Digital detox: Unplugging for better mental health

We might consider our current time as a digital age. With a plethora of tech and social platforms – and a variety of devices through which to access them – it’s rare for many people to go a day without engaging digitally. We celebrate digital and online spaces as a specific technology of connection. Whilst the web offers a variety of opportunities to engage with others in new and innovative ways, we do also have to be mindful of its drawbacks. With the average person spending 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones every day, the use of digital devices is becoming a more prominent – and perhaps, for some, indispensable – part of our daily routines.

With symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress being more prevalent in those with increased screen time, we can see that overexposure to tech can be bad for our mental health. But when everyone (and everything ) seems to be online, how do we reduce our digital engagement? What are the benefits of a digital detox, and what challenges may we face whilst completing one?

Digital overload

Engaging with tech in the evening feels overwhelming after a long day at a laptop screen at work. There’s a name for this phenomenon: digital overload. Digital overload happens when we take in too much information at once. Engaging with tech leads to an onslaught of sensory information, pop-up ads, the sudden sound of videos, bright, bold or straining colours. We might also feel overwhelmed by the content we consume. Today, the vast majority of people class social media as their main news source. Paired with intense and prolonged visual stimulation, the consistent scrolling through headlines, images and narratives online can lead to genuine overwhelm. This is where digital overload happens. If we are continually exposed to ‘an excess of information that exceeds the individual customer’s processing capacity,’ then it is understandable that things may begin to feel too much.

We’ve all come to understand the physical effects of too much screen time. We know that exposure to the blue light emanating from our screens can cause eye strain, lead to headaches and potentially prevent a good night’s sleep. However, we may not always consider the ways that digital overload affects our mental health.

  • Digital overload can manifest in different ways for different people. Some key signs include:
  • feeling anxious
  • feeling irritable or agitated
  • struggling to relax
  • difficulty sleeping
  • issues with sight (including sore eyes, blurred or double vision)
  • low mood
  • unexpected or unpredictable changes in mood

Screen time and stress: How are they linked?

We know that online spaces harbour a myriad of direct risks: cyberbullying, ‘trolling’ and the presence of ‘haters’ on social media. The internet can also be a dark place where inappropriate criminal activity breeds. But what we may not acknowledge concretely are the indirect dangers of digital overexposure.

Studies have specifically focused on the impact of screen time on teenagers. This is because, for many researchers, adolescents and young adults are considered to be the main ‘heavy users’ of tech. Meta-analyses suggested that rates of teenage depression began to rise in 2012 when social media use in the Western youth population became more prevalent.

Research has shown that overexposure to social media in particular can be linked to a rise in:

Suicide rates among young people have dramatically increased since the rise of Facebook. The CDC (American Center for Disease Control) demonstrated that the number of people taking their lives between the ages of 10 and 24 increased by 57% in the 10 years between 2007 and 2017.

This is especially worrying when we can see that individuals who may be most in need of treatment for mental health concerns may spend more time online. This can be due to a range of factors, such as:

  • experiencing online bullying
  • feeling isolated online
  • comparing your life to the life of others
  • comparing your appearance to that of others
  • feeling ‘outside’ of other people’s conversations and connections
  • overexposure to harmful content
  • overexposure to news about distressing events

Digital media allows us an insight into other people’s lives. This kind of access is unprecedented. We can learn a lot about the lives of other people online: their jobs and qualifications, what their homes may look like, their relationship statuses, social lives and engagement, etc. However, in the era of the influencer, this insight is somewhat tainted.
When we exist in the digital space, we may begin to forget that a lot of this media is ‘curated’. Digital spaces are not always a true reflection of someone’s life. However, the longer we spend in these spaces, the harder it can be to remind ourselves of this fact. This can lead to very unhealthy comparison, the development of parasocial relationships, and, for some people, the development of low mood and self-loathing.

The benefits of breaks from tech

The idea of a digital detox may feel overwhelming. Especially when, for many, engaging technology feels like a given rather than a choice. However, if your tech use is getting out of control, it may be time to consider a digital detox. This process can lead to a range of wellbeing changes, including:

  • lower levels of anxiety
  • lower levels of depression
  • more stable mood
  • more regular sleep
  • stronger connection to the people in our lives
  • greater productivity
  • a decrease in pressure
  • feeling more comfortable with ourselves
  • time to engage with old (or new) hobbies
  • a stronger sense of self

It may seem strange to be using language such as ‘detox’ when thinking about technology. However, evidence shows that it is possible to get addicted to digital activities. Diagnosis of social media addiction, porn addiction and internet addiction all point to the reality that digital spaces can foster compulsive and obsessive use. For this reason, it may be helpful to think of a digital detox as a kind of intervention.

