There’s a reason you’re here. Something about your social media or use of technology is not right.
Maybe it’s the creeping dread you get when you scroll through X, formerly Twitter. Or the stress of constant notifications. Or maybe it’s the guilt of hearing your child demand that you put your phone down and play with it instead.
These unpleasant feelings are a sign: Your social media and technology habits need to change.
Your attention span isn’t dead yet. These tips can help you regain your ability to focus.
While science can’t yet prescribe a plan that guarantees digital “detox” success (since it’s an emerging area of research), experts say there are promising tips and tricks worth trying.
It’s also worth noting that while we can use the word “detox” as shorthand for limiting our use of social media and technology to improve mental health and well-being, there is little evidence to prove that excessive use is addictive, equal to of disorders such as substance or drug use.
With that in mind, here are four strategies for limiting your social media consumption and phone use:
1. Determine what is driving your stress or unhappiness.
In studies trying to understand what happens when people give up social media, or more often put their phones down, researchers often focus on a narrow set of apps or behaviors — like deactivating just Facebook or changing the delivery of notifications – so it can be difficult to draw universal conclusions from their findings.
Dr. Kostadin Kushlev, who directs the Digital Health and Happiness Lab at Georgetown University, says identifying the digital experiences that affect you the most can be difficult. In fact, he believes a powerful solution will involve tech companies helping consumers “more easily implement research-backed digital detox strategies or use better default settings.”
Kushlev points to Driving Focus and the iPhone’s notification summary settings, which stop notifications during certain periods of time, but argues that more needs to be done.
Until then, individual users need to figure out what affects them most.
If just TikTok, although fun, has become a time-suck, start by planning to reduce your time on the platform. If you find that constantly picking up your phone ruins your focus, consider making your phone unavailable for periods of time throughout the day. You can also combine these and other goals.
The important part is to trace any technology-related dissatisfaction to its source and really understand what about that particular use is causing stress or unhappiness.
2. Start with realistic expectations.
Once you know which aspects of your digital life you want to cut, develop realistic expectations of what’s possible.
Kushlev says that while some studies show that certain containment strategies work well, many studies are far from conclusive. Instead, findings in this area of research are often mixed. Positive effects may be statistically significant but small.
For example, in a 2018 study that Kushlev co-authored, participants were randomly assigned to keep their phones on the table or put them in a lockable box while eating at a cafeteria. Those with the device nearby enjoy the experience significantly less than those whose device is out of reach. Still, both groups generally enjoyed their experience, indicating that the device’s presence didn’t completely spoil the meal.
Kushlev notes that much longer experiments, such as limiting Facebook use for four weeks, show improvements, perhaps because participants firmly establish new habits that are beneficial.
Kushlev’s previous research, which included a study on grouping notifications so they are less disruptive, suggests that people who limit smartphone use can experience important benefits, such as improved attention and productivity and reduced stress.
But some may experience negative emotions, perhaps because they lack the affirmative feedback they are used to receiving on social media. This is a separate effect from feeling less positive emotions.
In a new study published in PLUS ONE researchers found that 51 college students who significantly limited their use of all social networking sites for a week, including Facebook, Twitter/X, and Instagram, experienced both a reduction in positive emotions such as cheerfulness and happiness, as well as signs of reduced negative feelings and boredom . (Participants can still use instant messaging or voice/video calling apps.)
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Dr Niklas Ihssen, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Durham University and senior author of the study, says that an encouraging aspect of this finding is that it shows that people can manageably limit their use of social media without actually seeing “severe adverse effects”.
Still, maintain reasonable expectations as your “detox” progresses. You may be disappointed if you expect spectacular overnight gains. Or you may see an improvement only to revert to old patterns. That doesn’t mean failure, Ihsen says.
He noted that only a few of the subjects completely abstained from social media during the study period. In other words, it might be too ambitious — and ultimately self-defeating — to try to black out social media altogether.
Still, some people are trying a version of inspirational moves like the “dumb” phone trend. Mashable’s Elena Cavender covered this in her story about Gen Z’ers bringing back flip phones.
However, if a version of this seems out of your reach, just don’t try it. Instead, start small because it can make all the difference.
3. Plan how to spend your time.
Deciding how to spend the time you would otherwise spend scrolling is critical to success. In a Reddit thread about how to deal with short breaks during a “detox,” several commenters noted that it was unexpectedly difficult.
The key to take home? Get comfortable with boredom.
Kushlev says this is difficult for people. In a 2014 study in which Kushlev was not involved, participants actually chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit quietly in a room and think.
While this study isn’t related to digital media use, Kushlev says it could help prove why people struggle with not having social media or a phone.
The challenge, however, is that removing one app from your phone and then switching to another app with its own flaws can negate any positive effects you were hoping to experience.
In Ihssen’s recent study, participants reported an increase in online shopping and video game playing while avoiding social networking sites.
It is not known whether these activities eliminated the potential for improved well-being, but this is one example of what can happen when people limit their use of social media.
Ihsen says it’s important to understand what motivates you to use certain platforms or phone features. If it’s a social reward or connectedness, look for other rewarding opportunities to get those benefits.
If you’re highly motivated by social reward, consider spending the three hours you’d spend on social media each day volunteering instead.
For short periods of downtime, consider simply watching fellow shoppers in the checkout line or noticing your breath while waiting for the traffic light to turn green.
However you choose to spend your time, anticipate the discomfort of boredom, understand what aspects of digital and technology use motivate you, and look for other fulfilling opportunities instead.
4. Focus on personal experiences.
Kushlev specifically recommends replacing time spent on social media or on a device with fulfilling personal experiences.
As intimidating as this may seem, you don’t need to become a social planner. Rather, think of times when you might otherwise be engrossed in something on your phone—at the bus stop, at the dinner table, on a date—and reach out to another person.
“It doesn’t really matter what you do; physical interactions tend to be better than digital interactions,” he says.
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This can be as quick as acknowledging a stranger waiting in line or even starting a conversation with them. As social animals, humans can derive surprisingly positive feelings from such everyday interactions, especially over time.
While Kushlev doesn’t subscribe to the idea that a smartphone at the table is ruining dinner time, for example, he believes the device’s presence can interfere with people’s ability to take advantage of our personal social experiences. In fact, Kushlev’s research shows how the device can undermine our relationships.
So if you’re hoping to get the most out of your tech break, make sure you engage in even the briefest of personal interactions regularly, and put your phone away while you do so.
Kushlev, whose own smartphone is on silent most of the time, tries to keep his approach simple: “Take control of your phone; don’t let him control you.”