9 Signs You Need a Digital Detox

 by Sara Jayne Crow

It should come as no surprise that many of us need a digital detox. Here are eight signs that you need to unplug, along with recommendations on how to detox.


As I write this article, I'm simultaneously streaming a DJ set on Mixcloud, reading an article about Trent Reznor, researching its author on Twitter and periodically checking Facebook. My mental landscape is cluttered with platforms and advertising; windows and videos clamor for my attention; and I can't seem to focus.

Sound familiar? Making the cognitive leap from ingesting information to applying that knowledge requires the discipline to silence the distractions. Yet the distractions keep growing. So it should come as no surprise that many of us need a digital detox. Here are eight signs that you need to unplug, along with recommendations on how to detox.

1. You never read an article from beginning to end.

Jumping from one thing to the next online can have detrimental effects on your cognitive function. A 2009 Stanford University study reported that this kind of online multitasking can impair your ability to filter information. And a 2012 study published in Developmental Psychology found that it can also inhibit your ability to relate to others.

How, then, can you improve your ability to focus? A recent study reported in The Atlantic suggests online games (if you want to spend more time online). Or try rewarding yourself when you complete long tasks offline.

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2. Your vision goes blurry after looking at a screen.

Does your vision go a bit blurry after a few hours surfing the web? Not good news, says Ed Greene, former CEO of The Vision Council. "Digital devices are an important part of our everyday lives, from business and recreation to socialization and even education, but this behavior poses a potential risk to our eyes," he says.

If you have symptoms like red, itchy or dry eyes, blurred vision, general fatigue, back pain, neck pain and headaches, it's time to reevaluate your device use. A report from The Vision Council suggests taking a "20-20-20" break. That's taking a 20-second break every 20 minutes and looking at something 20 feet away.

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3. You can’t make up your mind.

The immediate accessibility of contacts, texts, shopping, navigation, applications and games isn't always a good thing. Nathaniel Barr, Ph.D., cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Waterloo, recently co-authored an article that discussed how people "offload thinking to technology."

"An active mind is an important aspect of maintaining a healthy life," he says. "As such, we strongly encourage people to continue to think analytically in their daily lives... although we can now Google a wealth of information." Some researchers suggest that playing games like crossword puzzles can help improve critical-thinking skills, according to one article in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine.

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4. You bump into things a lot.

So, can using your phone cause you to be clumsier? When you're walking and typing, yes. Reacting to an increase of cellphone-related injuries, a 2012 study from Stony Brook University found that pedestrians on their phones are 61 percent more likely to veer off course. The simple solution: Don't walk and type at the same time, and even be careful about walking and talking on your phone.

5. Your thinking feels fuzzy.

Brain scans have revealed multiple neurological changes as a result of Internet addiction, according to Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., writing for Psychology Today. The images suggest that too much screen time can cause atrophy and shrinkage of the brain's gray matter, which governs executive functions like planning and organizing. "Spotty" white matter also seen in brain scans indicates that what she calls "electronic screen syndrome" may affect connections between the body and the brain as well as between brain hemispheres and higher and lower brain centers.

What can you do to combat this? Reading books and envisioning what you're reading can assist in positive brain function and spatial intelligence, according to a study published in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics.

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6. You can’t function without your phone.

Once upon a time, it was possible to travel without GPS. It required referring to a physical map, noting landmarks and exercising spatial intelligence and deductive reasoning. But according to a 2008 article in Applied Cognitive Psychology, that lack of premeditation and perseverance caused by smartphone reliance keeps us from being resourceful and agile. To reacquaint yourself with those qualities, go on an adventure and get lost on purpose. Or grab an actual paper trail map and go on a hike where there is no cell service. You may be surprised at how much more grounded you feel.

7. You check your social feed during every meal.

While dining out, we often see couples and even whole groups of people constantly checking their phones. Researchers have identified a common characteristic that among those who are diagnosed with so-called Internet addiction disorder (IAD): a lack of impulse control similar to OCD. What's more, a 2012 study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging compared MRIs of males with IAD and those without and discovered different neural activity that demonstrated a lack of inhibitory control. It's essential, then, to unplug and focus on visceral, interpersonal interaction. To help reduce your reliance on technology and improve your interactions, schedule in-person meetings with friends, and turn off your phone for the duration of your time together.

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8. Social media makes you feel bad about your life.

While interacting with others online seems that it would promote social connection, there's actually evidence that it does the opposite. Many studies have linked overuse of social platforms with social anxiety, loneliness, depression and more severe problems like suicidal thoughts or bipolar disorder.

If you suffer from low self-esteem or feel isolated when you're logged into Facebook, Twitter or other social platforms, consider taking a one-week break from social media and see how you feel. Then, if you feel like you want to return to social media, choose the platform that makes you feel the most positive about your life and limit your interaction to that one. Chances are you'll feel renewed, grounded and more connected.

9. You talk in hashtags and acronyms IRL.

Why are we using shorthand to rush through communicating with each other? It may relate to the damage to the brain's gray matter found in scans of the screen-addicted. According to a 2014 Psychology Today article, "A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known as the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion." So show your love to your fellow humans by speaking in complete sentences using whole words. Remember, while the virtual world hosts infinite hours of information, distraction and interaction, be sure to fit in some time to reunite with the benefits of the visceral, human world.

Read more: How to Do a Social Media Detox and Still Have Friends

How Do YOU Score?

If you answered TRUE to three of fewer of these statements, you likely don't need a digital detox. But if you answer TRUE to four to six of the statements, you should consider cutting down on your screen time a bit.

And if you answered TRUE to seven or more, you need to make immediate plans to unplug and reintroduce the joys of paper books, face-to-face socializing, eating without interruption and being outdoors.

What Do YOU Think?

What was your score? Do you have any advice to share? Let us know in the comments. Want to share this quiz with your friends? Below, you can find a link to view the full quiz, print it and pin to Pinterest.


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