Mitigating digital overload

If you do not want to engage in a full detox but need to reduce the time you spend in digital space, then there are some practical ways to manage your online engagement. Some key ways you may do things include:

  • keeping track of screen time – sometimes this allows us to accept when our digital engagement is too much
  • turning off notifications – this can allow us to access our phone when we choose to, rather than being regularly ‘summoned’ to our devices
  • keep your devices away from your bed
  • spend time with your phone turned off
  • reduce the number of screens you own
  • practice mindfulness
  • turn your phone to dark of ‘grey’ mode to limit sensory input
  • think about taking a break from social media
  • try to use analogue methods where possible (paper diaries and to do lists, for example)
  • have routines with your digital devices: for example, checking your emails at a specific time of day
  • spend time with the people around you (in person)
  • think about how much information you would like to share online

Difficulties detoxing

Deciding not to spend time in digital spaces can provide new concerns, for example, the risk of missing out. Not socialising through social media can often leave us feeling isolated, as though we are outside of an in-group. Two of the best ways we can protect our mental health whilst online are by fostering our in-person connections and carefully thinking about the boundaries we can set for our online spaces.

Prioritising face-to-face connections

You might sometimes find yourselves in a room with other people and notice that both you and those around you engage with their devices rather than with each other. This has become so common that there’s even a term for it: ‘phubbing,’ a form of snubbing someone by solely engaging with your phone. This can foster loneliness, which can itself be very psychologically damaging. One of the best ways to mitigate this is to set times or contexts where there may be a ‘no screen rule.’ You may wish to establish this in some of the following situations:

  • during mealtimes
  • for a certain period of time after work
  • for a certain period of time before bed
  • for a certain period of time after waking
  • during dates or days out
  • during appointments and important events

Not only will this burgeon our relationships – and remind us to spend time with our loved ones in the flesh, as well as online – it will also allow us to control our tech time more rigidly. Having routine periods without tech being present can lead to us feeling more fulfilled, mindful, and focused. It can help alleviate that feeling of being ‘chained’ to our devices.

Setting boundaries online

Each form of social media has its own purpose. Each app might illuminate a particular aspect of our lives. What is important to remember is that you can be active on some forms of social media. You get to set the boundaries of what, when, and how you share information. You may want to limit the amount of time you spend online. Equally, limit the amount you share about your life with others.
Spending some time setting boundaries can be a great way to relearn internet etiquette. Whilst it is not uncommon for the web to provide us with a space to bare all, it might be worth considering if that is helpful for us – and if it isn’t, you are allowed to decide not to engage with it.

Get support

We all might feel that particular panic when we can’t find our phones or if it seems as though our laptop is not functioning as well as it should. In our day-to-day lives, we have come to rely on technology for a lot of things. But that does not mean that we should feel controlled by digital devices. If your time spent in the digital world is spiralling out of control, you may benefit from formal support. UKAT offers a range of programmes at our mental health treatment centres across the country. Offering treatment for internet and social media addictions – as well as for a range of mental health conditions – we hope to help you develop a better relationship with tech moving forward. Devices are there to help us, not to hinder us. When the digital world starts to feel oppressive – or even preferable to reality – then it may be time to access professional support. At UKAT, we offer treatment options for individuals with dual diagnosis; if you are seeking help for addiction and additional mental health needs, we can tailor our treatment to you.



(Click here to see works cited)

  • https://explodingtopics.com/blog/smartphone-usage-stats
  • https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rafael-Lucian/publication/287249014_Digital_Overload_The_Effects_of_The_Large_Amounts_of_I_nformation_When_P_urchasing_Online/links/569e2bc408ae00e5c9919292/Digital-Overload-The-Effects-of-The-Large-Amounts-of-I-nformation-When-P-urchasing-Online.pdf?_sg%5B0%5D=started_experiment_milestone&origin=journalDetail&_rtd=e30%3D
  • https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00296-x
  • https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr69/nvsr-69-11-508.pdf
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6214874/
  • https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar_url?url=https://eopcw.com/find/downloadFiles/274%23page%3D329&hl=en&sa=X&ei=o33jZY7qMdvWy9YP6f6YsAI&scisig=AFWwaeZpnYFqLGrpzCm0p7PDr2-z&oi=scholarr
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3480687/
  • https://time.com/5216853/what-is-phubbing/
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