Why We All Need a Digital Detox

Wherever we are, the virtual world is close by. With smartphones, laptops, tablets, and wireless Internet, we’re able to stay plugged in all the time. That’s why the idea of a digital detox has become increasingly popular.

Making time and space for a regular technology detox is important for people of all ages. However, digital detoxing may be especially important for children and teens. That’s because their brains are still developing. Therefore, they are more susceptible to the negative effects of technology on the body and nervous system.

“Not only has technology transformed our relationships, lifestyle and society, it’s also changing our brains.”

Heather Senior Monroe, LCSW, Director of Program Development

What Is a Digital Detox?

A digital detox refers to a period of time during which a person refrains from using electronic devices connected to the Internet, such as smartphones and computers. Moreover, a digital detox is an opportunity to reduce stress and focus more on interaction with others. And it can also help prevent addiction to tech devices.

In addition, a digital detox provides time to experience nature, get physical exercise, and practice mindfulness. Unplugging on a regular basis helps us maintain a healthy balance between IRL (“in real life”) activities and the digital world.

Ultimately, a digital detox is a way to disconnect to reconnect.

Newport Academy Restoring Families Resources Digital Detox

Why Do a Digital Detox?

No one denies that digital devices have their upsides. They can enhance efficiency, convenience, and communication. However, all the time we spend online means we have less time to spend doing real-world activities we enjoy. Moreover, we have less time to spend with the people we love. As a result, our relationships can suffer.

Furthermore, an increasing body of research is examining how online activity and digital media consumption affect both mental and physical health. Hence, scientists have discovered some very real dangers associated with ongoing, excessive technology use. Here’s a look at the recent research.

Tech Addiction Is Linked to Depression and Anxiety

A large body of research is validating this correlation. For example, a study of 38 teenagers tracked changes in the brain associated with smartphone addiction. Researchers determined the teens’ addiction levels and mental health via questionnaires. Consequently, they found that the addicted teens had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia, and impulsive behavior.

Moreover, teens spend much of their time online using social media. And research shows that frequent use of social media goes hand in hand with increased depression. For example, a study of 82 young adults found that the more they used Facebook, the more their life satisfaction levels declined. That’s because social networking encourages teens to compare themselves to others. Hence, technology has a negative impact on their self-esteem.

Newport Academy Restoring Families Resources Digital Detox

Gaming Disorder Is Now a Mental Health Condition

The World Health Organization (WHO) this year classified gaming disorder as a mental health condition. Thus, it included in the 11th edition of WHO’s International Classification of Diseases Manual.

Gaming disorder is similar to other addictions, such as a gambling addiction or substance abuse. According to the American Psychiatric Association, certain pathways in the brains of video gamers react in the same way that a drug addict’s brain reacts to a particular substance. Therefore, this disorder is characterized by the inability to control an obsession with video gaming.

The WHO’s decision points to the addictive nature of digital media in general and video games in particular. Moreover, it emphasizes the importance of digital detoxing as a way to avoid addiction. Disconnecting from the constant stimuli provided by the digital world gives the nervous system a chance to “power down” and rebalance.

The ADHD-Technology Link

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that teens who used digital media frequently were more than twice as likely to develop symptoms of ADHD. At the beginning of the study, the teens showed no symptoms of ADHD. However, by the end of the two years, teens who used digital media frequently were far more likely to have symptoms of the disorder.

Impulsivity is one of the primary symptoms of ADHD. And impulse control is managed by the brain’s frontal cortex. Brain-imaging research has shown that screen time, such as video games and social media, affect the frontal cortex in the same way that cocaine does. Hence, screen time catalyzes compulsive and erratic behaviors. That’s a good reason to do a digital detox.

More Digital Media = Less Exercise and Less Time Outdoors

Along with the negative effects of digital media itself, excessive tech use also results in sedentary behavior. We end up sitting for long periods of time in front of a screen or looking at a smartphone. That’s why teens who spend hours a day on smartphones, tablets, or computers may be more likely to become obese, according to a Harvard study.

