Experts Explain Why Unplugging From Tech Really Is That Good For You
Just 24 hours can make a difference.
When was the last time your phone was further than a two-foot radius from your body? (And no, that time you lost it between the couch cushions doesn't count.) Whether you're texting a frenemy back, frantically refreshing your email, or keeping Netflix on in the background while you cook dinner, you're probably surrounded by screens no matter where you look. You've probably heard plenty about the benefits of unplugging from technology but thought, "In this economy? OK, boomer." But it's very, very worth it to give those benefits a second chance — for your mental health, your sleep, your eyes, and more.
No one's saying you have to disconnect entirely from your screens, but it's worth remembering that distance can be a good thing. Not in the distance-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder sense, but more like, "Hey, remember when you didn't feel phantom notifications when you were waiting for a text back?"
"All of us struggle to keep the balance between using technology as a resource and using technology as a crutch," Talkspace therapist Meaghan Rice Pys.D. LPC tells Bustle. "But completely unplugging can get us closer to achieving that balance,"
"Unplugging from technology for a while can help you feel more centered and grounded in the present moment," therapist Heidi McBain LMFT tells Bustle. That means more of your attention and energy can go towards things that count, like your burgeoning sourdough empire, or not feeling like your to-do list is an unclimbable mountain. Learning TikTok dances is a valuable skill, but keeping your focus on what's happening in the here and now — rather than on the potential likes or shares — can help you feel more confident, more present, and a little more able to tackle the headaches life inevitably throws at you. Putting up a few lines when it comes to your screen time isn't a bad idea, especially if you feel like your days consist of eating, sleeping, and screens.
So, what are some of the benefits of unplugging from tech on a regular basis? Thankfully, there's a lot of research on the subject to let you know exactly what's what. It's also important to remember that what is feasible for you might not work for others, and vice-versa. And that's OK! But knowing what good can come from leaving your phone to charge while you take a walk, say, might encourage you to do it a little more often.
Here is just a smattering of the science-backed benefits of unplugging from technology:
Getting Off Your Phone Helps Your Overall Quality Of Life
OK, that sounds like a lot, but hear the science out: In a 2011 study from the University of Maryland, researchers discovered that when students unplugged from technology, they reported an improved quality of life. In the context of this study, that meant that study participants spent more time with friends and family, got more frequent exercise, and even cooked more often and ate healthier foods. How did all of these lovely changes occur? Less time spent on their phones gave them the "free" time to spend elsewhere. A 2017 study in International Journal of Health & Addiction identifies increased use of technology as one of the big threats to mental health for adults right now, so if you feel like switching off, you may reap unexpected benefits.
"It can force you to be more creative with how you spend your time," McBain says — and that means exploring other hobbies, getting outdoors, or just having quality time with your cat.
Unplugging After Work Helps You Recharge
Research published in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology in 2011 found that unplugging after work can make a big difference in your quality of life, health, and happiness. Researchers found that when people "unplugged" from work related tasks, such as checking their work email after hours, they reported feeling fresher and better recharged when beginning work the following day. For anyone who has ever experienced burn-out at work, this isn't too surprising. You can only do so much for so long before feeling exhausted, and constantly plugging into your screens doesn't help matters.
"Unplugging reduces stress," Talkspace therapist Reshawna Chapple, Ph.D., LCSW, tells Bustle. "Both your brain and your body need to recover from the intake of external stimuli. It helps you to physically feel better and make you less anxious."
A Digital Detox Is Shown To Help You Sleep
Data from a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 44% of people sleep with their phones by their sides so they don't miss a message or notification. But being woken up by funny tweets and random GIFs from your friends is likely doing nothing for your sleep patterns, much less your mood upon waking up in the morning. And if you're waking up in the middle of the night to check work emails, that doesn't suggest anything good, either, because you aren't giving your brain and body proper time to recharge.
Other research suggests that the blue light from the screens in our computers and phones also makes it difficult for your body to fall asleep, implying that you should disconnect before bed, rather than falling asleep while staring at a screen. "Give your eyes a much needed rest from a glowing machine," McBain says.
It Could Make It Easier To Move Past Old Relationships
According to a 2012 study in Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, unplugging from tech might even help you get over your ex. Of course, while pretty much nothing except for time and a few good cries truly heals the wounds of a breakup, constantly seeing reminders of your ex on social media doesn't make things any easier.
In fact, if you follow your ex on social media, you may have a harder time focusing on your future. The study participants reported feeling more sexual desire for their ex and less negative feelings for their ex when frequently checking their social media, as well as feeling less desire for their own personal growth. A 2017 study in Computers in Human Behavior also found that people often compared their relationships to others on social media, so even if you're happily coupled, you may find digitally disconnecting helps you feel more satisfied with what you have.
Unplugging Can Make Your Interpersonal Communication Better
"Unplugging can help you feel more connected to your family members and friends," McBain says. A 2013 discussion paper from the University of Birmingham suggests that sharing too much on social media may negatively impact your interpersonal relationships. If you've ever accidentally "shared" a post that is offensive to a loved one, or vented about a boss and then been held accountable at work the next day, you likely know all too well that sharing online can have consequences.
This study, interestingly, points out that unplugging from technology might benefit your in-person communication and interpersonal relationships because it encourages you to communicate outside of the screen- and text-based medium. While technology makes communication super fast and convenient, it also removes body language, tone, and other things which help us understand one another and form bonds. A 2020 study published in Journal of Travel Research backs this up; it found that people who digitally disconnected while traveling felt they experienced better, richer relationships with other people and the world around them. Going through a digital detox, Chapple says, also aids in reducing negative comparison to others; you can see other people for what they are, not through Instagram filters.
Going through a digital detox can open up space in your life for more self-care and other things that are important to you, McBain says. Rice recommends going to a place with little to no phone reception to see how you feel, setting Do Not Disturb apps on your devices, and scheduling no-screen times during the day. If you're willing to transform your relationship with your phone and laptop, unplugging might be the way forward.
Reshawna Chapple Ph.D. LCSW
Heidi McBain LMFT
Meaghan Rice Pys.D. LPC
Cai, W., McKenna, B., & Waizenegger, L. (2020). Turning It Off: Emotions in Digital-Free Travel. Journal of Travel Research, 59(5), 909–927. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287519868314
Coyne, S.M., McDaniel, B.T., Stockdale, L.A. (2017) “Do you dare to compare?” Associations between maternal social comparisons on social networking sites and parenting, mental health, and romantic relationship outcomes, Computers in Human Behavior, 70, 335-340
Houghton, D., Joinson, A., Caldwell, N., & Marder, B. (2013) Tagger's delight? Disclosure and liking in Facebook: the effects of sharing photographs amongst multiple known social circles. Discussion Paper. University of Birmingham, Birmingham.
Marshall T. C. (2012). Facebook surveillance of former romantic partners: associations with postbreakup recovery and personal growth. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 15(10), 521–526. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2012.0125
Park, Y., Fritz, C., & Jex, S. M. (2011). Relationships between work-home segmentation and psychological detachment from work: the role of communication technology use at home. Journal of occupational health psychology, 16(4), 457–467. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023594
Scott, D.A., Valley, B. & Simecka, B.A. Mental Health Concerns in the Digital Age. Int J Ment Health Addiction15, 604–613 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-016-9684-0
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