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How to log off

Sick of spending all your time staring at your devices? Here’s how to strike a healthier balance.

Stephanie Arnett/MITTR

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As soon as I wake up, I grab my phone to check any messages that have arrived overnight and thumb through news alerts before scrolling quickly through Twitter and Instagram. At work, I’m tethered to Slack and email, apart from the occasional TikTok video or meme I send to my friends over WhatsApp. And if I end up watching mindless reality TV in the evening (hello, Love Island), I’ll inevitably head back to Twitter to see if everyone else is as wound up by the contestants’ latest antics as I am.

None of this makes me feel bad, exactly. But it doesn’t make me feel great, either. It’s easy to lose hours to pointless scrolling with nothing to show for it.

Sound familiar?

In search of ways to cut down on aimless time online, I went to talk to some experts about how to forge a healthier, happier relationship with my devices and the internet. Here's my mini-guide on how to log off.

Ask yourself questions

First, it’s worth digging into why you really want to log off. Screen time has a bad reputation, and there are plenty of negative headlines blaming the amount of time we spend on devices for everything from reduced attention span to depression and anxiety.

But there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that reducing your screen time won’t in itself make you happier, and that general device usage isn’t a reliable predictor of any of those things. A large 2019 study from the University of Oxford found that the amount of time adolescents spent using digital devices had little impact on their mental health. The problem isn’t necessarily the amount of time you’re spending scrolling on the phone as much as what you’re looking at. 

“A lot of these headline statements are quite misleading because it’s so dependent on how you use social media or technologies, and who you are, and your history and your motivation,” says Amy Orben of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge, UK, who co-wrote the study.

People also have a tendency to misappropriate neuroscience in a way that makes their internet use sound dangerous and unhealthy, says Theodora Sutton, a digital anthropologist based in the UK who spent time with “digital detoxers” in California for her PhD. “I find people can be too critical of this stuff,” she adds. “People just need to have fun if they want to have fun.”

Thinking carefully about how flicking through TikTok videos and sifting through news feeds is making you feel can help you pinpoint whether there are reasons to stop and prevent you from making pointless sweeping changes, says David Ellis, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Bath in the UK, who contributed to a 2019 UK government report about the effects of social media and screen use on young people’s health.

For example, he points out, there’s no need to go on a full digital detox if it’s actually only Instagram’s endless highlights reel that’s making you unhappy—you might just want to set a limit on how much time you spend on that specific app. “Also, is it actually the technology that’s the issue? Or is it the person that’s annoying you on WhatsApp?” he says.

Start to set boundaries

If you’ve done that part and still think there’s a problem, there are steps you can take. Once you’ve isolated the root cause of any unhappiness—whether that’s a specific person pestering you, the kind of content you come across within a specific app, or just a desire to spend more time in the real world—you can set boundaries that make you feel more in control. 

It can help to treat your internet use like intermittent fasting, with strategies such as going online only during circumscribed hours and not every day, says Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry at the Stanford School of Medicine and author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. “Try deleting the apps that cause you to wander to parts of the internet you don’t want to go to, and make a specific to-do list of what you’re going to do online before you get online,” she adds. “Stick to that list.”

Break the mindless cycle

If, like me, you find that your app-checking has become a handy distraction or a way to kill time when you’re bored, you can teach yourself to break the habit and build healthier habits instead. Jud Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, recommends a three-step process for breaking the cycle.

The first step is recognizing that you’re in a habit loop. Take stock of the fact that you have a compulsion to refresh your work emails even on vacation, for example. Write these issues down so you can keep a record of what you’d like to address. 

The second is to ask yourself what Brewer calls a key question that can apply to any behavior: ‘‘What am I getting from this?” Our brains are wired to keep doing the things they find rewarding, whether it’s smoking, eating, or checking social media, he explains. “If something’s rewarding, we’re going to keep doing it—that’s how reinforcement learning works. So you can actually subvert that dominant paradigm by having people pay attention to exactly how rewarding the behavior is.” This will help you to recognize what’s good and what’s a waste of time.

The third and final step involves identifying the bigger, better offer—the more rewarding reward that helps you break the habit loop. 

This involves asking ourselves what checking social media feels like, choosing to be curious (which is intrinsically rewarding) about why we want to know what’s happening on Instagram or in our inboxes. We can then compare these feelings with how we feel when we read or exercise, for example, to identify which is the more rewarding activity. “This works even for clinical conditions,” Brewer adds.

Breaking out of doomscrolling malaise requires careful thought, but it is possible. Speaking to these experts has taught me the importance of catching myself and asking if I really want to watch a load of Instagram stories posted by people I don’t even like, or if I’d rather work my way through the articles I’ve saved in Pocket. I’m more mindful, more focused, and more conscious about what I allow on my screen. Apart from Love Island. That’s one habit I’m not willing to kick.

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