How to Take a Digital Detox

by Kimberly Jordan Allen

The idea of a digital detox isn’t new—but it’s more important than ever. We are surrounded by technology, day in and day out, and studies are finding that being constantly plugged in can have serious mental and physiological health effects. 

In fact, researchers say that we’ve now gone beyond the ability to quantify screen time accurately, because screens are so ubiquitous. We move, sometimes within seconds, from smartwatch to smartphone, laptop to car console, streaming video to Facebook, and on and on. The so-called “screenome” influences our attention, our environment, and our health. 

It’s past time to unplug. In the 21st century, the digital detox has become a vital tool for well-being.

Why Digital Detox  

Because adolescents are on the front lines of tech use, they have been the first to manifest technology's negative impact on mental health—like canaries in a coalmine. Experts claim that the insidious effect of social media, the lack of time outdoors as a result of tech use, and the constant stimulation provided by devices have all contributed to the rise in depression, anxiety, and suicide in teens and young adults. In terms of brain function, technology acts like a drug: Online distractions have been shown to potentially create addictive habituation patterns.

Along with the mental health concerns are the physiological effects—the larger potential impact of devices, especially cellphones, on our physical health. One area clearly at risk: Our sleep. Sleep issues impact 50 to 70 million Americans, and digital saturation makes it worse. Research reveals that the blue light emitted by devices disrupts serotonin and melatonin regulation, which directly affects sleep patterns. Also, phone time in bed messes with our natural rhythms and hampers our ability to relax. 

“Misuse and overuse of the senses create imbalance in the nervous system,” says Erin Casperson, Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda. “Every time you engage on email or social media, it stimulates the circuits in your brain and nervous system, activating the stress response and making it difficult to rest and restore.”

The good news is that we can change the patterns. A digital detox—time allotted specifically for no screens—is an intentional way to limit exposure.

Digital Detox as a Way to Connect

Digital detox zones are areas, locations, or time slots dedicated to untethering from tech and experiencing life in real time. For some, it may be an hour each day when we turn off all notifications. For others, it’s a retreat and renewal spot, like Kripalu. The idea is to unplug to plug in. When we put down our devices, we look up, engage, and come back to the world, and to ourselves. We have the opportunity to connect with the natural world, to savor face time instead of FaceTime, and to be creative. 

“We all want to feel connected,” says Coby Kozlowski, Kripalu Schools teacher-trainer and a certified life coach. “Often, people rely on their devices to get plugged into life. But the truth is that it doesn’t fulfill us in the ways we long for. To me, it is critical to unplug, in order to actually plug in.”

In addition, a digital detox resets our nervous system. When we’re constantly being Slacked, emailed, texted, DMd, or tagged, our sympathetic nervous system goes into fight-or-flight mode. But when we reduce the stimuli and give ourselves space to get quiet and breathe deeply, we ignite the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the rest-and-digest functions that regulate heart rate, gastrointestinal activity, and systemic restoration. 

Seven Tips for Detoxing 

  1. Start the day before you power up your devices. I don’t check tech until I’ve checked in with myself. My morning routine usually involves making tea, a few minutes of meditation, and a little aromatherapy: Erin recommends a spritz of rosewater, which is also great later in the day to soothe tired eyes. 
  2. Reach out. Disconnecting from tech with a digital detox is a great chance to connect IRL with friends and family, and even with people you see every day but don’t focus on when you’re rushing by with your phone in hand. As part of your digital detox (whether it’s a day, a week, or half an hour), take time to give someone a hug, have a face-to-face conversation, or offer a heartfelt greeting. 
  3. Create a tech-free time zone. I actually schedule my offline time—it helps me treat the ritual of unplugging with the same value and awareness as all my other commitments. It also ensures that I actually do it. I work predominantly online, so setting at least an hour each day that is tech free and provides space for creativity. Whether I go for a walk, read, or do some artwork, this time fills the well.
  4. Do Not Disturb. This handy feature allows you to shut off some of the notifications and less pressing alerts while still receiving important calls. Here is a step-by-step guide from the New York Times on using this feature. Some devices allow you to customize an auto-reply message to the sender; I get these sometimes and I actually like that they serve as a reminder that we’re in control of our devices—we don’t have to let them control us.
  5. Actually be on vacation. Lately, I’ve been taking pictures on vacation but not posting them online until I’m home and want to plug back in. When we post, we’re immediately pulled into the feedback loop of checking and responding to comments. Isn’t the whole point to actually be on vacation, to share moments with those you love and truly be present? Do I want to remember that tweet I read while biking in Maine? Or that Insta story while I was in Capri? No! I want to remember the light on the water, the blueberries, and the smiles on my kids’ faces.
  6. Reboot the system. Accompany your digital detox with other routines that help reset your nervous system. For example, oil your feet. It’s luxurious, hydrating, and grounding—a great remedy for the vata-arousing energy of technology. Erin recommends nourishing your exhausted, Instagram-weary eyeballs with ghee drops at bedtime: Put a little bit of ghee in a sterilized dropper bottle, warm it in a cup of hot water, and put one drop in each eye. 
  7. Make detoxing a group activity. Take an unplugged hike with the family, have an old-fashioned game night, or try Erin’s approach: “Go out to dinner with friends and gather the phones in the center of the table when you sit down. Whoever checks their phone first buys dinner.”

Detoxing takes some effort and discipline; when we set boundaries and limit habits that may run counter to our health, it can feel hard at first. But the payoff is immeasurable.  

“Like breaking any habit, you need to know that a digital detox may be uncomfortable,” says Coby. “But the benefits on the other side include less anxiety, more space, more time to ground, deeper connection, and more creativity.” Give it a try this summer!

Jump-start your digital detox with a Kripalu R&R stay.

Kimberly Jordan Allen is an award-winning writer, editor, and content strategist. 

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