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Digital detox: How to free yourself for better health

Being online through every waking moment is becoming the norm, but does that mean we’re addicted? HFG editor-at-large, Niki Bezzant looks at ways to bring balance to social media use.

Sometimes science has trouble keeping up with the world. That’s particularly true in the area of technology. When we think that the iPhone was released just 11 years ago, and how much it and other smartphones have changed the way we live, it is not surprising we’re only now starting to see research into how this technology affects us, for better and for worse.

The smartphone put a screen in everyone’s pocket. Where before we’d been limited to screens on desks or, at best, on a laptop, now we all have access to the internet wherever we are.

Over the past decade we’ve come to rely on these screens. They’re our constant source of information – maps, weather, time, directions, advice, music, camera, media and more. As of June 2017, in New Zealand there were 3.8 million mobile phones with active internet connections. Mobile phone internet usage increased over 100 per cent in the year before that. Monthly data use has increased by 15 times in the past five years.

There’s no doubt they’re incredibly useful and most of us wouldn’t want to be without our phone or other digital devices for any length of time.

But there are downsides to our constant connectedness.


The overuse of digital devices has physical effects. Physiotherapists see neck and upper back problems as a result of overuse, with so-called ‘text neck’ becoming a problem even among school-age children.

Due to the position of the hands and arms during prolonged phone use, we’re experiencing hand and wrist problems too, in particular, inflammation of the tendons at the base of the thumb, a condition known as de Quervain’s disease.

Our eyes are also feeling the strain. So-called ‘digital eye strain’ is a group of eye and vision-related problems arising from extended use of digital devices and includes eye strain, redness and dryness, blurry vision and headaches.

And, perhaps, one of the most serious effects of digital devices is on the quality of our sleep.

Research has found both the amount and quality of sleep is affected by the use of digital devices, especially when they’re used in the hours leading up to bedtime. In teens, this is particularly worrying. A study released in 2018 found access to social media, especially via mobile phones, in teenagers’ bedrooms, was associated with a reduction in sleep time during the school week, which had negative effects on their daily functioning and mood.

It’s thought the screen’s blue light supresses melatonin, the hormone responsible for making us sleepy. Blue light has also been shown to prevent the body temperature from dropping during the night, a key element of the body’s progression into sleep.


Also, digital devices, and the access they allow us to continuous social media, may have a worrying effect on our psychology.

In 2018, 73 per cent of Kiwis said they used Facebook, the largest social media platform. Instagram was used by 35 per cent of respondents and Twitter, by 22 per cent. Social media has become an important part of our lives.

We know that engagement with social media and our mobile phones releases a chemical called dopamine in the brain. It’s a pleasure chemical. We feel its effects when we eat delicious food or have sex. It’s why it feels good when you get an alert for a ‘like’ or a message. We’re wired to anticipate and seek this ‘reward’ and that, in turn, can cause issues leading to overuse and addiction.

The designers of social media platforms know we humans are dopamine fiends. So, every part of the way we interact with their platforms is carefully thought out to feed into this dopamine-seeking loop, from the placement of the ‘like’ button to the timing of alerts. The more pleasure we get from social media, the more we go back.

Although there’s debate in the scientific community about whether social media can be classified as something we can become addicted to, in a 2017 review of the evidence to date, the authors noted: “There is a growing scientific evidence base to suggest excessive social networking site use may lead to symptoms traditionally associated with substance-related addictions.” There’s a line, it seems, between regular use and compulsive, problematic use of social media.

Social pressure

The 2017 report describes a world in which being constantly connected has become the status quo. “There appears to be an inherent understanding or requirement in today’s technology-loving culture that one needs to engage in online social networking in order not to miss out, to stay up to date and to connect,” it says.

This can create pressure. Partly this is through the impression we often get from social media posts that others’ lives are more interesting, adventurous or glamourous than our own. We forget social media is a way of presenting our ‘best selves’ – which is a highly curated version of reality.


We’ve all heard of FOMO, the fear of missing out.

FOMO, according to researchers, is defined as ‘a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent’. In other words, everyone else is having fun and we’re missing it.

Higher levels of FOMO have been associated with lower general mood, lower well-being and lower life satisfaction. Research also suggests FOMO can be a predictor of problematic social media use and is associated with social media addiction. We feel we can’t disconnect in case we miss something. Impulsively or compulsively checking the phone, the research says, may develop over time into an addiction.


Although social media can be a wonderful way to connect with others by sharing life experiences, stories and information in ways that can be highly fulfilling, it can also have the opposite effect.

A recent trial found university students who limited their Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes a day for three weeks showed significant reductions in feelings of loneliness and depression compared with heavier users. The researchers say their findings ‘strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being’.

Mindless scrolling

Experts have pointed out that social media platforms are very deliberately designed to constantly load more content. As long as we keep scrolling, there’s something there for us to look at. Unlike with a book, a magazine or even a traditional website, there is no defined end point, no point at which we naturally stop reading or scrolling.

This can make it much more difficult to disengage with social media. We’ve probably all had the experience of finding half an hour has disappeared as we’ve been scrolling without thinking through Facebook or Instagram. This also contributes to potential addictive behaviour, as well as feelings of shame and anxiety.

Do you have nomophobia?

