Can a Media Detox Help Your Mental Health?

During the past week, I’ve taken part in a small experiment: a media detox. For 7 days, I avoided all forms of social media and news. This little challenge opened my eyes on many aspects of social media, as well as how mental health is impacted by the non-stop circus of news that we are subjected to.

So today I thought I would talk about the reasons why I did this detox in the first place, what went right, what went wrong, and what are my thoughts now that it is over.

Why the Detox?

If you have been following me on social media, you have probably noticed that the past months have been tremendously difficult for me. Circumstances (in particular those linked to the Covid pandemic) have caused my mental health to take a dive. I’ve been feeling depressed, hopeless, extremely anxious about the future and incapable of concentrating on anything.

I believe that social media and news media have made things worse for me. In the past weeks, I’ve spent countless hours on Reddit reading depressing stories, I’ve overanalysed news stories about politics, and I’ve seen too many dramas on Twitter for my own good. In one word: overdose.

I speak about the dangers of filling your mind with negative news in my book Happy Not Tortured. Spending hours every day ingesting negative news is similar to eating junk food all the time. In the long term, your mind will suffer! But, much like junk food, it is extremely difficult to regulate yourself. I found myself incapable of reducing my scrolling habits.

Therefore, when my boyfriend suggested a media detox challenge, “cold turkey”, I immediately accepted.

The Terms

For 7 days, we were not allowed to:

  • Browse any news website
  • Browse the following social media platforms: Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok
  • Listen or watch anything to do with current affairs or news
  • Click on any clickbait link found on websites

However, we were allowed to:

  • Watch videos on Youtube, as long as they had nothing to do with any news/drama/negativity/social media
  • Browse ONE fun subreddit for entertainment purpose
  • Check our notifications on social media once or twice a day and respond/post
  • Use platforms that have a professional purpose (for example LinkedIn)
  • Send/receive messages from friends whether by email, WhatsApp or Messenger

Going in this challenge, I was pretty smug. I was convinced it wasn’t going to be a big deal and that I would breeze through it. L.O.L!

The First Half of the Detox

The first days without browsing social media were very hard. My fingers would click on the icons ALL THE TIME! I was so used to mindlessly scroll through mountains of tweets, status, posts, that every idle moment I would see myself opening an app without even thinking about it! Then I would realise what I was doing, swear a bit, close the app, and repeat ten minutes later.

Browsing social media and news website was so ingrained in my habits that I had muscle memory of where all my apps are located on my phone! To prevent myself from falling back into the habit, I had to keep my phone in a different room for a day or two and replace it with my Kindle (not connected to the internet). With this technique, I could replace mindless scrolling with a few minutes of reading.

I also decided to replace my morning habit of reading the news after breakfast with half an hour of writing. It was very difficult to replace a “passive” activity with a more active one, so at first I struggled.

I felt more “on edge” and easily irritated than usual. But on the other side of the coin, I also felt less hopeless and depressed, and more concentrated. Without the huge amount to stimulus received from news and social media, I found myself being able to do simple tasks without being interrupted.

The Second Half of the Detox

After a few days, I felt much less restless. My “coping” strategies worked well and I found myself clicking less on icons by accident. Thanks to always having my Kindle next to me, I read much more than I had in the past months. My mood improved dramatically. I felt much happier and found it easier to concentrate on my everyday tasks. 

However, I started missing some specific aspects of social media. In particular, I missed reading my friends’ status, seeing their photos and hearing what they were up to these days. As we are still in lockdown here in London, avoiding social media made me feel even more isolated.

I also felt extremely bored. Before doing this experiment, I hadn’t realised how much I used social media to fill my time. Sure, I could watch TV or play video games, but there were huge chunks of time that I was previously spending reading stories on Reddit or talking to people on Twitter. I know that this is mostly due to the boredom of the lockdown situation, but this was a concrete consequence.

However, as a result of being more bored than usual… I did things that I usually don’t do! For example, I watched the whole broadcast of the latest SpaceX launch online. I even watched the docking to the ISS and the welcome ceremony. I’ve always been interested in space, but prior to this experiment I would never had taken the time to watch the whole live event. Or I would have been tweeting about it constantly, losing the benefit of experiencing things without interruption.

Note About the News

During this week of detox, I made a point to avoid news websites completely. I usually keep Google News open in a tab on my browser and I read many articles every day. I don’t have TV channels, so internet is my only source of information. Cutting it completely felt very weird and after a couple of days, I started feeling anxious, as if I was missing something big happening in the world.

And actually, I DID miss something big. This week of detox, as you probably know, coincided with the terrible events happening in the US. I hadn’t realised how serious this all was until today, and it made me feel guilty. I wish I had been there to show my support (I make a point to be apolitical on this blog, but you should know that I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement).

This forced me to recognise that, although news media are definitely bad for my mental health in high dose, I can’t also completely ignore them otherwise I risk becoming closed off and ignorant to other people’s suffering.

Looking at Screens

This experience has made me realised that I am addicted to news and social media and that, while I shouldn’t aim to suppress them totally, I have to reduce the time I spend on it.

You are probably thinking: easier said than done! Internet and social media in particular occupy an ever-growing space in our lives and it is very difficult to reduce once you’ve gone too far. And as an artist, social media is our first point of advertisement. We can’t completely stop using all platforms at once.

However, I think that it is important to understand WHY we use these apps and screens so often. Why do I spend hours mindlessly scrolling while watching TV? Or why do I have to stop everything I do to check a notification? Why do I feel the need to document my life in pictures or tweets? And why do I read other people’s problems on Reddit?

This morning (completely by coincidence!!!) I found the beginning of an answer. I was watching an episode of Parks and Recreation (one of my favourite series) in which one of the characters had caused a minor car accident because he was tweeting, and was sentenced to spend a week away from any screen. The episode showed his struggles and his admission that he was addicted to social media. At the end, he explained that he felt the need to look at screens endlessly because his life was not great. And social media helped him forget that. 

It rang true in my case. The last few months have been less than ideal, and it is sometimes easier to numb yourself with something mindless than confront the reality of what is happening.

Your reasons might be different than mine, but if you are feeling like social media, the news or the internet in general is becoming an addiction or is negatively impacting your mood, it might be a good idea to ask yourself the same questions. 

What Now?

This challenge gave me a necessary wake-up call to make some changes in how I consume news and social media. I’ve decided to read the news only once per day and keep it preferably from factual sources (for example Reuters) instead of sensationalist or opinionated ones (Twitter hashtags). I am aiming at creating a routine that would allow me to stay informed while avoiding a dip in my mood because of it.

Regarding social media, I am also aiming at reducing my time spent on it. Reddit is the biggest thief of my time (see my book The Part-Time Artist if you want to learn more about managing “time stealers”) so I will work on that problem first. I will continue to automate things like posting on Twitter, and I will probably continue using alternatives like TweetDeck to avoid seeing hashtags and feeds.

Finally, I will try to catch myself when I scroll aimlessly, because I’m bored or because I don’t want to do something. I would like to add more mindfulness to my habits, and I think it is the perfect time to do it.

What About You?

Is your mental health suffering at the moment? Are you thinking about doing your own detox? Share your experience in the comments!

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