THE FIRST STEP of a digital detox is to stay offline for six hours. For many, that’s harder than it sounds and can lead to stress. In Cassie Mogilner Holmes’ class, once students get past their initial anxiety, they invariably come to appreciate the benefits of unplugging.
“At first, they’ll reach for their phones out of habit,” says Mogilner Holmes, professor of marketing and behavioral decision-making at UCLA Anderson School of Management. “But at the end of the six hours, there’s this revelation that whatever they’re doing feels more rewarding and productive.”
Is it time to lighten our digital load? It’s a question that has crossed many minds, as we become increasingly consumed with the barrage of content emitting from our screens — news, entertainment, social media and the constant pinging from those trying to reach us via text and email. Then COVID-19 added a new layer, with videoconferencing keeping us connected with colleagues, family and friends.
According to Mogilner Holmes, our attachment to devices leaves us vulnerable to two human tendencies that can undermine emotional well-being. There’s social comparison, a potential byproduct of social media, which can lead to loneliness and reduced self-esteem. And then there’s hedonic adaptation, the notion that as we fall into a routine, we stop noticing what’s good in our lives. “We’re constantly pulled out of our moment by these devices, which are so handy,” Mogilner Holmes says.
Technology is supposed to make us more efficient, but she asserts: “The constant connection makes us feel time-constrained, because there’s so much we can be doing, and we get stressed that we can’t do it all.”
UCLA psychologist Yalda T. Uhls M.B.A. ’90, M.A. ’10, Ph.D. ’13 is more concerned about the quality of our digital diet than the quantity. Uhls, whose book Media Moms & Digital Dads synthesizes the peer-reviewed research on the topic, states that there’s little evidence of a societal problem when it comes to digital media and mental health.
“At first, they’ll reach for their phones out of habit. But at the end of the six hours, there’s this revelation that whatever they’re doing feels more rewarding and productive.”
Cassie Mogilner Holmes, UCLA Anderson School of Management professor
Uhls founded the UCLA-based Center for Scholars & Storytellers, which aims to produce healthier digital media content for youth.
“I certainly advocate for balance and taking device-free time,” she says, “but if most of the metrics in your life are good, chances are the amount of time you spend on media isn’t a problem. And with this pandemic, what would we have done without the ability to connect?”
Technology’s role in reducing some of the ill effects of safer-at-home orders is borne out by the research of Patricia Greenfield, UCLA professor of psychology. In a recent study published in Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, Greenfield and Genavee Brown found that people who increased connections with family and friends during the pandemic through text messaging, voice calls and video calls reported increases in life satisfaction and positive emotions compared with those who didn’t. These communication forms increased across all age groups, notes Greenfield, director of the Children’s Digital Media Center.
The pandemic has imposed tech-enabled changes that we might want to keep. We’ve learned we can seamlessly connect face-to-face across time zones. And for many jobs, working from home is perfectly viable, freeing up time that would otherwise be spent commuting. Many have also welcomed the slower pace — and there, tech overuse can stand in the way. “The simpler life means being more deliberate in how we spend our time,” Mogilner Holmes says, “and that might involve protecting ourselves from the onslaught that comes in through our phones.”
How should we incorporate technology in ways that improve, rather than impede, our mental health? UCLA experts offer the following observations and advice:
1. Mind Your Media
If you’re mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds just to fill the time, or habitually opening your brokerage app for stock updates and then regretting that you’re not being more productive, take a break and consider going outside. “It’s important to think about the content we’re consuming,” Uhls says. “Be mindful. Really pay attention to how it makes you feel — and if you’re feeling bad, stop.”
2. Establish Rules of Engagement
Your digital detox doesn’t need to be extreme, but it should involve boundaries, such as putting the phone away at dinner. If your work bleeds into your personal time, hold the line on when you’re available. And if you’re distracted from work by the temptation to check social media and emails or react to an incoming text, Uhls recommends setting time intervals during which you stick to the activity at hand, catching up on emails and texts only during breaks.
3. Slow Your Scroll
Human connection is a key to happiness, Mogilner Holmes says, and social media can either solidify bonds or promote feelings of isolation — depending on how it’s used. “If you’re sharing holiday photos with family and friends who aren’t there, it can make you feel more connected,” she says. “But research has shown that if you’re passively consuming the posts of acquaintances or celebrities, that can lead to loneliness and reduced self-esteem.”
4. Teach Your Children
For parents, digital devices can serve as convenient babysitters. “There has to be scaffolding and supervision to make sure kids know how to use these [devices] in positive ways,” Uhls says. If you’re concerned about your child’s digital behaviors, draw up a family media agreement to establish rules for when and how devices are to be used. “Just make sure you’re role-modeling good behavior yourself,” Uhls says, “because your kid is going to learn from you.”
5. It’s (Not Always) Complicated
Greenfield, along with Noah Evers and Gabriel Evers, analyzed massive amounts of online activity — including Google searches and social media posts — for clues into how concerns, values and behaviors shifted during the pandemic. Among their findings: “Sharing, helping and giving became more common,” says Greenfield, who in a separate study with Brown found that there was greater appreciation for family, as well as more of a conservation mentality. The takeaway is that while tech can complicate our lives, it can also help us achieve these simpler ends. “As we adapted to the pandemic, we had the same impulses human beings have always had,” Greenfield says, “but expressed in a technologically enhanced environment.”
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s April 2021 issue.