Is it time for a digital detox?

early ipod
I remember when my kids’ only high tech device was this ipod to listen to music and the computer below that was not hooked up to the internet. They used disks with children’s activities for the Mac.
Bondi Blue Mac from 1998.

I was interviewed by a journalist last week for a survey about the state of American families. She reads my blog and interviewed me for a story a few years ago about parents hiring coaches to improve their parenting. You can read her article called Why some parents — including Prince Harry and his wife — are hiring parenting coaches HERE.

Last week, she asked me about major problems facing families today. I mentioned the rising costs to raise a family and also worries about the digital world, screen time and depression. I’ve read so many articles about how social media and screen time is causing depression and anxiety in our kids. The numbers are skyrocketing. Add that to the pandemic and kids literally had a year of isolation and not being with their peers.

Immediately after the interview, I ran across an article in the Wall Street Journal called: Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine. The article gives a scientific explanation for what is happening to our brains. I found it fascinating and thought I’d share it with you, too.

Here’s an excerpt:

Rising rates of depression and anxiety in wealthy countries like the U.S. may be a result of our brains getting hooked on the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure

By Anna Lembke, