Digital Health & Wellbeing

A Digital Detox is as effective as a Dry January

There is a debate amongst academics that bubbles below the surface as to the existence of digital addictions. Some research finds a rationale for it, and other research doesn’t. 

When speaking about digital use, I often compare digital technology use in a similar way to the consumption of food or even alcohol – although food is probably a better comparison for office-based workers as it is very difficult to earn a living this way without using digital technology to do so. It is unlike alcohol in that it is generally possible to find ways to abstain from alcohol without forfeiting income as a result.

We know that healthy food can be over-consumed, become obsessed over or become a source of control. Unhealthy food can be indulged in (or even eaten on the sly) and food can be eaten alone or shared and promote social engagement.

In the same way, digital tech that is good for you can be overused, obsessed over or feel controlling. Unhealthy digital tech use has a number of negative emotional, mental, physical, relational and social consequences.

I would argue that digital tech can be as addictive, and controlling, as any other behavioural addiction, such as gambling, porn or food. We are human. In our search for happiness and pleasure, we seek ways to satisfy our desires, comfort our anxiety, and help us escape from reality. When a substance, situation, person or activity gives us the relief we are seeking, it is easy to slip into repeating the behaviour or consuming the substance that helped us in the past.

When we recognise that something has become a life-crutch or we realise we are over-indulging, we can either justify the action or seek ways to reduce the behaviour. We often use ‘gateway days’ or events to start a new behaviour, such as, ‘Monday I’ll start my new diet’, or, ‘after my birthday I’ll stop drinking so much wine at night’, or, ‘I’ll do a Dry January reset and after that I’ll be able to keep my wine consumption down to a glass a night’.

But these things rarely happen.

Unless we recognise and sort out the underlying causes of our behaviour, and set about making small, conscious, consistent adjustments to how we do things, it is difficult to change longer term behaviour.

So, attempting to do a Digital Detox for a few weeks (or even a few months) is likely to showcase the impact that digital technology has on our body’s, minds and behaviour, it is not likely to change overall digital behaviour unless we take purposeful, strategic and practical steps to change our daily use of our technology. In the same way that embarking on a ‘Dry January’ showcases the benefits and negative consequences of excessive social or solo drinking. 

Most of us probably spend far too long on social media platforms – around 2.5 hours a day. This is more than the time we spend eating, and about 1/3 of the time we should spend sleeping each day.

A recent article in The Conversation suggests that a social media detox is not as good for you as you may think. Social media has its advantages and disadvantages. Each platform has morphed dramatically since its original inception as the business model changes and investors/owners coffers need to be filled.

In the same way that each of us needs to investigate the impact of our food and alcohol consumption on our physical (and mental) health and wellbeing, we each need to analyse the impact of our digital technology use on our mental (and physical) health and wellbeing and take steps to change that behaviour. Radical changes or complete abstinence is a difficult way to change behaviour. Slow and steady habit changes and daily choices are often a more sustainable way to impact behaviour.

A great book to read/listen to around habit change is James Clears ‘Atomic Habits’. He provides a number of practical ways to make radical, sustainable changes a micro-step at a time. 

One of my favourite suggestions is to make changes your environment and make it more difficult to indulge in unhelpful behaviour. Removing social media apps and work emails from your phone may cause enough friction (i.e. having to power-up your computer) to reduce the amount of time spent looking at your phone and increase the time spent with others. It also frees up more time each day to spend doing other tasks that are more enjoyable and personally rewarding.