It’s 7 am. Your phone alarm goes off and, after snoozing for twenty minutes, you grab your phone. Inevitably, you’re littered with notifications: Uber Eats, that workout app you never open, WhatsApps from while you were asleep and some viral tweets are all demanding your attention. Of course, you open one and before you know it, it’s 8:30 am and you’ve got 30 minutes to be at your desk.
Like it or not, we’re humans enslaved to our digital devices. Come evening, mindlessly scrolling TikTok on mute while simultaneously watching Netflix is the norm. It feels impossible to just ignore every ping and vibration. It stands to reason, then, that our interests pique when someone says they’re taking on a digital detox. The international practice, used by celebrities, CEOs and regular people alike, allow us some distance from our devices.
“It’s a period of time where you intentionally disconnect from technology, including phones, laptops, tablets, and social media, yes, that means even a quick WhatsApp,” says Melissa Lain, health coach.
But there’s more to it than that. Every time you open your phone, your brain is flooded with dopamine, the body’s innate reward hormone. It’s the same thing that makes you feel so satisfied after eating chocolate or winning an arm wrestle. But being exposed to it 24/7? That’s flooding our brains with the stuff, making us addicted to our tech. And, per a new survey, South Africans are spending upwards of three hours a day on social media alone. A digital detox, also called a dopamine detox, can help. “The idea is to take a break from the constant stream of information and stimulation that comes with being connected all the time,” says Lainn.
How to tell when it’s time for a digital detox
There are various signs that it’s time to shut down those reward centres for a while. First, if you’re spending excessive periods of time in a scroll hole, it’s time to put the phone down. Zahraa Surtee, counselling psychologist, notes that sleep disruptions – and checking your phone in the middle of the night – is also a tell-tale sign.
Also, pay attention to how you’re feeling when you’re not on your devices, notes Melissa. “If you feel like you can never switch off, are constantly checking your phone or emails, even when there aren’t notifications buzzing, and feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you are consuming, it might be time for a digital detox,” she says. Zahraa agrees. Are you feeling anxiety when your phone’s not within reach? You’re likely in a dopamine rut. You might even find a feeling of disconnect with the real world, says Melissa. “If you find yourself spending more time online or watching other people live life rather than creating and experiencing your own, it’s a sign that you need to intentionally disconnect for a while and re-engage with the present moment.”
Then there’s the physical ramifications: “Spending long periods of time in front of a screen can cause eye strain, tension headaches, neck and back pain, and other physical symptoms,” says Melissa.
How to detox, digitally
Zahraa sees digital detoxes as a way to carefully curate what you’re exposed to. “It’s not about giving up screen time completely,” she says. “Rather, it’s firstly about recognising that the media we consume DOES affect our mental health and the way we choose to show up in the world.” Spend some time curating your phone. Go through your apps and disable those notifications that annoy you, or that cause you to scroll endlessly. Do you really need a notification every time someone likes your Reel? “Just as we get to choose the type of foods we ideally want to nourish our bodies with, so we do get to choose the type of content we’d like to nourish our minds with,” says Zahraa. “Digital detoxes are ideally about spending screen time more mindfully and in moderation.”
To Melissa, the digital detox you embark on can be individualised to you. “It can be as short as a few hours or as long as a week, or even more,” she says. “During this time, you commit to disconnecting from digital devices and focusing on other activities that promote stillness and well-being. Don’t overcomplicate it, an hour or two a day is a perfect way to start, especially when there’s load shedding.”
Keen to try? Instead of using the time to stare into space, itching to check your phone or Netflix, try scheduling a tech-free activity. Maybe that’s a bubble bath, some colouring in time or just some tea and time with your thoughts.