Digital Detoxing: How college students can periodically step away from their screens

A Dec. 11 2020 blog post titled

A Dec. 11, 2020, blog post titled “Technology, Electronics, and Mental Health” from Emotional Fitness, is a self-help blog written for Ohio State students by Dr. Ryan Patel. Credit: Lucy Lawler | Lantern Reporter

The detoxing process is often associated with green juices or yoga, but it applies equally to technology.

In its purest form, digital detoxing is disconnecting from electronic devices for a finite amount of time. A digital detox is one way to alleviate stress and improve concentration, Jenny Lobb, an Ohio State extension family and consumer sciences educator, said.

For students, digital detoxing does not mean neglecting schoolwork or ceasing communication with family and friends, Lobb said. Evaluating one’s internet use to pinpoint areas for improvement is similar to assessing one’s nutrition.

“We all probably eat foods that are nutritious and beneficial for our bodies, and we all have indulgences and junk food as well,” Lobb said. “It’s kind of taking inventory of that and seeing where you could potentially trim some of the junk, so you can reap those benefits.”

Though digital detoxes may sound intimidating to some, Lobb said they work best when employed in the context of everyday life. Even the seemingly minute act of silencing notifications while completing a task suffices, she said.

“When we get those notifications, that can actually kind of trigger a physiological stress response, which for some people may not be noticeable,” Lobb said. “But when they start to add up, it could be noticeable.”

Digital detoxes are potential tools for achieving a consistent sleep schedule, Lobb said. Students can avoid endless scrolling by designating one or two hours prior to their desired bedtime as technology-free, she said.

According to a 2022 study in Preventing Chronic Disease — a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — around 60 percent of college students struggle with poor sleep quality. Investing in an alarm clock is a effective approach to eliminating distractions after dark, Lobb said.

“If that seems too extreme, then take advantage of some of the settings that you can put in place on your phone, like the ‘Do Not Disturb’ hours where only emergency contacts can get through,” Lobb said. “Or putting your device in a drawer, something like that.”

Dr. Ryan Patel, a psychiatrist with the Office of Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Service, said taking these breaks is conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Using a computer or phone before bed stimulates brain activity rather than calming it, which has problematic effects.
“Bright light exposures through screens can delay one’s ability to fall asleep, in some instances by up to an hour, for some people up to three hours,” Patel said.

The desire to be entertained before bed is not new or unreasonable, Patel said. Soothing yet satisfying alternatives to surfing the web include bathing, drawing, physical activity, listening to music and meditating.

If practiced on a daily basis, digital detoxing boosts long-term productivity, Patel said. In particular, setting time limits on apps, such as TikTok and Instagram, helps users preserve their ability to sustain focus, he said.

“An algorithm feeding you content almost goes against that because you know, that is short, short, short,” Patel said. “A lot of that task switching can increase stress on our brain, and it can make it difficult to focus when we need to do deep work.”

It is likely the line between using technology for work and using it for entertainment will become increasingly blurry in the future, Patel said. He said students must engage with electronics in ways that leave them feeling restored, not drained.

“Otherwise, we run the risk of going away from meaningful work into being busy,” Patel said. “Not only that, but also feeling that constant pressure and strain of having to be connected all the time.”