The Best “Digital Detox” Is No Detox At All

There’s a less expensive way to unplug.

Author by Keren Landman
Art credit: Kelsey Tyler

Without a shred of irony, the internet serves up one think piece after another about digital anxiety and how to reduce it. A growing sense that technology, especially social media, hurts us more than it helps us has paved the way for a boom in adult summer camps, tropical island “tech holidays,” and other chic, often-pricey sabbaticals aimed at separating us from our devices. At this point, the 2010s are selling #digitaldetox as though it’s a magic potion for all our modern ills. 

It’s not a bad idea to turn a critical eye on our personal digital use, according to media psychologist Pamela Rutledge, who directs the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif. But unplugging everything without undertaking self-examination is like trying to lose weight by going on a fast — you don’t learn how to eat healthier, so your bad habits come back. Rutledge thinks there’s a better, more durable way to do a digital detox. And, for most people, the better way is not to do a detox at all.

Why not? Well, for one thing, Rutledge isn’t a fan of the terminology. “Detox is pejorative,” she says. “We detox from drugs, from caffeine, from sugar — from things we consider to be evil.” Digital technology doesn’t belong in that category, she says, because it does bring good things into our lives. And, if you want to figure out how to regulate your digital behavior, it’s important to identify those good things.   

Another problem with the technophobic slant is that it focuses on weaknesses rather than strengths. Rutledge favors an approach that draws on positive psychology, which helps people lead happier lives by identifying (and then using) their personal strengths. The key to enacting effective, long-lasting behavioral change, she believes, is to reframe the change in a positive way.

How To Not-Detox

Reimagine the “unplugging” process as a digital nutrition plan, not a detox. To kick off your plan, try doing what many people do when they want to eat better or exercise more: Keep a diary of your digital use.

For three days — or up to a week, if you can stand it — document when you use which devices and apps, what feelings you have while or after you use them, and what you perceive as the motivation behind your use.

Next, review the diary, asking yourself which behaviors are in service of your ultimate life goals, whether professional (“find a less soul-crushing job”), social (“throw more dinner parties”), or personal (“quiet the negative self-talk”) — and which are not.

And don’t make the common mistake of dismissing the entirety of social media as a self-destructive time-suck. This mentality, Rutledge feels, overlooks the ways in which social media can promote well-being. A short period of mindless scrolling, for instance, can function as a soft cognitive reset, thereby reducing anxiety and fatigue and improving focus upon resuming work.

To assess whether a social media session is beneficial or not, consider its motivation and result: Are you checking an old friend’s Instagram feed to see how your life stacks up, and then beating yourself up afterwards because your career seems lackluster in comparison? Or are you exploring other people’s lives in an implicit attempt to figure out how you fit into society? Or drawing inspiration from a role model? Or taking a break from a more stressful activity?

Once you’ve identified which types of digital tech use support your goals and which don’t, Rutledge suggests looking for patterns: Which websites suck you in and swallow up your time? Which leave you feeling depleted? Now, brainstorm solutions and objectives: What kinds of changes can you imagine making, and what would those changes look like in your day-to-day life?

Sarah Derouin, a science writer based in San Jose, CA, first contemplated quitting Facebook when she realized it made her annoyed and a little depressed. She was hesitant to abandon it altogether, though, because she used the site to make connections in her field. “I was trying to figure out a way to physically limit the bad stuff and only look at the good stuff,” she said.

She started by deleting the Facebook app from her phone. After a few uncomfortable weeks, she began to feel both less agitated and more connected with her own inner world. The results were so positive that she also started limiting Facebook use on her computer. To do this, Derouin used the Google Chrome extension StayFocusd, which lets users set daily time limits on any website; she allotted herself five minutes of Facebook a day.

Less time on Facebook meant more time for other things. For instance, Derouin took up the sketchpad she’d been ignoring and began drawing again. And because she wasn’t using Facebook to follow friends, she was more inclined — and available — to initiate in-person social activities. “It really reacquainted me with sitting across the table from someone,” she said.

There are all sorts of ways, Rutledge says, to manage your typing, swiping, and scrolling activity. Turning off browser notifications and checking email at timed intervals can go a long way toward reducing distractions. She also recommends setting short-term, realistic goals — e.g., spending one-third less time on Instagram next week, or not checking Twitter at all on Tuesdays — and re-setting them until your digital use habits really align with your goals. Timers or apps that restrict online usage can help set reminders and limits; Stayfocusd is only one of several options.

The main ingredient in your success, however, is your own insight into your digital life. Well, that and your ability to tolerate discomfort while you form new habits.

But quitting digital tech cold-turkey does have its place, says Rutledge. If you can’t determine which online behaviors are counterproductive, even after keeping a diary, you might need a true “tech holiday.”  

Luckily, you know where to find one.

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