Digital Detox: How Unplugging Benefits Your Health

March 2024

article by  Jessica Renstrom | photos by Aspen Marie Photography 

Intro Does this sound familiar? You pick up your phone to check one email, and 20 minutes later, you’ve skimmed six emails, replied to two texts, reposted a funny meme, and watched at least two cat videos. Turning away from the screen can be challenging once picking up our phone or turning on the television. After all, technology can be beneficial and enjoyable. It allows us to be productive and work efficiently, communicate easily with loved ones, and relax or create. However, too much screen time can cause many negative health effects for children and adults. March 1 is the National Day of Unplugging, which makes now a great time to explore why you may want to take a break from screens and how to do that. 

The Impact of Too Much Screen Time 

To learn more about the impact of screen time on health, I spoke with Dr. Amy Solomon, family medicine physician at RiverStone Health Clinic who has been practicing medicine since 1996. Throughout her career, Dr. Solomon has been invested in whole-body care and how various types of therapies affect the health of her patients. Recently, she’s taken a deep dive into research regarding the impact of screen time on health and was startled by her findings. 

“The research is finding children who experience too much screen time are having problems with child development, along with developmental delay,” says Dr. Solomon. “These children are developing problems with learning, obesity, anxiety, depression, unhealthy dietary habits, eyesight issues, headaches, neck pain, back pain, arm and hand pain (including finger pain from texting), along with lower performances in school, and even exhibiting addictive behavior.” 

Combined with the symptoms above, the research shows an additional negative consequence of excessive screen time impacting adolescents: poor social and emotional growth. The direct cause? “They aren’t learning how to read body language normally,” states Dr. Solomon. “So much of language is nuance and these adolescents are not having a lot of in-person interaction. It’s subtle and hard to study, but the findings are significant.” 

Likewise, impaired emotional and social intelligence is found in adults who engage in too much screen time. “The implications of this are huge,” stresses Dr. Solomon. “This impacts adults’ abilities to engage in relationships.” She elaborates that many of the other negative health effects impacting younger age groups can also be found in adults, including: “Depression, increased perceived stress, dry eye, irritated eyes, negative mood, sleep issues, lack of physical activity, low good cholesterol, markers for cardiovascular disease, increased insulin resistance, and tech addiction. Even suicidal tendencies can develop.” 

Screen Time Recommendations 

So, how much screen time is too much? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) provide general recommendations for screen time guided by age range. Although there is some variance between expert opinions, most advise that children ages 0-2 have no screen time (outside of video chats with family); children between ages 2-18 have no more than 1-2 hours of screen time daily; and adults 18+ have a maximum of 2 hours of screen time outside of technology use for work. 

Benefits of Less Screen Time 

Fortunately, the research also finds that by following these recommendations, negative health effects can be reversed. 

“When adolescents do unplug, they have improved sleep, mood, and anxiety,” comments Dr. Solomon. “One study showed women who quit Instagram achieved a higher sense of life satisfaction with deeper engagement in activities that promoted social interaction. Overall, people spending less time on screens had improved productivity and quality of life, increased exercising, were cooking healthier meals, were more able to compose their own thoughts, and were getting rid of FOMO (or ‘fear of missing out,’ because they’re actually doing the activities versus seeing them on a screen).”  

How to Unplug 

Ready to experience some of the benefits of a screen hiatus? Taking a break from screens seems easy enough, but in reality, it can be quite difficult to break the technology habit. Fortunately, many techniques and resources are available to help anyone ready for a digital detox. 

“There are a lot of strategies out there,” encourages Dr. Solomon. “The first place to start can be turning your device off an hour before bedtime and during meals. Meals are a time to be socially interactive. Even if you’re by yourself, use the time to gather your thoughts, meditate, and enjoy your food instead of mindlessly eating.”

Another great tip from Dr. Solomon: “Schedule time away from your phone and plan other things to do. Many people have lost other engaging activities, and without a plan, they don’t know what else to do.”  

The Blue Light Controversy 

For many of us, screen time is inevitable as our work is performed using technology. Although this time doesn’t count towards recommendations, it can still be problematic, often causing eye strain or fatigue. Blue-light-blocking glasses (often tinted orange) have become very popular in recent years, claiming to lessen the effects of eye strain and “negative” effects of blue light. However, think twice before purchasing blue-light-blocking lenses. 

”An article published in 2016 stated that blue light ages our skin, causes eye strain, and disrupts sleep, but no one else has been able to prove it,” discusses Dr. Solomon. After a thorough review of current research, Dr. Solomon has found that blue light is not as problematic as the article claims, and in fact, blue light is all around us. “The sun produces way more blue light than a computer screen.” Her conclusion: “Formal bodies do not recommend blue-light blocking glasses.” 

Although blue light itself doesn’t cause eye strain, staring at a computer screen for hours can. If you find yourself stationed at a screen for a lengthy period of time, try the 20/20/20 Rule: every 20 minutes, stare at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to lessen the effects of eye strain. Likewise, drinking a glass of water is a great way to keep your body (and eyes) hydrated to keep your eyes functioning at peak performance.  

Although the National Day of Unplugging only happens once a year, there are numerous benefits to reducing your screen time all year long. By consciously limiting your time on digital devices, you can create space to recharge, foster meaningful connections, make lasting memories, and cultivate a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. 

Ways to Unplug

Looking to take a break from screens? First of all, make a plan. Going without screens can quickly lead to boredom if you don’t have something else planned. 

Here are some tips from Dr. Solomon to reduce screen time: 

  • Go for a walk 
  • Make a date with a friend 
  • Draw 
  • Knit 
  • Clean out a drawer 
  • Create “No phone areas” in your home 
  • Downgrade your phone to a flip phone 
  • Turn your phone off or enable “do not disturb” settings 
  • Set timers on certain apps to turn off automatically or use Apple’s “Screen Time” feature 

Finally, if your technology usage is starting to interfere with your work, relationships, or sleep, or friends and family are commenting how you seem to always be on your phone, these may be signs that you may need additional help and could benefit from seeking out a mental health professional. 

Originally printed in the March 2024 issue of Simply Local Magazine

Never miss an issue, check out SLM's digital editions here!  

related articles: 

Get local updates, events and special offers!

Local Events