Nomophobia is an irrational fear of being without your phone. See if these sound familiar:

  • Do you go into a panic if you forget your phone or can’t be near it?
  • Does using the phone take up a lot of your time on a regular basis?
  • Do you have ‘ringxiety’? Are you constantly checking the phone for messages or hearing phantom alerts and rings?
  • Do you feel the need to be constantly available? Is the phone the first thing you look at in the morning and the last thing you look at before sleep?
  • Do you prefer digital communication to face-to-face communication?
  • Has constant use of your phone ever caused you financial problems?

Case study

Why I quit Facebook

Sally* deleted her Facebook profile and opted out of the world’s most popular social networking platform a year ago. She’d been a member for years, she says and, while she wouldn’t have described herself as addicted, she was finding the more she used it, the less satisfaction she felt.

“I decided to quit Facebook for a few reasons,” she says. “I just got sick of it in the end! The time it was taking away from my life, the advertising, all the suggestions and notifications just got to me, when all I wanted to do was keep in touch with family and friends.”

She also started feeling increasingly uneasy about how much information Facebook held about her.

“I had suspicions about security and what they did with my information. Also, I started feeling uncomfortable about having put photos of my son on there since he was a baby, without him having any say in the matter.”

Sally says getting off Facebook wasn’t straightforward.

“Facebook does not make it all that easy! In the end, I found a very good YouTube tutorial to walk me through how to permanently delete my profile.”

Sally doesn’t feel any FOMO from not being on Facebook.

“I have not missed it for one second! I’d recommend [leaving] to everyone. I feel I have a much better-quality online experience now.”

Sally’s social media use now is ‘minimal’.

“I am on Instagram, but I rarely post things. I follow family and friends on Insta now and it feels like a much friendlier environment than Facebook. And, to keep in touch, we have a private WhatsApp group just for close family, which feels much safer and more real.”

* Not her real name

How to be smart about social media:

Tips to digitally detox

Going ‘cold turkey’ and giving up social media probably isn’t realistic for many of us. But there are some ways we can be smart about our social media use and make sure we use it to enhance rather than negatively impact our lives.

Turn off notifications

All apps love to ‘push’ notifications at you, telling you when you have a new comment, like or message. Reacting to these gives us that dopamine rush we crave, but can also be a huge distraction and ‘time suck’.

You can turn off notifications for any app, so you will only see the activity when you decide to check in.

Use the tools

Smartphone manufacturers are starting to recognise overuse as a problem. The iPhone, for example, will now report back to you on how much screen time you’re having. You can set limits for the time you want to use social media apps and schedule ‘downtime’, ie, time when only apps you select will be available to you.

Bedtime, night mode and do not disturb are also good tools to use to stop yourself being constantly in a state of reacting to alerts.

Turn it off or leave it at home

There once was a time, not that long ago, when we all left the house without a device. Try it again, on purpose, some time. Tell the people who need to know you’re doing it, and revel in the liberation of experiencing the world phone-free.

If you’re meeting someone at a café or for dinner see how being able to focus on your food and your company, with no distractions, changes the experience of dining out.

Eating mindfully helps you tune into your hunger and fullness cues more effectively and can make food even more enjoyable.

Improve your digital diet

Take stock of what you consume online. Be judicious about who you follow and what sites you visit. If you follow food or health influencers, make sure they are qualified to make the claims they do. If what they say or do makes you feel worse about yourself, it might be time to unfollow.

The same goes for health or nutrition websites. Spend some time finding out who is behind the sites. Ask how legitimate their claims are.

Are they trustworthy and evidence-based or do they have an agenda?

Uninstall apps

A step further is to uninstall certain apps from your phone. If Facebook is too tempting, try only using it on your computer and delete it from your phone.

Set rules for no-screen zones and times

It has become commonplace to have our phones on us at all times – at the table, in bed, etc. But it can improve your quality of life to set some times as a family or household when you don’t have phones around. When you are going to bed to sleep, try putting the phone in another room so you’re not tempted to pick it up.

The dinner table is also an obvious one. Eating a meal without distractions from screens has been shown to help prevent overeating. And it encourages better connections with the people you’re dining with, which is great for family bonds.

Ditch dangerous habits

Make it a rule to put your phone away (and maybe on silent) while you’re driving. And do the same when you’re out and about on the street. If you want to listen to audio on your phone, don’t have it so loud you can’t hear environmental noises such as cars and sirens.

Niki’s guide to smartphone etiquette:

How to politely use phones in public

Put it away

In social situations, such as restaurants, keep your phone in your bag or pocket unless you need to use it. If you don’t have either of those, put it face down on the table and resist the urge to pick it up.

Put it on silent

In the cinema or theatre? Make sure your phone is on silent mode. And, don’t forget, in a dark room, your screen shines like a beacon, so put it away.

Take it outside

If you get a call in a public place, excuse yourself and head out of the room to take the call. No one else needs to hear your conversation.

Keep it down

Talking on the phone in a public place or on public transport? Keep your tone quiet. We tend to speak louder into mobile phones, but there’s no need to. The person on the other end will still hear you and your fellow passengers will thank you.

Keep an eye out

Strolling and scrolling is not a good idea. Put your phone away when you’re walking around, to avoid injury to yourself and others.

Article sources and references