Excess tech use may be getting in the way of your wellness. Try these expert-backed strategies to become a little less attached to your devices.
Life during the most connected era in human history has many positives — faraway family members are just a FaceTime session away, and the answer to nearly any question that pops into your mind is at your fingertips.
But too much technology — whether it’s time spent on smartphones, social media, or in front of other digital screens — can have unintended consequences.
“Excessive technology use can take away time from activities such as sleep, exercise, and socializing, which are all important for well-being,” says Carol Vidal, MD, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
A review published in June 2020 in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience noted that frequent technology use has been linked to heightened attention-deficit symptoms, impaired emotional and social intelligence, technology addiction, social isolation, impaired brain development, and disrupted sleep in some cases.
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Technology is not inherently bad, says Madeleine George, PhD, a public health research analyst at RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, in Durham, North Carolina. “Technology and social media can have positive or negative effects, depending on what someone is doing online and who they are.”
Other research suggests, for example, that social media use can help you build and maintain connections when you’re more actively interacting with others, but tends to have the opposite effect when people use it more passively, such as when scrolling through an Instagram or Facebook feed without interacting with the content, according to a review published in February 2018 in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
You’ll know you’re overdoing it if technology interferes with your work, relationships, mental and physical health, or finances, according to Brittany Becker, a licensed mental health counselor and the director of the Dorm (a holistic treatment center for mental health, substance use, and life coaching) in New York City.
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Dr. Vidal agrees. “When something is consuming a lot of your thoughts and conditioning your behaviors, and when it is interfering with your life — like your job or schoolwork or your relationships — it may be time to consider cutting back on its use,” Vidal says.
Scaling back may have positive effects.
A study published in 2021 by the Libyan Journal of Medicine found that students who completed a social media detox reported positive changes to their mood, sleep, and anxiety. And another study, published February 2020 in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, found that women who quit Instagram reported higher life satisfaction and more positive affect than women who continued using the social media app. (It should be noted that both studies were small.)
For most people, ditching technology altogether isn’t going to happen. “Cutting down seems like a more realistic approach,” Vidal says.
To do this, make a plan, Becker says. Pinpoint your unhealthy habits and then decide which ones you want to change. “I think it is really helpful to get a clear picture of your tech use and review the time spent on your phone,” Becker says. “How that time is divided up with different applications is a great place to start, and then you can identify which areas to begin to limit.”
Dr. George suggests cutting back on anything that makes you feel worse or stressed, or that takes away from your life rather than adding to it. And remember, what constitutes healthy technology use varies from person to person. “There’s no magic amount of screen time that is good or bad,” George says. “You have to find out what works for you and your family.”
Here are seven strategies to help you manage your technology use and experiment with your own personal digital detox.
If you work at a computer, it’s hard to avoid screens, which means it’s all the more important to prioritize breaking away. Set up time in your calendar or with an alarm on your phone to remind you to go for a walk or to eat lunch away from your desk, Becker says. And remember to leave your phone behind.
Breaks can reduce stress, particularly among heavy users, Vidal says. She says more research is needed on digital abstinence before there can be specific recommendations on what this looks like and how long it should last. But it could mean joining others who are committed to disconnecting through events like those run by Digital Detox (a company that leads tech-free retreats) or deleting problematic apps from your phone, temporarily or for good.
“If the Facebook app is something that you click on often and find yourself scrolling through for long periods of time, getting rid of the app and having to go through the search browser takes an extra step and allows for a moment to pause and decide if it is a good time to engage in this activity,” Becker says.
If you’re having trouble staying present, eliminate the distractions by replacing your smartphone with a simple cell phone that cannot support apps. “It can absolutely be helpful to downgrade from a smartphone if that is possible,” says Jen Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker with JustAnswer based in Boca Raton, Florida. In fact, this is what she has for her children. “They have simple call or text features and that’s it,” she says.
Try powering down before dinner and until the next morning. Or, Apple users can enable Do Not Disturb, which silences alerts, notifications, and calls. Becker says it’s a good idea to take advantage of the tools that are built into your devices.
iPhone users can set limits with Screen Time (find it in your phone’s settings) and schedule Downtime, when only phone calls or specific apps are allowed and specified apps have a time limit. Digital Wellbeing works similarly for Google devices. People who didn't use these features were more likely to experience problematic smartphone use and worse well-being than those who did use them, according to an analysis published August 2020 in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
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Kelman believes that setting limits on certain apps doesn’t always work. Instead, she says to remove yourself from device use completely. Banning phones and screens from the bedroom, for instance, can keep screens from interfering with your sleep, Becker says. And if you have to go into a different room or part of your home to use a device, it may deter you from mindlessly scrolling.
“We are all using technology constantly, and therefore it can be hard to always know the difference between having a problem or not,” Becker says. If your behaviors with or feelings regarding technology or certain apps and sites begin to interfere with your daily functioning, it may be time to seek professional help, Becker says. Kelman adds that if your self-esteem plummets or you find yourself dealing with anxiety or depression, it’s time to talk to someone.
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