Taking Care of Your Mental Health in a Tech-Driven World

How is your relationship with your digital devices?

That’s not a question most of us ask. Instead, we tend to view our phones, laptops, tablets, and smartwatches as either modern conveniences or absolute necessities. It’s an understandable response as we navigate a world that has fully embraced digital technology.

While our devices enable us to do our daily work and entertain us in our nonwork lives, it also means we are dialed in for all our waking hours, leaving us with little separation from our digital devices. This can lead to adverse effects on overall wellbeing, especially mental health.

It might not be a popular opinion, but not every challenge requires a digital solution. When it comes to mental health, the best solution might be to turn the digital devices off.

But at some point, you will turn them back on. And then what? How do you truly guard your mental wellbeing in today’s digital landscape?

An Important Reframing: Disciplines over Detox

The idea of a “digital detox” or break from digital media has been an advocated practice for those who feel overwhelmed by their always-on connection. Given that daily life is now so digitally connected, a detox might not be a realistic solution.

Detox is a form of abstaining, which is important in serious cases of addiction. However, detox in a digital context teaches nothing about how to reengage with digital media once a self-imposed detox is over.

What needs to be developed are digital disciplines. By integrating thoughtful practices, you’ll begin to reap the benefits and wield stronger self-control when devices demand your attention. But first, you need to acknowledge the challenge you’re up against.

Understanding Digital Overload

If you feel overwhelmed, understand this: you’re not alone and it is by design.  

Today’s most popular apps and technology companies understand they are operating in the Attention Economy. Your eyeballs on their apps are what generate revenue, and there is value in keeping you connected and online. Even streaming services have repositioned “bingeing” – an excessive, indulging behavior that can have adverse consequences – and marketed it as a desirable activity for viewers.

A longitudinal study by global data firm Statista on digital vs. traditional media found that, in 2022, the average time spent on digital media in the United States was 439 minutes (7 hours 19 minutes).  

Just like food, it’s easy to overconsume and not always choose what’s best for you.

When glued to your screens and taking in a steady stream of entertainment, talking heads, user-generated content, divisive opinions, and news that has shifted from objective reporting to intentionally inducing outrage, it’s your mental health paying the toll. This can lead to:

  • Elevated levels of stress
  • Heightened anxiety
  • A sense of being overwhelmed with too much information
  • Growing disconnect in our real-life, interpersonal relationships

Signs of digital overload

Often, the need for digital disciplines or a new path forward isn’t recognized until you reach burnout. From the time you wake up until you turn the lights off at night, there is a never-ending barrage of digital alerts begging for attention. And like the fast-depleting battery of your phone, you only have so much energy to give.

Signs that your digital overload is real and could be draining your mental wellbeing include:

  • A decreased ability to stay focused and accomplish tasks
  • Normalizing multitasking to feel productive
  • Utilizing multiple screens simultaneously
  • Lack of quality rest and disrupted sleep patterns
  • Elevated feelings of fatigue despite being sedentary
  • Reducing human interactions and opting out of in-person engagements
  • Increased irritability or lack of emotional stability 
  • Developing a false “phantom” feeling of digital alerts that aren’t there
  • A fear of missing out (FOMO) that keeps you continuously connected

Developing Digital Disciplines

A hard thing about digital overload is recognizing that most people are experiencing it and too few people are modeling the healthy disciplines you desire in your life.

Disciplines, whether it is going to the gym or putting guardrails on your digital diet, can be hard at first. But when positive results become evident, you’ll want those disciplines to become ingrained habits to maintain a healthier version of you.

Consider developing the following disciplines to gain greater control over your digital life and mental state:

  • Turn off phone notifications. Not everything is urgent, especially if it’s coming from a social media app. Muting notifications can reduce the number of disruptions throughout your day.
  • Stop multitasking and multi-screening. Divided attention yields divided results. Do one thing at a time, to the best of your ability, to maintain better focus and outcomes.   
  • Carve out specific times for email checks and social media usage. Give yourself uninterrupted times for deep work, time with others, or digital-free moments without the need to be on and respond. Notify coworkers and friends of your disciplined approach, especially if they are accustomed to an immediate response.
  • Avoid screens one hour before bed; keep them out of the bedroom. Blue light from screens stimulates parts of the brain that make you feel more alert, disrupting your ability to fall asleep and develop healthy patterns for restful sleep. Keep devices out of arm’s reach and ideally out of the room.
  • Establish device-free zones and/or time periods. From dinner table to game night, determine ground rules of where and when interpersonal connections will outweigh digital connections. This also helps model behavior you want to instill in others, including children.
  • Monitor screen time usage and adapt accordingly. Most devices can tell you exactly how much time you spend online and per app. Use these features to help maintain healthy balances.

Outcomes of Being Disciplined

Effectively implementing digital disciplines can make things better:

Better focus. Better time management. Better sleep. Better presence and engagement with others, which can foster better relationships. Better stress levels. Less anxiety. Reduced feelings of being overwhelmed.

Cumulatively these improvements all point to better overall mental health, making digital disciplines a case study in “less is better” – for those who desire better.

Intentionally Reclaim Your Attention

Not long ago, Americans were not spending seven-plus hours on digital media. Reclaiming that time requires more than willpower as ingrained habits are hard to break. So when the desire to watch or scroll hits, consider alternatives to turn passive, sedentary time in front of a screen into physically active and brain-stimulating time that is good for both the body and mind.

Some alternative activities include:

    • Reading physical books
    • Writing and journaling
    • Walking, biking, or hiking in nature
    • Causal sports such as tennis, golf, pickleball
    • Picking up old hobbies or exploring new ones
    • Get social offline and face-to-face with others

In a world where screens are ever-present, being intentional about when and how often we use them can be the difference between good mental wellbeing and a fragile state of mental health.

Taking needed breaks can be helpful. Leaving social media sites can ease stress and anxiety. And developing disciplines – those you can uphold day after day, week after week –  can make a profound, long-term difference.

Remember, when you find yourself craving that dopamine hit, know that your alternative activities will give you the same reward while also rewarding your body and brain for being active. 

The power rests in your hands, not within your devices. Expect that a future, mentally stronger version of you will thank you for taking control.  

Mount Carmel's von Zychlin Healthy Living Center is a community health and wellness center that provides FREE holistic health and wellness programs for everyone! Click here for more information. They have plenty of activities to do while you take a digital break!