Digital detoxing is the tech equivalent of a juice cleanse—and neither of them work

Fasting gets you nowhere fast—virtually or otherwise.
Fasting gets you nowhere fast—virtually or otherwise.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
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The narrative of our technology-obsessed lives is rife with metaphors about food. We “binge” on a Netflix series. We have an “appetite” for “devouring” news. We carefully curate which publishers are a part of our “daily digest” or “media diet.” We filter out “spam” and crave control over what’s ‘’served” up on our social media “feeds.” Then when it all becomes too much, we take a “digital detox.” 

The restriction rhetoric serves to shame and blame us for not exercising more self-control over our gluttonous digital ways. Currently steeped in negative connotations, we’re coming to realize that we need to find balanced, sustainable ways of managing our tech use, much like what we do our diets.

I call it “digital nutrition.”

Instead of fasting, we can empower healthy, positive engagement with technology—and keep the food analogy while we’re at it. Digital nutrition is about developing and implementing cognitive skills to stay in control of our technology consumption choices. This includes both considering the virtual vitamins contained in the activities we engage with and our relationship to technology and our online world.

Digital detoxes don’t work

The rise and rise of digital detoxing over recent years signals the hunger for regaining control over our technology habits. Many of us have been snacking unchecked on information across a range of devices and have noticed the impacts on our mental fitness: Our concentration spans are narrowing, our working memory is shrinking, and our close relationships are thinning.

We seek holiday destinations without wifi. We download apps to lock us out of our smartphones. Yet when we attempt digital abstinence, it is rarely coupled with cognitive restructuring or reflection on the habits we detest. A few days offline starts with virtue signaling and proclamations of alternative ways of staying in touch, and ends with a harried binge to catch up on everything that’s been missed—and post all of those vacation snaps you refrained from gloating about. Within a day or two, you’re back to checking your phone on average 85 times a day.

We know that fad dieting and detoxes don’t work to create long-lasting change. They simply cause your weight to yoyo, instill a sense of failure and shame, and reinforce the extreme notions peddled by pseudo-scientists and wellness bloggers.

Instead of digital sabbaticals, shabbats, and fasts, we should reclaim a sustainable relationship with technology—one that teaches us lifelong healthy digital habits instead of perpetuating the binge-and-purge cycle.

Is tech bad for us?

Technology itself is not inherently bad for us in the same way that a slice of chocolate cake every now and then doesn’t confine us to a life of obesity. Instead of denying ourselves entirely or eating the whole damn thing, a little bit of the “bad” stuff in moderation does little harm in the long run.

But we’re currently eating too much digital chocolate cake. The narrative around our technology use centers on addiction: oversimplified yet sensationalized comparisons to drug use, dopamine pathways, and young people as “psychotic junkies”. It rides on the coattails of the war on drugs while ironically generating the clicks, shares, and frenzied engagement that is symptomatic of what it decries.

Technology itself is neither toxic, nor a drug. For those who continue to insist on the analogy, think of technology more like a syringe: It’s a device or tool for delivering content—and it’s the substance itself that is making us sick, not the vessel.

A syringe can be lifesaving in delivering insulin for a diabetic or pose a health risk for an illicit drug user, just as a device can help engage young people in authentic learning or be a tool for cyber hate. Instead of just considering the hours and minutes spent facing into the blue light of our devices, we should be judging our time spent online via what we’re consuming: Are you mindlessly munching on empty CandyCrush calories, or are you fueling your body with meaningful brainfood?

Digital calorie counting

Screen time has traditionally been the barometer of acceptable device use, but there’s not a ubiquitous daily calorie limit that could be deemed as “healthy.” While time limits for children have been prescribed, adults are left to free-range within the vast digital landscapes they choose to enter.

Not all online activities are created equally. Some can be considered junk foods—okay in moderation, but problematic when consumed in excess. Others are superfoods, like serious games and science-backed health apps. In order to make healthy, informed choices about what we consume, we need to understand the difference between the two, how often to imbibe, and the context in which we digitally snack (for example, secretly alone in our bedrooms, or as a shared activity in a workplace?).

