We know it’s unproductive to waste time online, but the problem is growing. Disconnecting completely, even for short periods, can help you build better habits.

When David Erickson leaves his home in Long Beach, California to spend several days on Panama’s southern coast, he also reluctantly gives up his smartphone.

There’s no wireless internet where he’s going, and the phone’s data capabilities don’t work there, so there’ll be no checking social media or emails. He even has to walk to a certain spot on the property to make or receive calls. “My phone just becomes a clock,” says Erickson, the founder of a digital conference calling company.

We know it’s unproductive to waste time online. But many of us get anxious when we try to let go of these habits

For the first day and a half of what is typically a four-day-long holiday, he is anxious about being off the grid. He often scans the area for data service, debates driving to a nearby hotel for a slow wireless connection and attempts to call into his office on the off chance he has cellular service. Initially at least, it’s difficult to pull away: “It feels like the sky is falling – the separation anxiety is crazy,” he says.

The era of anxiety

We know it’s unproductive to waste time online. But the problem is growing. People have never been more addicted to their smartphones, according to a 2016 Deloitte study. Facebook’s active users number 1.86 billion (almost two out of every seven people). And 24% of internet users now use Twitter, while 29% use LinkedIn, according to Pew Research. More importantly, Facebook reported that users spend 50 minutes on its platform each day, which can feel even more significant when you’re constantly switching between similar tasks.

But even when we set lofty goals of not getting embroiled in a Facebook discussion during work or getting distracted by our phones at the dinner table, many of us get anxious when we try to let go of these habits. Pulling away from social media can create anxiety and the urgency to log back on, says Stefan Hofmann, professor of psychology at Boston University and an expert on emotion research.

Call it digital anxiety. Long-term, negative feelings around personal use of social media and failure to cut back can add to feelings of depression, says Hofmann. People who are disappointed by their lack of ability to ultimately pull away can feel distressed.

Some people grow nervous about losing the connectivity their smartphones give them, because they feel they have to monitor a future threat, or political news, Hofmann adds. “This is the era of anxiety,” he says.

Reasons that resonate

Many of us of us would like to spend less time online but show signs of anxiety once we’re far from the smartphone. About three quarters of young adults separated from their smartphone for a short period experienced so-called displacement behavior such as fidgeting or scratching, according to researchers from Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. Carefully outlining why you’d like to change your media use can be a powerful way to fight digital-related anxiety, says Christina Crook, author of the Joy of Missing Out.

Using a reason to log off that resonates with your personal beliefs is a powerful deterrent

Using a reason to log off that resonates with your personal beliefs is a powerful deterrent. For example, you can simply remind yourself that spending less time on social media can let you spend more time with certain family members or friends.

Being clear about the significant tradeoff can help lessen fears and apprehensions about stepping away, says Crook. “If you don’t have a good reason, there’s no amount of willpower that will keep you off,” she says.

There are many reasons people don’t want to disconnect. Some fear they may miss out on event invitations and gossip from friends or acquaintances, or grow anxious at the idea of neglecting a well-curated social image. Others get hooked because they have to have a strong social media presence for their work. Being honest with yourself about why you choose to log on, and the extent to which going online actually benefits you, can help too.

Be honest about why you choose to log on, and how much it actually benefits you

Kris Dugan, chief executive of Betterworks, a software company in Redwood City in California, once used Facebook to decompress between work projects. That’s no longer the case, he says. “It was a little bit of an unwinding or a quick break for me,” he says. Now, with the current slew of political posts, he feels himself “getting distracted and agitated.”

Although he remains interested in engaging in some of the content he sees, Dugan says admitting that the social media platform no longer helps him relax. That made it easier to log off without suffering feelings of withdrawal. Last month, Dugan’s firm conducted a survey, and found that workers spend an average of two hours per day browsing political posts and almost a quarter spend three or more hours per day.

To detox, or not to detox

Stopping social media use altogether can make you anxious about what you’re missing. Still, staying away completely – even for brief periods via a so-called digital detox – can help you to build new habits and control your impulses, says Crook.

“A digital detox actually reduces the amount of anxiety because when the parameters are so clear, it takes all of those individual choices off the table,” she says. Using tools designed to keep you offline, or uninstalling certain apps from your phone, can help keep your media use under control while limiting the anxiety-inducing effects of doing so. Since it can be most difficult to break away in the evenings, Crook puts away her smartphone after 20:00 each night.

But that’s not the only solution. For social media users that wish to cut back, Hofmann recommends they start by examining the core of why they go online, and identifying which types of browsing they find so addictive, in order to combat future impulses. It can be difficult. These platforms can bring people together and combat loneliness, but people start to feel that they are having artificial interactions online, he adds.

Much of the time social media gives users a sense of belonging without the need for one-on-one interaction. “It’s simply a way of connecting with like-minded people to feel validated,” he says. The fix could be finding a way to get more in-person interaction around the same topics you care about, while weighing in online.

Being forgiving of your own failures can help too. Rather than blaming your own lack of self-control, acknowledge that many apps and social media platforms are designed to be addictive and to draw you back in when you’re not browsing – Facebook and Twitter, for example, send emails to users who haven’t logged on in a while. Ultimately, realising that these entrenched habits are hard to break – but not impossible – can be empowering.

“You’re going to fail guaranteed,” says Crook. “But, for me it always comes back to you believing that [logging off] is possible.”

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