‘Digital Wellness’ Is Here To Save Your Mental Health if a Screen-Free Life Isn’t Feasible—Here’s What Happened When I Tried It

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Until about 10 years ago, I was a voracious reader. Nearly wherever I went, I carried with me the company of the world’s greatest writers in the form of books. But in the last decade, my ability to focus on the page has shuddered to a halt. New babies, new cities, and a global pandemic have entered and changed my life, but as my attention span has shrunk, one thing has been a consistent fixture: the smartphone I bought 10 years ago. Sure, I've upgraded the model several times, but every year I’ve been swiping a screen, I’ve found it harder and harder to concentrate on basically everything in my life.

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The one place where I don’t struggle to concentrate? On that device. Naturally, some of the apps I use on my phone serve an essential purpose—like the email app and even Instagram, when I'm using it to conduct visual research for my studies as a garden design student. But what is certainly not essential is the hour after hour wasted on scrolling when I could be doing my coursework, going to bed, or speaking to friends and family in real life.

After a lengthy smartphone scroll, I feel wired, and if I spent that time on social media, it’s accompanied by a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

After a lengthy smartphone scroll, I feel wired, and if I spent that time on social media, it’s often accompanied by a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Am I less successful, less happy than everyone else? Or is my pocket supercomputer warping my self-esteem? Something needs to change. Thankfully, where there is a problem of mindlessness, these days, there is a mindfulness-based solution.

Digital wellness, also known as digital well-being, is a term first coined in 2012 by a Google product manager who had become disillusioned with the addictive, distractive qualities of tech. Not long after, “digital well-being” was announced at Google’s 2018 I/O event as the name for a suite of new features designed to help you track and minimize certain kinds of screen time.

Google now frames the concept of digital well-being as having a “balance with technology that feels right for you.” But what does that actually mean in practice? In the past few years, an industry of digital-wellness experts has sprung up to define just that and spare us from the deleterious effects of tech as a necessary evil.

How mindless scrolling and smartphone use can compromise mental health

Some science backs up the connection I’ve noticed between my own smartphone use and my diminished attention span. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg for research linking smartphone use with poor mental-health outcomes.

One study found excessive smartphone use to be a significant predictor of depression in emerging young adults. Another found phone addiction to be associated with depressive mood, particularly among those who phub (aka snub a friend or partner by prioritizing phone use). Online gambling has been shown to be more addictive than slot machines, and internet porn addiction has been found to neurologically mirror drug addiction.

Certainly, social media, in particular, also has its own set of ills. Regular use of social-media platforms has been connected to depression and loneliness, as well as poor mood and low self-esteem, largely caused by its function as a “comparison trap,” says Isa Watson, author of Life Beyond Likes: Logging Off Your Screen and Into Your Life.

“Feeling bad about ourselves comes from our habit of comparing our whole, messy life to the perfected [highlight] reels we see from others.” —Isa Watson, founder and CEO, Squad

“It’s a perfection echo chamber—the place where we constantly consume people’s curated highlight reels: the happy marriage, job promotion, and fabulous vacation posts; and never the divorces, demotions, or money struggles,” says Watson, who founded her own social-media platform, Squad, in 2019, to help friends connect away from mainstream social media. “Feeling bad about ourselves comes from our habit of comparing our whole, messy life to the perfected [highlight] reels we see from others. It’s the most unfair comparison, and it puts a damper on our joy.”

So, why can’t we stop reaching for our phones, anyway? And why can’t we put the damned things down? That answer comes down to our brain chemistry, according to Carl D. Marci, MD, psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age.

“There are many unhealthy behaviors and habits related to our smartphone apps, including using media as a mood regulator, media multitasking, dividing our attention, and the overall displacement of face-to-face social interactions,” says Dr. Marci. “Over time, our brain’s reward-system response strengthens with each short-term dopamine hit, while our prefrontal cortex weakens, [reducing our ability] to regulate our emotions and control our behaviors.”

How practicing digital wellness can foster a healthier relationship with tech

I’m starting to think I should throw my phone out of the window. But it’s hard to imagine the rest of the world joining me in a return to telegrams, handwritten letters, and landline telephones. I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills and organize my kids’ childcare. And I wouldn’t be able to organize any real-life meetups, as all of my friends are on WhatsApp. So, is a balance possible?

Amy Blankson, co-founder and CEO of the Digital Wellness Institute, believes so. Her company helps organizations and individuals reach a state of “digital flourishing,” or a point at which you’re both healthy and happy, while still using digital tools to optimize your work and life. According to Blankson’s research, which she shares in her book, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-being in the Digital Era, the real problem with our tech use isn’t necessarily the tech itself, but how we’re engaging with it.

“What mattered [in my research] was how people interacted,” says Blankson. “Interacting solely with people you do not know in real life—termed as ‘weak ties’—has a completely different impact than interacting with people you already know in real life (‘strong ties’) on those platforms.” This means that, for example, sharing a photo of a day out with a real-life friend on social media, and then having other friends comment on the photo, has far more value for your mental well-being than seeking likes or comments from random strangers, or scrolling aimlessly.

And that makes sense. Authentic connection with actual friends is vital, and it’s tough to stay in touch or meet up these days without a smartphone. So, how can I manage my relationship with my smartphone, without giving it up altogether? That's where practicing digital wellness comes into play.

