Is The ‘Digital Detox’ Fake News?


Many of us made a vow to reduce our screen time in 2020, or in some cases even want to go cold turkey. I for one, admire your bravery in the face of mercilessly hilarious memes. The popularity of these ‘digital detoxes’ continues to grow. This is encouraged by the results of various studies who claim a reduction in tech usage can reduce stress while making us more present and compassionate towards our peers.

The Science

Here comes the kicker. Despite these claims, there is actually very little scientific evidence that going on a digital detox has any benefits whatsoever. Shocked? In fact ditching tech in favour of the detox can have it’s own set of unintended negative consequences.

The main reason people are jumping aboard the detox train like the last helicopter out of Saigon is down to the misconception that heavy tech use is by default harmful. Is this true? Well kind of. A multitude of studies reference excessive tech use being linked with poor sleep quality, increased anxiety levels and depressive symptoms. None of that sounds like much fun, but is our tech use the smoking gun behind these effects?

These studies all ask participants questions that relate to tech use, and their levels of anxiety and depression. What studies are currently unable to differentiate is whether these participants use social media due to being depressed or whether they are in fact depressed because they use social media. You can see the inherent flaw in the logic here, in addition we humans are complex beings, and a variety of other factors can play in to why a person has feelings of anxiety or depression. I’m not saying your magic rock is not in part to blame for making you feel a little bit of FOMO or social anxiety at times, but evidence points to it not being the catalyst for it.

The Reality

Most of these studies rely on self-reported estimates of tech use and let’s be real, it’s so easy to lose track of time when you’re deep in the scroll. This means a lot of the time estimates are not accurate which can have an effect on the findings of the study. What’s interesting is that when studies are conducted using a device’s automatic screen time reporting application, the results show that there is no correlation between smartphone usage and anxiety/depression. This is not a conspiracy, I don’t have a collainder on my head and I don’t think we are made of thetans. The reality is, we are taking incomplete data as gospel when it’s more like a couple of footnotes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that didn’t make the director’s cut of the bible.

So far the research has has a tenure towards treating all the kinds of tech we use as being equal. This is flawed, plainly due to the multitude of applications we use on our smartphones. To give some background, you might use Google Maps to help you navigate to a local park, you might then use a running tracker to measure your distance and pace. You may also use your smartphone to get Dough Lord delivered and proceed to stalk the Instagram of somebody you used to know. These are very different actions and I would suggest have a very different bearing on our levels of anxiety.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who are a very fancy and legit sounding UK health body recently argued that screen time is not ‘toxic’ to health and that everyone is basically blowing this whole thing out of the water. Nevertheless, these negative findings continue to have a greater influence on the opinion of your average punter as they appear far more frequently in popular press and online content.

Why It’s Fake News

Now, back to the digital detox. The small amount of so called evidence that does support the benefits of the detox are more anecdotal than scientific studies. Put it this way. Imagine a big pharma was testing a new viral drug and rather than conducting blood tests to assess the effectiveness, they just asked the guinea pigs if they felt any better. While that does not seem sensible and lord help us if you think it does, there are some arguments that make more sense. One of these arguments is that giving up the smartphone may encourage people to be more physically active, and while I don’t think that is the case personally, I do see the logic of someone who thinks it does.

If we cough up the smartphones it also means giving up the goat on a lot of good things our smartphones can help us with. Hell, how many people are married now because of Tinder? I actually don’t know, but I would think quite a lot. Countless people have been called out of hibernation at home by a WhatsApp message from a friend, or connected with an old chum from school on Facebook. Our phones can be a gateway to experience, a connector between humans when distance and circumstance does not always allow for a face to face interaction. Complete withdrawal from this can cause all sorts of nasties including boredom, feelings of social pressure and fear.

There is nothing really wrong with stepping away from tech for a while, but there is nothing really right with it either. The notion that is a ‘good idea’ or that the detox has positive lasting effects is not yet supported by science, plain and simple. In reality, there is not really much evidence to suggest tech is inherently bad in the first place, meaning there isn’t any toxin to detox. It would be like injecting antivenom into a watermelon. Strange analogy and an even stranger image, but you get the idea.

To close, like with everything in life we need to exercise our moderation muscles. Lot’s of things that don’t harm us when used moderation can harm us if we go overboard. Like when you had that 10th Jager Bomb and managed to redecorate your pals bathroom. We know when what we are doing is good for us or not. We need to differentiate between positive and negative actions on our smartphones and the effects they have on our wellbeing and adjust our screen time accordingly. I think sensible use should be encouraged rather than the default being ‘use it less’. Based on the evidence, the detox is fake news, but what is your take?