The Digital Diet: A Doable Alternative to a Digital Detox

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 18 September 2017
  • 3 minute read
Digital Diet: The Doable Alternative to a Digital Detox | The Health Sessions

“You have 263 unread messages.”

Did you come back from your Summer break only to find yourself flooded with work mail?

Smartphone stress is real. Countless of studies have been published about the downsides of the latest technology –  from stress and sleeping problems to anxiety, depression and disturbed body image.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed with email or keeping up with social media, the common advice is to consider a digital detox – taking a (radical) break from checking Instagram, WhatsApp and news feeds. Hey, I dedicated a blog post to it myself.

But recently I read something interesting in the Dutch Psychologie Magazine. Do we really need to force ourselves offline to find peace or is there a way to get the benefits from smartphones whilst avoiding the pitfalls?

Because especially if you have a chronic disease, digital devices can be a lifesaver. I became ill in the early days of the Internet – gosh that makes me sound like a dinosaur – and trust me, life is better when you can connect with friends on Facebook, order groceries online and have access to unlimited entertainment. What’s more, apps like Headspace or activity trackers can be useful tools to boost your health and happiness.

Australian psychologist Jocelyn Brewer suggests an alternative to unplugging completely: design an online environment that nourishes you. 

Your Digital Diet: How Do You Feed Your Mind?

Brewer compares your online consumption with a healthy food pattern. In the long term, strict diets and detoxes rarely work. Instead, it’s better to focus on what and how much we put into our bodies and minds, and why.

Just like with food, your virtual activities can be divided into two groups: ‘vitamins’ and ‘junk food’. And just like with a ‘real’ diet, a good question to ask yourself is: “What’s the nutritional value of my digital diet?

“Ditch the digital calorie counting and think about “virtual vitamins” instead.” – Jocelyn Brewer

Only you can decide which online activities are nourishing and which ones are empty calories. You might get fired up by reading heated debates or staying up-to-date with the latest news, whereas it depletes me emotionally. I enjoy social media to stay in touch with friends’ lives, but that may give you FOMO.

Digital Diet: The Doable Alternative to a Digital Detox | The Health Sessions

Here are some things for you to consider about your digital diet: 

  • Become aware of your digital habits. Where, when and how much do you use your digital devices? Do you automatically reach for your phone the minute you have to wait somewhere – a restaurant, in line, at the doctor’s office? Could you spend those moments in a way that’s more meaning to you? Or do you truly enjoy the distraction? Does checking messages get in the way of other, more important things, like enjoying  your meal or time with family and friends?
  • How does it make you feel? Your emotions and bodily sensations are important signals to help you detect whether something is good or bad for you. Are you stressed or excited when – “ping!”- you receive a notification? When you see happy status updates or picture-perfect Instagram shots, does it make you feel inspired, indifferent, envious or insecure?
  • Does it feed your mind? With so much information at your finger tips, you have to be selective about what you consume. What motivates and inspires you? What do you like to learn more about? Are there podcasts, blogs or TED Talks you enjoy that stimulate your personal growth?
  • Are you using technology proactively or reactively? Ask yourself why you’re engaging online: ‘Am I scrolling my news feeds because I truly feel like it or simply out of habit/because I’m bored?’. Do you instantly react to notifications, even when you’re busy? Or do you open your work mail at set times whenever it suits you best?
  • Is it helpful or harmful? Tracking your activity levels is a great way to increase your awareness and boost your fitness. However, if you get obsessed with the numbers and develop an unhealthy relationship with exercising, it might do more harm than good. The same goes for consistently staying up too late because you’re busy gaming, spending your entire paycheck on online shopping, etc.
  • Are there any offline activities you miss doing? I used to love reading big books, until I got kids – and Netflix. After a long day, binge-watching Suits or Homeland feels more relaxing than delving into a complex story. But I miss it. When your virtual activities get in the way of pursuing other interests, see if you can find a balance between ogling Harvey Spector and doing things you love.
  • Truly enjoy your ‘guilty pleasures’. Let’s not be digital moralists here – there’s nothing wrong with browsing Facebook, playing Minecraft or watching cat GIFs. But just as nutritionists would advise you to savour a piece of good chocolate instead of mindlessly gobbling down two bars, it should be a conscious choice to grab your phone than your default mode.

To figure out what works best for you, a digital detox might still be a good place to start. But in the long run, it’s more realistic to be mindful, meaningful and moderate about using your smartphone. The good news is, the concept of crowding out works just as well for your digital diet as it does for bodily nutrition:

The more you fill yourself with good stuff – online and offline – the less room there will be left for bingeing junk.

What does your (ideal) digital diet look like?

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