In addition, screen time replaces other, healthier activities. Hence, there are fewer hours in the day for exercise, yoga and meditation, or walking in nature, for example. Moreover, consuming digital media that other people have created keeps us from embarking on our own creative expression. That’s a big downside for children and teens, because exercising creativity is an important part of identity formation and brain development.

Strategies for Doing a Digital Detox

Clearly, limiting screen time is essential to protect our health and well-being. And parents have the responsibility of protecting their children and teens from digital overload. Therefore, parents need to set clear boundaries around technology use and subsequently enforce them with appropriate consequences.

While adults may feel an internal motivation for doing a digital detox, kids are rarely inspired to unplug. They want to stay connected to friends, entertainment, and distraction on their screens. Therefore, it might take some effort and strategy to help kids detox from digital media. Here are some approaches for structuring more unplugged time.

Take a digital detox retreat.

Digital detox retreats can be effective for families. Hence, the whole family takes a trip to a new and exciting place. And everyone commits to staying unplugged all or most of the time. It might be for a day, a few days, a week, or more.

Phones keep us one step away from a direct experience of what’s going on around us. As a result, unplugging means more opportunity to spend time together. In addition, we’re more likely to engage directly with our environment.

Start small and build up gradually.

A digital detox doesn’t have to be a full-on retreat. Another option is to do mini digital detoxing throughout the day. Start on the first day by not looking at your phone for 15 minutes. The next day, unplug for 30 minutes, or take several 15-minute breaks. Work up to a half day or full day every week when you stay away from digital media and social platforms.

Designate regular unplugged times for everyone during the day.

This is particularly important during meals. That’s because busy family schedules often mean that dinner is the only time during the day when the family sits down together. Without the distraction of screens, the family communication improves.

Unplugging before bed is also essential, as it gives the nervous system time to wind down from the ongoing stimuli of screens.

Maintain certain areas of the house where screens are off limits.

As well as the dining room, this might include the kitchen. Moreover, families can designate a room devoted to reading and board games, with no TV. Plus, if technology is off-limits outside, kids are more likely to get involved in outdoor play.

Moreover, kids don’t need computers in their bedrooms. If they are using one for homework or any other screen activities they’re permitted, they can use a family computer. This computer stays in a location where parents are able to monitor what kids are doing online and for how long.

Plan technology-free family activities.

For younger kids, visit a hands-on children’s museum or take a parent-child circus or art class. Teens might enjoy ropes courses, rafting, snowboarding or a dance class. Or just get everyone out for a hike or a swim.

Along with getting kids away from their phones, physical exercise and nature immersion both have powerful mental and physical heath benefits. In one study in Mind, 95 percent of those interviewed said their mood improved after putting down their phones to spend time outside. They shifted from feeling depressed and stressed to more calm and balanced. 

Explain to kids how screen time and digital media affect their health and their brain.

Don’t underestimate their ability to process the pros and cons. Knowledge alone might not impact their behavior, as the pull of technology is strong. But they’ll understand why digital detox is so important. Rather than a punishment, it is a protection and prevention strategy.

Teach children and teens healthy ways to self-soothe.

Too often, kids turn to the distraction of screens when they’re feeling unhappy or uncomfortable. A digital detox can help them cultivate healthier self-care routines and ways to calm down. For example, a simple meditation or breathing practice, drawing or journaling about what they’re feeling, or an offline hobby that plays to their strengths.

In summary, everyone needs to find their own way to create a digital detox. And parents need to help kids and teens do the same. As a result, a habit of regularly unplugging will reap a multitude of benefits.

Sources:

Psychiatr Danub. 2012 Mar;24(1):90–3.

PLoS One. 2013 Aug 14;8(8):e69841.

JAMA. 2018;320(3):255–263.

J Pediatr. 2017 Mar;182:144–149.