Experts tell you how to actually do a digital detox
It’s 7 a.m. Your phone alarm goes off and after twenty minutes of sleep you reach for your phone. Inevitably, you’re littered with notifications: Uber Eats, that workout app you never open, WhatsApps from your sleep, and some viral tweets all demanding your attention. Of course you open one and before you know it it’s 8:30 am and you have 30 minutes to sit at your desk.
Like it or not, we are humans enslaved to our digital devices. In the evenings, mindlessly silently scrolling TikTok while watching Netflix is the norm. It feels impossible to just ignore every ping and vibration. So it stands to reason that when someone says they’re doing a digital detox, our interests will be piqued. International practice, adopted by celebrities, CEOs and ordinary people alike, allows us some distance from our devices.
“It’s a time when you intentionally disconnect from technology, including phones, laptops, tablets and social media, yes, that even means a quick WhatsApp,” says Melissa Lain, health coach.
But there is more to it than that. Every time you open your phone, your brain is flooded with dopamine, your body’s reward hormone. It’s the same thing that makes you so happy after eating chocolate or winning an arm wrestle. But being exposed to it 24/7? This floods our brains with stuff and makes us addicted to our technology. And according to a new survey, South Africans spend more than three hours a day alone on social media. A digital detox, also called a dopamine detox, can help. “The idea is to take a break from the constant flow of information and stimulation that comes with being constantly connected,” says Lainn.
How to know when it’s time for a digital detox
There are several signs that it’s time to shut down these reward centers for a while. First, if you’re spending an inordinate amount of time in a scrollhole, it’s time to hang up the phone. Zahraa Surtee, a consulting psychologist, notes that having trouble sleeping — and checking your phone in the middle of the night — are also telltale signs.
Also, pay attention to how you feel when you’re away from your devices, Melissa notes. “If you feel like you can never switch off, are constantly checking your phone or email even when no notifications are buzzing, and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you’re consuming, maybe it’s time for a digital one Detox.” She says. Zahra agrees. Do you feel uncomfortable when your phone is out of reach? You’re probably in a dopamine rut. You might even feel a sense of disconnection from the real world, says Melissa. “If you find yourself spending more time online or watching other people live, rather than creating and experiencing your own life, it is a sign that you need to intentionally switch off for a while and reconnect with the present moment .”
Then there are the physical consequences: “Spending a long time in front of a screen can lead to eyestrain, tension headaches, neck and back pain, and other physical symptoms,” says Melissa.
How to digitally detox
Zahraa sees digital detoxes as a way to carefully curate what you’re exposed to. “It’s not about giving up screen time completely,” she says. “Rather, it’s primarily about recognizing that the media we consume affects our mental health and the way we present ourselves to the world.” Spend some time curating your phone. Go through your apps and turn off the notifications that bother you or cause you to endlessly scroll. Do you really need a notification every time someone likes your reel? “Just as we can choose the type of food that we would ideally like to feed our bodies, we can also choose the type of content that we would like to feed our minds,” says Zahraa. “Digital detox is ideally about spending screen time more mindfully and in moderation.”
For Melissa, the digital detox you begin can be personalized for you. “It can take as little as a few hours or a week or even longer,” she says. “During this time, commit to disconnecting from digital devices and focusing on other activities that promote calmness and well-being. Don’t overcomplicate it, an hour or two a day is a perfect start, especially when load shedding occurs.”
Want to try? Instead of using the time to stare into space to check your phone or Netflix, try planning a tech-free activity. Maybe that’s a bubble bath, some painting in time, or just some tea and time with your thoughts.