“Ask yourself: What’s the opportunity cost of not being aware of what you’re doing and endlessly scrolling?” —Amy Blankson, co-founder and CEO, Digital Wellness Institute

Blankson recommends working out your goals, and then setting boundaries to make sure those goals match up with your digital usage. “Ask yourself: What’s the opportunity cost of not being aware of what you’re doing and endlessly scrolling?” she says. Becoming aware of the detriments of mindless phone use can illuminate how you need to set boundaries—which can help you both reduce phone use and be more intentional with how you do use your phone.

That’s precisely what happened for the employees at ATB Financial, in Alberta, Canada, who recently underwent a pilot research program with the Digital Wellness Institute. ATB wanted to reduce screen time among its staff, knowing that, on average, they were spending 10 hours per day online doing work tasks, even though they were only contracted for 7.25.

After participating in six weeks of e-learning courses—on topics like the right to disconnect, setting tech boundaries, and aligning tech use with personal and professional goals—ATB employees reported an average 1.5-hour reduction in screen time per day and a healthier tech-life balance. The number of employees who said they felt “always on” dropped by 56 percent, and the number who felt pressure to “drop what they were doing” and respond to work communications outside of work hours decreased by 43 percent.

Naturally, the fact that their superiors were in on the program likely made it easier for these employees to embrace digital wellness techniques, like boundaries, at work. But for the rest of us, whose companies (or social circles) may not have a “permission culture” of disconnecting, it’s essential to not only set boundaries but to broadly share them, says Blankson. “So, if I’m trying to not take my phone to the dinner table, I need to communicate that with [family and friends].”

Other smart ways to set tech boundaries? Keep your phone out of sight—and therefore out of mind—while interacting with friends and family, and define specific limits on screen time or social-media use per day, suggests Dr. Marci.

In particular, Watson recommends breaking from social media one hour after waking up and one hour before bed in order to start and end the day more grounded. These are also periods of time where mindless scrolling is common—but “brings us no real positive value,” she says. Fully cutting out tech use during those times can reduce the temptation, as can being intentional about investing time into your own joy and your relationships and friendships, she adds. “This helps re-center us in our own lives so that mindless scrolling becomes an afterthought.”

What happened when I tried practicing digital wellness in my own life

Armed with the above advice, I vowed to give digital wellness a try by restricting my access to social-media apps for two weeks. To start, I forked out $65 for an annual subscription to an app called Blocksite. It allowed me to identify the apps on which I was really wasting my time (which were Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram), and set a period of time or a recurring period during which I’d be blocked from using them. I decided to start with a total block for a day to see what difference it made—and the impact was immediate.

Every time I tried to log in, I got a disapproving message instead. Often, in moments of chaos, like when I’m in the midst of preparing dinner and trying to multitask with emails or paying bills, I will reach for my phone as a form of escape. At other times, if I’m feeling bored or tired, I’ll get that urge to swipe through my phone and stare at what is effectively nothing. But once I took social media off the table and became unable to escape or zone out, I started to tackle my to-do list, and in the evening, I picked up a book to read for the first time in months.

Unfortunately, being completely excluded from social media did become a problem for my studies. As a garden design student, Instagram is a fantastic research tool, and I found myself logging in through my computer a few times during the block-out period in order to seek out some plants I’ve had my eye on. This time was well spent, so I know I can’t quit the site completely. What I need is to get the most use out of the platform, but not use it to hide from the stresses of my everyday life.

What I need is to get the most use out of the platform, but not use it to hide from the stresses of my everyday life.

A few days in, it became clear that a blocking app alone was not going to solve my problem. Instead of turning to social media in bored or frazzled moments, I started scrolling the news instead. Realizing I couldn't be trusted to control myself, I remembered the advice about boundaries. When I went to bed, at least, the phone did not.

Off the bat, I found that my sleep improved. If I woke up at night, instead of scrolling, I simply waited to doze off again. After a few nights, I found that I was falling asleep more quickly, and each day when I woke up, I reached for a notepad and pen to write down my thoughts, a plan for the day, even shopping lists—all before everyone else woke up. I felt noticeably calmer and more levelheaded in the mornings. And during the day, my phone felt less magnetic.

Throughout the course of my experiment, I also became aware of my husband’s frequent phone use. We struck a deal that when we were watching TV or eating, neither of us would be on our phones. This has led to more meaningful conversations, more affection, and higher-quality TV choices, instead of background TV with little plot or substance.

After two weeks, I truly feel like I've made progress. Of course, I still get bored and overwhelmed, and I still experience the urge to scroll. But now, instead of fully cutting out social-media apps, I use Blocksite to temporarily block access to the apps that are distracting me for a few hours, depending on what is on my schedule.

Now, I include news apps in this list, too, to really cut down on my options for procrastination. This means I have to think about what access I’ll need for the day and be proactive about it. It also means that instead of hiding from overwhelm, I’ve started to tackle those things that are overwhelming me: a difficult assignment, relentless life admin, or the need to take a real break for myself.

When I started researching this piece, I was pretty convinced that smartphones are generally bad. I honestly thought I’d have to give up a lot. But in the world we live in, we all have to find ways to gain control of our devices. Blocking apps definitely have a time and a place. But ultimately, we are the ones in charge here—not the phones. We have to set our own rules, and we have to stick to them.

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