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Digital Detox: What Is It, and Could It Help Prevent Burnout?

Imagine it’s a pleasant summer day and you’re on vacation, lying on a quiet beach. As the sun beams down, you realize this is the first time in a while you’ve been able to just sit and think. You start to daydream and almost drift off to sleep, when…

Bzzt. Three new notifications. Your local furniture shop is having a sale, and it’s your friend’s cat’s birthday. Oh, and there’s an email from your project manager at work, with an urgent question that can’t wait until next week.

Sound familiar? With smartphones enabling us to remain in touch with everyone 24/7, the pressure to respond to messages at every moment can be overwhelming. That’s why an increasing number of people are opting to try a digital detox–disconnecting from digital devices for a certain period of time.

For busy workers on the lookout for ways to prevent burnout, could a digital detox do the trick?

What is a digital detox?

A digital detox is exactly what it sounds like: a period of time for disconnecting from electronic devices. 

The word “detox” brings to mind detox diets: short-term fasts or cleanses designed to eliminate toxins from the body. But a digital detox doesn’t have to be a one-time thing. It can also be repeated once a month, or even once a week.

Types of digital detox

Digital detox vacations

There are many different ways to approach a digital detox. One option is to go on vacation and disconnect during your trip.

Digital detox tourism has become more and more popular over the last few years. Media outlets around the world, from the UK to India to South Africa, have reported on this trend. And the travel industry hasn’t missed the memo, either. Tourism boards in Vienna, Slovenia, and Canada’s Yukon region, among others, have used “digital detox” as part of their promotional efforts.  

So why do so many people seek out this sort of digital abstinence while away from home? A 2017 research study from the Netherlands found that the main motivators for taking a digital detox vacation were “sociological, psychological, and physic[al] health factors.”

A study from 2019 found that some digital detox tourists experienced anxiety and frustration at the beginning of their trip. These emotions were then replaced by “increasing levels of acceptance, enjoyment, and even liberation.” In short, a digital detox vacation might be challenging at the beginning, but can end up being really fun.

Weekly digital detox

While a few days or weeks away from technology can be enjoyable in the short term, some people would rather make digital detox a permanent part of their routine.

With remote work becoming a reality in many people’s lives, more and more workers are spending their whole day online, five days per week. Disconnecting for a day or a few hours on the weekend can provide a much-needed break–this is sometimes called a “digital sabbath.”

Partial digital detox

But what if you just can’t stand the idea of being away from all your tech?

Let’s be honest: Today, digital technology has become almost a necessity for daily life. A Gallup survey showed that nearly half of US smartphone users couldn’t imagine life without their smartphones. This makes sense somewhat, since a lot of the infrastructure from the pre-digital era has simply disappeared. For example, as of 2018, the number of public pay phones in the US had decreased by 95% since 1999, making living without a cell phone a more difficult experience than it once was.

If you’re worried about quitting digital devices cold turkey, you could always try a partial digital detox—disconnecting only from certain devices or apps. One popular option is taking a social media break.

The case for a digital detox

Maybe you’re on the fence about whether or not you should try a digital detox. Is it really worth it?

Research has shown that digital detox may reduce stress and improve well-being under certain conditions. For example, in a study at Ghent University, subjects showed “decreased levels of stress during a digital detox week”. Another study at Sahmyook University in South Korea concluded that a six-session smartphone detox program for university students was “effective in reducing smartphone addiction and improving the students’ wellness.” 

Disconnecting can also have a positive impact on your lifestyle. Time that was previously spent on social media and digital procrastination can be reclaimed and used for other things. In a study at the University of Oregon, 16% of digital detox participants reported that “detox provided [them] an opportunity to engage in previously neglected activities” such as exercise, cleaning, and hobbies.

And even when extra free time isn’t used for other activities, it can still provide a chance to think deeply and get creative. In the same University of Oregon study, 60% of participants reported that “detox provided opportunities for self-reflection”.

Problems with digital detox

Despite the evidence showing that a digital cleanse can be good for you, the idea isn’t without its problems either.

One obstacle might be the difficulty of following through and actually stop using your devices. For example, while digital detox tourism has become a media and travel industry buzzword, research by Asurion and OnePoll shows it’s hard for tourists to actually do it.

Over half of Americans surveyed had never “unplugged” while on vacation, and 68% reported checking social media while away. The most popular uses for phones included taking photos, responding to calls and texts, and researching directions or a place to eat. With so many travelers relying on the internet to help them get around, traveling without a phone can seem like a difficult prospect.

Another problem with digital detox is that it can lead to boredom or anxiety about missing important messages. In the University of Oregon study cited above, subjects also reported some negative emotions around digital detox: 53% reported not knowing what to do with their time, 23% talked about the need to feel productive, and 11% felt uncomfortable without having something to do.

What do the experts say?

So what do psychologists and mental health experts have to say about digital detox? Can it really help prevent burnout and improve your mindset? If so, how can you get the most out of your detox?

Most of the experts I connected with for this article agreed that technology overuse can be a problem for mental health. For example, according to Dr. Rae Mazzei, Health Psychologist at Evolutions Behavioral Health Services, “Using technology is necessary for our personal and work lives; however, overusing technology can lead to mental health issues. When your brain is constantly connected to the digital world, you may experience cognitive impairment, headaches, and mental fatigue.”  

Many experts consider digital detox to be a helpful approach to technology overuse, especially if done consistently rather than as a one-time thing. Raffi Bilek, the director of Baltimore Therapy Center, explained that “doing a digital detox can be a great way to step out of that negative dynamic [of technology overuse]. However, a one-time detox is probably not going to get you back into your groove mentally or emotionally. Rather, it is probably most effective if it’s used as a way to kickstart a healthier relationship with tech overall.”

The type of digital detox you choose depends on your personal situation and lifestyle. Elizabeth Cush of Progression Counseling in Maryland, suggests that people should choose a type of detox that fits their needs. “If you’re able to, and you feel that all technology is causing more stress than positivity in your life, a total detox for a given period of time might be the way to go. You can also do more targeted detoxes, like removing [social media] apps from your phone or news apps so you no longer get updates.”

Dr. Brian Wind, Chief Clinical Officer at JourneyPure, also recommends a nuanced approach. “You can start by putting your phone away during meals or giving yourself a 3-hour detox on Saturday afternoons. Keep yourself busy by engaging in activities you enjoy. It might not be practical to go completely phone-free for a day or two, because the reality is that we all stay connected through technology.”

Ultimately, the “right” way to do a digital detox depends on you and your situation. Most people can benefit from disconnecting from tech from time to time, in a way that works for them.

If you feel like you’re experiencing serious problems with technology overuse, you should consult a mental health professional. (Here are some official resources from the US and UK).

Digital detox: why not try it?

For those exhausted from staring at screens all day, a digital detox might be just the thing to break up the monotony and get back into your groove. Whether you opt for a vacation in the woods, a social media break, or a few hours per week away from your phone, you might be surprised at the things you can learn about yourself with your devices off.  

September 28, 2020