Do you find yourself compulsively checking your phone too many times to track? If you get a text, do you stop whatever you are doing to check it? Is your obsession with documenting everything through photographs and videos preventing you from being in the moment?
Do your devices have a seat at a table when you eat, even during family dinners? Are you uncomfortable if you don’t have your phone with you at all times? Do you feel chronically distracted?
If the answer to any of the above questions is a yes—or even something you would click “like” on—than you do need a digital detox. But don’t start panicking about how impossible it is to give up your screen time, and the lost productivity it would entail. The amount of time you spend on your devices may have serious implications health—and may make you less productive, not more.
According to Dr. Hyman, the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine and the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, “More and more studies have been coming out showing the link between too much Internet usage and screen time and mental and mood disorders (like ADHD, anxiety, depression etc.). In a recent study, people who reported excessive Internet use also reported social anxiety disorders, loneliness, social isolation and lower quality of life. The study also showed that Internet addiction was associated with reduced immune function.”
While people often enjoy the sense of connectivity that being online gives them, they forget that it creates a cascade of disconnects elsewhere. But the fear of missing out can quickly transform into the joy of missing out. When you unplug you may be out of one loop but inside a much more important one—the one you have with yourself, your friends and family, and the world in front of you.
Here are five key signs that a digital detox is right for you.
1. You’re lonely
More time in front of your screen correlates to less meaningful contact with other humans. This means our sense of isolation and social anxiety goes way up. It’s too much Facebook, and not enough face-to-face time.
When you boil it down, loneliness centers on the longing to be seen. A person who is lonely wants to be witnessed, but they also become intensely wary of exposure. Recent research suggests that loneliness triggers what psychologists call a hypervigilance for social threat.
On a cellular level, you’re on constant alert. The alert makes you suspicious, one of the reasons that lonely people are more likely to act negatively toward others. Plus, the lonelier you are, the less willing you are to risk rejection. The result? A vicious cycle of withdrawal. Hiding behind a computer screen becomes even more attractive, as you can have contact without needing to expose your vulnerability.
And loneliness is more than a feeling—it also has the potential to pose as a serious health hazard. Scientists are identifying significant links between loneliness and illness and finding it to be as much of a health risk as obesity.
2. You’re easily distracted
Working on the computer can mean you’ll try to do two (or three or four) things at once. Or sometimes you juggle a few screens, the TV, your phone and the iPad. Multitasking can feel so productive, but research shows that switching rapidly between tasks slows us down. Juggling tasks can make our brains lose connections, with important information falling through the cracks that we then have to retrieve.
Think of multitasking as the gateway to brain brownout. All the circuits fail because there isn’t enough power. What you will find on a digital detox, no matter how brief, is that you will you automatically put more of your focus on the task at hand. You may surprise yourself be getting a lot more done that way.
3. You’re losing your mind
A large amount of screen time, according to multiple studies, can literally alter the brain. It causes gray matter atrophy—a shrinking of the brain’s ability to process information. People who are prone to screen addiction may be more susceptible to it, but anyone who uses their devices heavily may experience some version of the same restructuring.
This is your brain on screens: A loss of communication and connections within the brain, including higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional and survival) brain centers. Too much technology can add up to poorer cognitive performance. Your brain needs a reboot, but one that comes from an offline power source.
4. Your sleep is messed up
Screen time, especially before bed, throws our circadian rhythms out of whack, affecting our hormones, our sleep and our energy. The screens emit an artificial light—blue light–that affects melatonin production, which regulates sleep.
Not getting enough sleep or getting poor-quality sleep has enormous health ramifications, interfering with the hormones that make you hungry and store fat.
5. You’ve become a sloth
Device dependency goes hand in hand with a sedentary lifestyle. Being glued to a screen leaves less time for exercise, movement, and play. A 2008 study showed a link between screen time and metabolic syndrome (a cluster of risk factors that raises your risk for heart disease and excess body fat) in kids; it’s not a huge leap to think adults would be similarly affected.
How you structure your detox is up to you, of course. It can be a secular Sabbath, when one day a week you ditch the devices. Or you can impose a media curfew time—no trolling the web after 8:00 pm. Or you could you do it in one-week chunks, and go off cold turkey during your vacation. You might be pleasantly surprised by how you experience life differently without a phone. Though at first it may feel like you have a missing limb, if you stick with it, you will soon start to crave being unplugged even more than dialed in.