Digital Detox: The Only Known Cure for Digital Depression. Kirsten Milliken, PhD

When Did You Last Do a Digital Detox?

Dear Dr. K, when I stop playing on my computer for more than an hour I feel anxious. I’ve gained weight, and when I am not online, I can’t concentrate, don’t want to do anything, and am waiting until I can get back in front of a screen again. What’s wrong with me? 

The negative impact of technology on our mental, cognitive and physical health is becoming an increasing problem. A 2010 study from the University of Leeds found a significant connection between the amount of time people spent online and symptoms of depression. Since then, outcomes from a variety of studies suggest that, as both kids’ and adults’ time in front of a screen increases, their physical activity decreases, raising their vulnerability to mental health problems. Terms like “digital depression” and “digital dementia” have entered our mainstream vocabulary. It’s clear that screen time is having a major impact on our brains and bodies.

There is no pill (or drug) you can take to cure digital depression. “Digital detox” is the only known cure. When you choose to unplug, your brain can feel like you have gone from information gluttony to starvation mode. This is digital withdrawal. Here is timeline of what you can expect:

  • Like someone on a highly restrictive diet, when you first go “offline,” you may experience anxiety, stress, and an urge to give up and go back to bingeing on screen time to get a “fix.”
  • Irritability tends to creep in as if your brain is causing you to have a temper tantrum because you are not giving it what it wants.
  • After a relatively short time, (which can seem like a long time) the anxiety and irritability dissipates and boredom sets in. When you are used to being fed new links, new activities, and new icons to click to get “rewarded,” the real world can feel a bit dull and your motivation can feel as though it needs a jump-start. Sleeping it off might feel like the “easy” way to handle this withdrawal.

Symptoms that might meet the diagnostic criteria for depression include:

  • Diminished interest of pleasure in almost all activities
  • Difficulty staying asleep or sleeping too much
  • Agitation or lethargy nearly every day
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Diminished ability to think or concentrate, indecisiveness
  • Restlessness, brain fog, poor focus and concentration, mental disorganization, and impulsive urges to go online “to check just one thing” can make you think you are losing your mind.

You can white knuckle it through all this, or you can have a plan in place before you unplug to reduce some of this discomfort. My suggestion to clients, is to have a replacement activity. Create a list of friends you can call, activities you enjoy, events you want to attend, or goals you want to accomplish, now that you will have more free time.

Getting back in your body is one of the best ways to manage the stress of getting offline and avoiding digital depression. Physical activity burns stress chemicals in your body that build up while you are sitting in front of a screen. Being active with other people is even better! Activity and social interactions trigger chemicals in your brain that cause you to be more creative, healthy, focused, productive, and happy. 

Kirsten Milliken PhD, authority on Digital Depression


— Text: Kirsten Milliken, PhD.
Dr. Milliken is the author of PlayDHD: Permission to Play, A Prescription for Adults With ADHD. She lives in Portland with her two kids who hate her for restricting their Internet access! 




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