How To Make A Digital Detox Last, According To Science

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The way social media validates our desire to be seen can be a double-edged sword. Sharing and feeling connected with others can be paired with the dopamine rush of their approval — and discomfort if the likes don't roll in. In order to combat that incredibly common letdown feeling, Instagram has begun to trial a 'like-less' feed, where people can't compare their numbers of likes with other accounts, as part of an explicit focus on the mental health of their users. If fixes like that don't go far enough for you, though, some experts recommend a full digital detox or reset in order to reframe your relationship with your phone entirely. But what happens when the week of your reset is over, and you can go back to your past scrolling habits? Science has some ideas on how to make the lessons of a digital reset stick.

Some aspects of social media can play into individual traumas or triggers. I was ordered (yep, ordered) off Twitter by my therapist when the comparisons with other people's shiny achievements started to push my depression triggers. You don't need to feel triggered in order to want to make a change, though. Studies have shown that social media can negatively impact body image, and that teenage girls and young women are particularly vulnerable to social media-induced depression. If you want to do a digital reset, here are some tips from science on how to make it stick.

1. Monitor When & Why You Pull Out Your Phone

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Most of us use social media apps on our phones. Blake Snow, author of Log Off: How To Stay Connected After Disconnecting, told Psychology Today that it can be helpful to monitor the situations where you feel the urge to pull out your phone and have a scroll. "I truly believe that keeping our phones in our pockets is one of the bravest things that any of us can do," he said.

Identifying the causes of your longing for social media and digital connection — whether it's loneliness, awkward situations, spare "bored" moments at the bus stop or just a default motion — can help you figure out what you should target when you're resetting. In those moments, if you want to stay off social media or your device, bring a book, do some meditation, or reject the need for any new stimulus at all and just, well, sit there and watch the world go by.

2. Count Your Checking Behaviors

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Research in 2018 indicated for the first time that we often wildly underestimate the amount of time we spend checking or monitoring our phones. The reason? Our checking is unconscious. Looking idly at a phone for less than 15 seconds rarely registers with us as actually using our device, but it definitely counts overall.

If you want to track your phone usage in real time and reinforce your need for a detox, it might be a good idea to actually use a monitoring app. Apple's Screen Time and Google's Digital Well-Being dashboard are designed to show you how much time you've spent looking at things today. Looking at that data will show patterns of use and also provide evidence for the extent of your usage, even if it's not conscious at all.

3. Consider A Vacation From Your Devices

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Recently, a study in 2018 found, digital reset vacations have become vastly more popular; it's called "digital-free tourism," and it's kind of exactly what it sounds like. Many of us would benefit from a brief digital detox, even if we don't need to — or can't — detach from our devices for a long period because of work or family commitments, but we can shut our phones off when we're out in the woods for the weekend.

4. Take Away All Notification Signals And Sounds

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This is a very Pavlovian idea, but if you still need your phone for essential work but would really like to disconnect from checking social media, experts recommend that you remove the signals that your social media is sending.

"Every time you look at your phone, you don't know what you're going to find — how relevant or desirable a message is going to be," psychologist David Greenfield told NPR in 2018. "So you keep checking it over and over again because every once in a while, there's something good there."

Whenever we see a notification or hear the "ding" of a new text, we respond with a small dopamine-rush of pleasure and reward. Taking away those notifications — social media apps can be set not to send you any — removes the dopamine rush, and takes away your motivation to look at your screen.

5. Be Aware That Stress Might Make You Dive For Your Phone

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Inbal Nahum-Shani of the University of Michigan, speaking at the Association for Psychological Science in 2016, noted that stress could get in the way of new habits — even ones that we've worked on embedding in our lives. That goes for digital detoxes and staying off social media, too; when stressful situations hit, we can fall back on things we know, like checking our phones every 12 seconds. A lot of people know about stress-reduction strategies like breathing deeply and counting, but, she explained, "for various reasons, we fail to use the strategies as the stress occurs in real life.”

There's no one way to solve this, as stress can affect different people in different ways, but it's worth being aware that success in a digital detox can go backwards when something tough or stressful happens, and being prepared with something else: a stress ball, a long walk, or cuddling a puppy, perhaps.

6. Have A Reset Plan

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Technology researcher Joanna Orlando wrote for The Conversation in 2018 that preventing over-use of your phone or social media specifically requires being intelligent and having contingency plans: "Planning ahead may include setting specific times when you will or won’t use your device in particular ways. It may involve making sure you have other options to avoid boredom, such as having a book with you when you’re traveling or waiting for family members. A plan is important, as it facilitates goal attainment and also increases self-control."

To succeed in turning off long-term, you need to plan things day by day; changing habits is rarely instantaneous.

7. Consider Wholesale Deletion Or Suspension

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Yep, that's right — going the whole hog and deleting all your apps, or at least drastically reducing your relationship with them. (I no longer check my Twitter feed, for example.) This method can have benefits. A study from Stanford in 2019 on nearly 3,000 Facebook users found that suspension of an account for a month could produce a "small but significant improvements in wellbeing".

Want something more drastic? Deleting apps you check occasionally and only keeping the one or two that are most important to you, personally or professionally (after all, many of us use social media for work), may be another way to make the jump, business consultant Larry Alton advised Inc.com in 2018. Cutting off options completely can be a good way to make sure a detox sticks, but it doesn't have to be the first step.

Calling it a day with social media can be rough; it's an integral part of daily life for many of us. A digital detox, temporary or permanent, can put our usage of smartphones and apps into perspective, show how we're actually relying on technology more than we realize, and gradually realign our habits to be healthier. No need to go all Anne Hathaway in Devil Wears Prada and throw your phone in a fountain; with some planning, digital detoxes can be a viable option for anybody.