates space for more creative expression and new ideas. Additionally, in young adulthood, individuals are often facing the pressures of a college workload or tackling their first career steps, which takes away from spending time with loved ones. Combined with constant screen time, these distractions can cause relationships to suffer. Therefore, taking a digital detox supports young adults to spend more time doing real-world activities they enjoy with the people they love. 

How to Do a Digital Detox

Rather than thinking of a digital detox or “phone cleanse” as a complete break from technology, which could be too extreme, instead think of a digital detox as taking small steps to create boundaries between yourself and your devices that benefit your emotional and physical health. It is important to make conscious decisions about when to use and not use your phone to maximize the benefits of technology and reduce their negative implications. Below are eight tips on how to do a digital detox and how to make unplugging a regular habit.

Be realistic with limits.

For many young adults, completely forgoing all forms of digital communication might not be possible, especially when they need to be connected for work, school, or other obligations. Instead of completely disconnecting, pick a time at the end of the work or school day where you can relax technology free.

Start small.

Start on the first day by not looking at your phone for 15 minutes. The next day, unplug for 30 minutes. Work up to a half day or full day every week when you stay away from digital media and social platforms. Or specify three periods on those days when phone use is permitted, while keeping the rest of the day tech-free.

Turn off notifications.

Constantly being reminded that you have a new email or text message can be helpful, but it can also create stress and pressure to respond to the message right away. Turning off notifications for emails, social media, and texts means that you can respond when you are available, rather than experiencing a constant interruption to other activities.

Delete apps.

If you’re ready to take your digital detox one step further, think about whether there are apps on your phone that don’t contribute to your happiness. If yes, consider deleting them. You can always add them back if you find you really miss them. But you might notice that you’re thinking about them less and finding time for other things instead.

Leave the phone behind.

Sometimes it’s better to have the phone in a completely different room, like when you are going to sleep at night, to avoid the natural tendency to pick it up and check it. If you’re brave enough, leave it at home for short periods, like taking a walk or other occasions where there’s no need for it. Or put it in your bag or backpack rather than your pocket, so it takes more effort to get it out and you’re more likely to skip the phone check.

Tell others.

There may be some friends or work colleagues that you only communicate with via DMs or email. Give those people a heads-up that you will not be using your phone during certain hours. Moreover, enlist others in your digital detox experience. Have a no-phones dinner or hike with friends, where you can hold each accountable for sticking with the agreement.

Don’t wake up to your phone.

Invest in an old-fashioned alarm clock rather than using your phone. Also, try not to check your phone for the first half hour that you are awake. Rather, practice a self-care routine and make a healthy breakfast, cultivating a relaxed, digital-free mindset before plugging in.

Plan tech-free activities.

Whether it’s going camping for a weekend or taking a bike ride or socially distanced walk with a friend, try to plan real-life activities with others that don’t involve technology. This allows you to engage in the activity with your full attention and have fun with others along the way.  

Help Is Available at Newport Institute

If you think you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, depression, or other co-occurring struggles, which may be amplified by a dependence on digital devices, contact us to discover a potential path to healing. We are committed to doing everything in our power to help you or your loved one get back on track towards living a healthy, fulfilling, and balanced life.

Frequently Asked Questions About Digital Detoxing

Is digital detox effective?

Yes, if you choose realistic goals and take small steps.

What do you do on a digital detox?

That can vary according to what’s doable for you, but essentially your goal is to reduce the time you spend on your devices. Check out our suggestions above reducing your screen time.

How often should you do a digital detox, and how long should a digital detox last?

As often as feels right for you, for as much time as works with your life and schedule. It could be a whole day every week, a few hours every day, or whatever works for you.

Why is digital detox necessary?

Too much screen time is bad for our eyes and our brains. In addition, studies show that social media overuse has a negative impact on mood and well-being.


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Mental Health / September 11, 2022