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Should you do a digital detox?

A digital detox is all about ‘switching off’ from the digital devices that have become such a big part of our daily lives, in favour of social interaction in the physical world and improved physical and mental health.

Technology has brought huge improvements to our lives, yet spending too much time in front of a screen or on social media has been shown to have negative side effects.

Here we explore what these side effects are and what you can do to prevent them. Here are some of the main ways in which too much time spent on digital devices can affect you:

  1. Too much time online can negatively impact your brain function, particularly the parts of the brain which govern empathy, planning, prioritising, organisation and impulse control.
  2. Over-exposure to the blue light emitted by digital devices can cause eye strain, headaches, itchy eyes and blurred vision.
  3. Poor posture from slumping over digital devices can damage muscle nerves, tendons, ligaments and spinal disks.
  4. Using screens before bed affects your ability to fall asleep in several ways. Firstly, the cognitive stimulation of responding to emails or messages, watching videos, etc., increases your brain’s activity and prevents it from settling into a restful state. Secondly, the light emitted from screens impairs your brain’s production of melatonin, the chemical needed to regulate your sleep cycle. Furthermore, unnatural sources of light can trick your brain’s natural ability to know when it’s time to sleep.
  5. Studies have shown that a combination of excessive screen time and low physical activity (let’s face it, the more screen time you have, the less physical activity you are doing), increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and bone and joint problems.
  6. A UK study has indicated a strong link between heavy internet use and depression.

What is a full digital detox?

This involves giving up the use of all digital devices completely for a period of time, such as a holiday or even a specialist retreat centre. Lee Bell, a health, tech and fitness journalist for Forbes Magazine, argues that the best way to cut the habit is a “complete break from digital life”. He suggests booking a trip filled with cultural experiences and enjoyment, so you’re not tempted to reach for your smartphone out of boredom.

He says: “Five days is also a good amount of time to do a digital detox for, as you won’t feel excluded from your normal life for too long, but it’s also long enough for you to hit that all important ‘reset button’, giving you a break from the everyday stresses and constant flow of data and information we receive; helping us to reassess what really matters in life… Just switch off your phone, leave your laptop and tablet behind and go experience the physical world at its finest.”

Do you really need to give up completely?

If a completely digital detox just isn’t practical for you, that’s absolutely fine. There are many other ways you can reduce your screen time in favour of wholesome, real-world pursuits.

Don’t eat in front of a screen – whether we’re eating in front of the TV, catching up on the news or scrolling through social media, many of us eat our meals in the glow of a screen. Try listening to music or a podcast, sitting around a table with family or friends or even sitting in the garden and enjoying being outside. This also helps with mindful eating. Studies have shown that slowing down, being thoughtful and aware of what you are eating and enjoying your food can reduce overeating and obesity.

Resist checking your work emails at home – this not only increases your screen time, but can increase your stress levels.

Try banning screens from the bedroom – you may love catching up on your favourite TV series in bed or scrolling through Instagram before you go to sleep, but this habit is playing havoc with your sleep cycle. Try reading a book or listening to a podcast before you drift off. This is relevant when you wake up too – many of us reach for our phones first thing in the morning – but it is far more beneficial to wake up with a shower, coffee or exercise.

Swap online conversations for real life ones. The Internet is a great way to catch up with our friends and family when they live far away or we don’t have the time to see them in person. Make it a priority to schedule coffee with friends, or phone your loved ones in a spare moment, such as on your walk home from work or at lunchtime. This counts for when you’re at work too – schedule a face-to-face meeting instead of sending an office memo.

Be aware of how often you open up your smartphone simply because you are bored – and swap if for another hobby.

Use tools to limit your app usage – Google and Apple operating systems now both include digital wellness features which monitor how much time you spend on your smartphone, tracking things like your how many times your device is unlocked daily and how much you use each app. You can then set timers to limit your time spent scrolling away.

Turn off your push notifications – If you’re being constantly bombarded by push notifications from your apps, try turning them off! You don’t need your phone to be constantly telling you about the latest special offers, or every time your old classmate posts a meme.

You may not need to do anything as extreme as completely giving up technology to reap the benefits – these lifestyle adjustments you can make a huge difference, and help make your relationship with digital devices a healthier one.

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