Key Research

Digital Detox: an Effective Solution in the Smartphone Era? A Systematic Literature Review

Key Takeaways:

  • Digital detox interventions exert some promising effects on usage itself and on depression symptoms
  • Results across all the studies were quite varied, and encourage more research
  • Future research should investigate digital detox interventions in large-scale studies with the general population 
  • Research is needed to examine mechanisms of change to develop successful digital detox interventions


LiveMore ScreenLess’ Summary

Digital detox interventions have been suggested as a solution to reduce negative impacts from smartphone use on outcomes like well-being or social relationships. Digital detox is defined as timeouts from using electronic devices, either completely or for specific subsets of smartphone use (such as social media or texting). This systematic literature review aims to answer the question of whether digital detox interventions are effective at improving  health and well-being, social relationships, self-control or performance.

Results show that digital detox interventions vary across studies. Some studies found positive intervention effects, whereas others found no effect or even negative consequences for well-being. In all of the study considered, the digital detox must be voluntary, with the intention being to promote healthy behavior. Enforced time outs were not considered. The aim was for controlled future use, rather than complete abstinence.

Do digital detox interventions differ in terms of: the content that individuals disconnect from; the duration of the timeouts; and the studies’ quality?  The duration in these studies was anywhere from 24 hours to four weeks.

No significant effect from a digital detox intervention was found on cognitive and physical performance among judo athletes or on grade point averages. Participants with lower risk for social media addiction indicated a downward time distortion, whereas participants high at risk for social media addiction showed an upward distortion.

Participants with low depression and anxiety symptoms showed an increase in their self-regulation skills with the digital detox. A decrease procrastination was seen directly after the intervention and at a 48-hour follow-up.

One study found no effects on sleep quality, another reported that people with mild-to-moderate anxiety and depression symptoms improved their sleep quality.

Two studies found no effect on life satisfaction; two studies observed a decrease in life satisfaction; and four studies found an increase in life satisfaction after taking a break. Effect sizes were small to moderate. No effect from the 24-hour digital detox intervention on mood was found.

After a seven-day digital detox an increase in mental well-being was observed, corresponding with results in another study which show that participants with mild–moderate depression symptoms reported improvements in mental well-being. In contrast, another study found no effect from their digital detox intervention on psychological well-being. Social media abstinence for seven days led to higher reported boredom levels.

Only one study found a decrease in anxiety for participants with mild–moderate anxiety symptoms as compared with the baseline assessment; other three studies found no effect.

Excessive users of social media benefited from abstinence to a larger degree compared with typical users. Three studies found a significant decline in depression symptoms after a break from social media use or smartphone use in general.

 While one study found no effect from digital detox on FoMo scores, two other studies revealed an increase in FoMO scores.  One study found a decrease in loneliness, and another found an increase. Two studies reported no effect. 

Obviously, results across all seven studies are quite diverse. Even though a few more studies revealed positive, rather than negative, consequences from digital detox, most of the studies showed either no effects or mixed findings regarding its efficacy.  Mixed findings regarding digital detox exist, and no clear answer can be given yet. The inconsistent findings are likely due to: self- setting goals; measurements differing; and time point of measurement (some during, some after).

Theda Radtke. Digital detox: An effective solution in the smartphone era? A systematic literature review. Mobile Media & Communication, Volume 10, Issue 2.

Topics: Digital Detox , Mental Health

Year: surveys conducted between 20082020; published 2021

Participants:  3,625

Data Collection: seven databases were searched for studies that examined timeouts from smartphone use, social networks, or messaging

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