With so many different devices available, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops, it’s easy to spend several hours a day staring at a screen. But all of that screen time can be detrimental to our physical and mental health if we’re not careful. A digital detox can help prevent some of the drawbacks of overexposure to screens, such as social anxiety, FOMO (fear of missing out), eye strain and decreased sleep.
According to a report by eMarketer, U.S. adults spent nearly eight hours per day consuming digital media in 2020. Smartphone usage makes up a significant portion of that screen time, with adults spending an average of three hours and 13 minutes on their smartphones per day in 2020. This is an increase from an average of two hours and 45 minutes in the previous year.
How does screen time affect adults?
Adults who get a lot of screen time may have trouble falling asleep or suffer retina damage due to the blue light emitted by electronic devices, according to the Sleep Foundation. Part of the reason why electronics make it difficult to fall asleep is that they suppress the production of melatonin, a hormone released in the evening that makes you feel tired. Blue light emission can reduce or delay the natural production of melatonin and subsequently reduce the amount of time spent in slow-wave and REM sleep.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), indicators of mental “wellness,” such as happiness and self-esteem, have decreased since the rise of the smartphone, while mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, have increased. Part of the issue may be that more screen time, particularly when it’s spent on social media, can lead to an increase in stressors such as social isolation, comparison, cyberbullying and reduced productivity.
How does screen time affect children and adolescents?
Children and adolescents are also spending more time watching screens. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, children 8 to 12 years old in the U.S. spend four to six hours per day watching or using screens, while teenagers may spend up to nine hours per day watching screens. Increased screen time can be detrimental to children and adolescents, as it could expose them to violence, substance use, sexual content or hurtful stereotypes. It may also cause them to negatively compare themselves with their peers or celebrities. As with adults, too much screen time, especially close to bedtime, can have a negative impact on children’s sleep.
How can a “digital detox” help?
A digital detox is a period of time during which a person voluntarily reduces (or avoids) spending time on digital devices, such as smartphones or laptops. Taking time to step away from electronic devices every now and then can help counteract some of the negative effects screen time can have on a person’s mental and physical well-being. You don’t have to completely stop using digital devices cold turkey, but you could try making an initial change and then adjusting as needed.
By limiting your screen time, you likely won’t feel as if you’re missing out on fun activities, as you won’t be privy to them. You’ll also be less likely to compare yourself to your peers — though keep in mind that social media often acts as a “highlight reel.” Your peers may be more likely to show the glamorous and positive side of their lives while avoiding posting about their struggles. Additionally, limiting your screen time can allow you to be more present with the people around you as well.
How to detox
A digital detox doesn’t have to be difficult. You can start by setting time limits for yourself — for example, you could give yourself an hour a day to scroll through social media — and once you hit that limit, you no longer go on social media until the next day. Alternatively, you could set a specific time at which you must put your phone down or close your laptop. Some smartphones even have a “digital well-being” option that allows you to set time limits for your apps. This setting can also show you how much time you spend in certain apps as well as how many times you unlock your phone per day.
You can also get your family in on the digital detox. For children, consider using parental controls to limit their screen time, or prioritize educational apps over entertainment. Try doing a family challenge to see who can go the longest without looking at their phone or computer, or designate certain times of day, such as meal times, as screen-free time.
Screen time isn’t bad as long as you’re able to moderate your use. Start small and experiment with different techniques for reducing your screen time, and don’t feel bad if you go over your time limits. You can always try again another day.