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7 simple steps to a digital detox

Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC

Asian American woman staring at cell phone in the dark

You’re looking at a screen right now. You’ve probably been looking at it for a while, haven’t you?

The average American spends five to six hours on their smartphone every day—and that’s not including work-related smartphone use.1 Take into account all the other screens we look at (TVs, computers, tablets, and so on), and there’s potential for a real screen time problem.

Even though you can’t officially be diagnosed with a screen time addiction, experts say that the way people use screens can be addictive. And just like any other addiction, addictive screen time behaviors can have negative consequences for your mental and physical health.

How too much screen time can affect you

Anxiety, depression, and headaches are all tied to chronic screen use. As if that weren’t enough, heavy screen time use can lead to bodily aches and pains, eye strain, lower levels of physical activity, and sleep problems.

But wait—that’s not all. Our personality traits and psychological habits also influence how we feel. Social comparison, FOMO (fear of missing out), low self-esteem, perfectionism, guilt, shame, you name it: They’re all quietly working behind the scenes while we use technology to connect, communicate, and gain a better understanding of the world.

So, what can we do about screens? How can we stop or reverse the negative impact of smartphone and device overuse on our minds and bodies?

You may want to try a digital detox

A digital detox is just what it sounds like: limiting your access to, and use of, certain screen-based activities. The goal is to regain control over your time and attention while improving your mental health and physical well-being.

Research proves that it works. University students who detoxed from social media showed better mood states, less anxiety, and better sleep both during and after the detox process. 2

Committing to a digital detox doesn’t mean you need to quit cold turkey and completely unplug from everything. That isn’t very realistic. A better strategy would be to cut back gradually or limit use by a reasonable amount.

In a study that looked at how young adults used smartphones, those who installed apps for digital detoxing were able to manage their smartphone use better than those who didn’t.3

Is a digital detox sounding like a great step for you? Here’s how to get started.

1. Identify the problem you want to solve

Are you anxious about keeping up with everyone’s Insta stories? Is TikTok costing you sleep at night? Can you not stop binge-watching shows on Netflix?

Reflect on any negative feelings you experience when using technology. Better yet, write them down. Maybe you feel like you’re not spending quality time with family and friends. Or maybe you aren’t feeling productive enough at work or school.

Once you identify these bad feelings connected with screen time, you can tie them to your specific behavior and then to a specific source (like Instagram, Netflix, or even your smartphone as a whole). This sets you up to start designing your digital detox to help fix the problem.

2. Decide on a goal

What’s the result you want from your digital detox? What do you want to get out of it? Be specific. For instance, maybe you want to be able to comfortably spend no more than one hour a day on your phone, or you’d like to start going to the gym instead of watching so much TV.

Use the information you gathered about the problem in the last step to help you decide on your goal. It could be a goal for your emotional state, your behavior, your time, your relationships, or something else.

3. Select a time frame

Digital detoxes can be short term or long term. Some people might need only a couple of days to feel a difference. Others may want to try a 30-day detox challenge—or even longer. It all depends on how attached you are to your devices and the role they play in your life.

Research has shown that communicating online through social media is such an integral part of life that trying to stay away from it can create withdrawal symptoms and lead to relapses.4 This could suggest that you might need a longer detox than you think.

4. Create an action plan

You know the problem, you know the source, you have a goal, and you know how long you want to digitally detox for. Now it’s time to build your plan.

To help shape that plan, consider asking yourself these additional questions:

  • What triggers will you need to be prepared for?
  • What devices, apps, websites, games, or other sources do you need to limit or stop using?
  • How will you spend your time instead?
  • What can you do to make it easy and enjoyable to do something else?
  • Who can you talk to about your goals and experiences during your detox?
  • What resources do you need (books, articles, tools, apps)?

Write down the exact steps you plan to take when something triggers you to break your detox. Ideally, you want to have something else that can take your attention away from your unhealthy digital habit.

5. Reward yourself

Rewards are great for staying motivated and committed to your digital detox. Consider giving yourself some sort of treat or special reward for completing a short-term detox or a certain stage of a long-term detox.

This could be something as simple as listening to your favorite song after you finish all your work for the day. Or you could take yourself out for dinner after sticking to your detox for a week. Just make sure the rewards aren’t the exact behaviors you’re trying to cut back on.

6. Reflect on your progress

Set some checkpoints along the way to make sure your plan is really working for you. For example, you could start an evening journaling habit to write about how the day went. Or you could use a habit-tracking app to help you “check off” each day you succeed at sticking to your detox.

Tracking and reflecting on your progress will help you see how you’re doing and whether you need to make any adjustments to your plan. It can also help keep you motivated when detoxing gets tough.

7. Ask for help if you need it

If you feel like you’re struggling to stick to even the simplest or shortest digital detox, you may want to talk to a therapist. They can help you figure out what’s going on and give you extra support. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.

We could all use a little less screen time and a little more time in the real world. Best of luck on your digital detox journey!

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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