Monitoring screen time is akin to digital calorie counting: It’s just one way to consider your dietary needs. In the world of nutrition, these needs vary according to a range of factors, such as your age, metabolism, and physical activities. But it’s not just raw calories we consider: We also take into account the nutrient content of food, such as the fats, sugars, and additives. Our body digests 400 calories from a slice of pepperoni pizza very differently to 400 calories’ worth of carrot sticks; similarly, an hour of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram affects you differently compared to an hour of language-learning on Duolingo.

Seeking engagement, digital junk foods often give you a giddying artificial high, followed by a thumping lull. Research shows that the biggest risk factor for technology use becoming problematic is when it’s consistently used to escape negative feelings.  Noticing the difference between reading a bit of online trash to decompress from a particularly stressful day and using technology to numb yourself from the daily grind is key to keeping a healthy relationship with it.

We might also consider the location of the food’s source, the process involved in its production, or choose to restrict certain products from our diet for ethical reasons. It’s the same for digital media. For example, where is your news coming from? Is it a respected, non-biased news source, or whatever was on the top of Reddit that morning?

Consumers need help sorting the digital candy from the kale and identifying the virtual vitamins contained in what they download. On the parenting side of things, one such organization doing this is Common Sense Media, a non-profit that has been helping parents make informed media choices since 2003. Its review system covers over 25,000 apps, games, films, and TV shows. There are also more grassroots collectives like Mom’s With Apps, which curates a selection of apps whose developers have signed up to a seven-point “thoughtful technology” manifesto.

Nutritional labels are mandated to help consumers make these choices, but we don’t have such a system in the online world. For example, there are over 1.7 million apps and games on offer in the digital supermarket, of which about 10% are in the “education” aisle. However, no credentialing system exists to verify any pedagogical underpinnings for an app’s inclusion in this section. How do we know if these programs contain hidden trans-fats, or can actually deliver on the quick-fix promises they preach?

Until a system is developed to clearly signal the complex ways technology impacts our psychology, we’re left to taste-test our way through the digital menu and see how our minds react.

Who’s setting the media menu?

As with the adage “You are what you eat,” your thoughts are a function of what you mentally consume. It is your choice what you guzzle—or what you let your children munch on—but there are a variety of factors constantly trying to sway those choices.

Algorithms within platforms like Facebook are programmed to only serve you a small selection of available menu options. In this way, your digital diet is manipulated into a restricted selection of information that reinforces your tastes and preferences. This filter bubble limits your exposure to new ideas unless someone at your proverbial dinner table directly introduces the topic. This causes some communities to become digitally malnourished, restricting them from information and opportunities—and the poor stay hungry.

Having a diverse media diet—and digitally dining with a diverse range of people—can help shape wellbeing. After all, social connectedness is as important for our health as exercise. This connection is nowadays regularly orchestrated by social media and can provide crucial opportunities to overcoming isolation. Being exposed to alternative ideas, beliefs, and information helps broaden our understanding of others and their perspectives. Living in a hive mind can limit our experience of the other and reduce our ability to engage meaningfully in debate that sways away from our beliefs.

Emerging Australian research has shown how having a balanced visual diet that encompasses a diversity of body sizes, shapes, and types can help protect the brain from developing disordered eating and body dysmorphia. Following a variety of hashtags around body acceptance and positivity—such as #EffYourBeautyStandards and #CelebrateMySize—can help expose the brain to a richer source of visual information and less stringent ideals. We can think of our social feeds in much the same way, consciously curating what appears as we scroll.

Luckily, it appears that the chefs who wrote the menus in the first place are starting to pay attention to what they’re serving. The ethics of technology design has been in the spotlight recently: Former Silicon Valley ethicist Tristan Harris’s Center for Humane Technology is on a mission to put humanity at the core of tech design, former Facebook exec, techpreneur, and billionaire investor Sean Parker has denounced social media, and Apple shareholders have been calling for more transparency around how products are devised to hook users’ attention.

But much in the same way that we know we should eat more leafy greens and cut out the saturated fats, having the experts tell us what to do and not to do doesn’t help if we don’t actually heed their advice. The gap between our intention and behavior is what the weight-loss industry thrives on, and this disconnect is also what sends us into a virtual spiral.

We need to learn how to select our mental cuisine more carefully and exercise some self-control when it comes to digital nutrition. If not, we’ll get caught in a competitive eating competition—and no one wants that belly ache.