Mind & Body

How to do a digital detox

Spending too much time on your phone is proven to be chronically bad for your mental health. Neuroscientist DR TARA SWART explains how to clean up your digital habits


At its recent annual conference, Google announced a new ‘digital wellbeing’ initiative – a feature that helps to set limits on specific apps and notifications, stop unnecessary interactions and reduce visual disturbances. YouTube quickly followed suit by introducing a new feature that reminds you how long you’ve been watching videos for and suggests break times. And Facebook admitted last year that passive use of its social network can leave people in negative moods. These three global digital entities rely purely on volume of visitors, but this new mindset towards digital health has become one of the main focuses in Silicon Valley – and for good reason. Emerging research suggests that addictive use of phones and internet, particularly among teens, triggers a chemical imbalance in the brain that predisposes users to depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and impulsive behavior.

So, what’s the solution? Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart reveals the seven steps to prevent your smartphone from harming your health.

Take distracting apps off your home screen

Much of our scrolling is unconscious behavior, shifting from Facebook to Instagram, checking the weather, texting… Set boundaries by keeping the apps that you want to encourage yourself to use – like those for reading or learning a new language – front and center, but banish anything that you want to limit time on to folders on your second page of apps (or if you have an Android phone, off the screen entirely).

Slide your phone to grayscale

The Center for Humane Technology, a non-profit founded by an ex-Google employee, recommends sliding your phone to grayscale (black and white) to remove the “shiny rewards and positive reinforcements” that colorful icons give you every time you unlock your phone. To do this on an iPhone, go to Settings> General> Accessibility> Accessibility Shortcut and select Color Filters, then triple-click the home button.

Turn off push notifications

You don’t have to be interrupted by every ‘like’ or positive comment that your latest Instagram picture receives. The brain perceives this as a reward (which correlates with a hit of dopamine), but in fact, we are psychologically twice as affected by a negative comment or being ignored. A simple way to cut down on distractions is to turn off push notifications for as many apps as you can. Just head to Settings> Notifications to control your preferences.

Banish phones from the bedroom

Don’t let your phone be the last thing you see at night and the first thing you check in the morning. By using a regular alarm clock and charging your phone out of reach, you won’t be tempted to start your day with distracting messages and updates.

Track your habits

Use apps like Quality Time and Moment that track or restrict access to certain apps and sites. You can set a specific usage goal and see how well you stick to it. It’s a bit like putting parental controls on your own phone.

Invest in a smart speaker

One of the most valuable things about smart speakers such as Amazon Echo or Google Home is that they help you to live a more screen-free life and keep your smartphone out of your hands for longer.

Build in some tech-free time

Deliberately limit your phone usage by switching it off or putting it on airplane mode for certain hours of the day, or do a full digital detox for a day, a weekend or an entire vacation. Doing so makes us realize how much time we spend mindlessly on our phones and gives our brains a chance to refresh and recuperate.


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