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Do you need a digital detox? 4 questions to ask yourself

Feel like you've been too dependent on screens lately? Find out the warning signs and what to do about it.
Illustration of computer on fire on a desk with a post it note with a pause sing on it.
It’s easy to feel sucked into our screens, but how do you know if it's a problem?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

Have you ever wondered if your digital use is just too much? Between Zooming with friends and family, checking social media, working remotely and consuming news articles on devices, it’s easy to feel sucked into your screens.

But when does it actually become a problem? And, if it is, how do you break away from it?

“The negative impact everyone worries about is dependent on how you use media, not how much,” media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge explained to TMRW. “In order to figure out what’s appropriate, you need to honestly evaluate what you use and why.”

She added that trends like digital detoxes (aka going cold turkey and cutting back on screen time) won’t necessarily achieve the outcome that people typically hope for if you don't take other important steps to ensure you have a healthy relationship with digital media.

Below, see four questions to ask yourself about your digital use and find out how you can actually help yourself feel better about it if needed.

1. Do you feel like you’re using screens too much, or are you just worried that you are?

It's not about how often you use digital media — it's about how you use it.Westend61 / Getty Images

Rutledge suggests keeping a media diary for a few days, noting the date, time, platform, intention or purpose of use and how you feel. For example, you may enjoy watching a show as entertainment during a subway ride, but you feel bad about wasting time checking social media to procrastinate.

“You’re after patterns,” she said. Once you have that data, you can see whether you have a good balance of media consumption, what activities aren’t supporting your goals and which platforms make you feel consistently good or bad. And that information can help guide you on what to cut back.

2. Is your media use keeping you from doing things you want or need to do?

If your digital media use is keeping you from work or other things that you should or want to be doing in real life, that's a problem.Anton Serushkov / Getty Images

Ever find yourself losing track of time online? It’s common, said Rutledge. “The interactivity and rich content keep our attention.” She said this isn’t necessarily a bad sign, but if it’s keeping you from work or other things that you should or want to be doing, then it’s a problem.

She suggests setting a timer when you take a break to check social media. That way, if you get sucked in (which happens often!), you'll be reminded to come back to the real world.

3. Do you feel sad or bad after checking social media?

Feel bad when you check social media? Try eliminating the platforms or people you follow who have this effect on you.Jamie Grill / Getty Images

If you feel sad or bad about yourself after scrolling, Rutledge suggests that should be investigated. “If you just detox without figuring out what it is that is triggering those feelings in you and then come back from a detox and take up all your previous activities, you will still experience negative moods,” she explained.

Identify what people or platforms are undermining your well-being (use the media diary mentioned above), and eliminate those from your consumption.

4. Is it just heavy digital use or a real addiction?

If you think you have a true addiction, seek help from a mental health professional. If you just need a break from screens, try a digital detox.Westend61 / Getty Images

We hear the word “addiction” all the time in reference to heavy digital and social media use, but keep in mind that addiction is a specific mental health diagnosis with very specific criteria. According to Rutledge, this can include behavior that is problematic in other levels of your life (relationships, job, school), giving up pastimes and passions, etc.

“Real addictions rarely occur with one thing going on (for example, someone suffers from addiction and depression). If someone meets the diagnostic criteria for addiction, they should see a licensed mental health professional,” she said.

“Most of the time when people talk about social media addiction, they mean heavy use or feeling like their use is out of their control,” she continued. “Warning signs include compulsive checking, mindless scrolling, negative emotional responses from using technology and negative behaviors when not using technology, or being unable to think of something to do when you’re not using a device.”

If that’s what you’re experiencing, use the tips above to control your digital behavior and have more balance. Rutledge also said that taking a few days with no technology can be a very positive experience.

“Doing a detox with a group of like-minded friends can be a very positive experience as everyone shares what it’s like for them and can laugh about how many times they checked their pocket,” she said. “Humor and social connection, like gratitude, changes our neurochemistry and triggers the feel-good neurotransmitters that improve our mood and make us feel closer to others. These traits, in turn, increase our resilience and offset the tendency to stress over FOMO.”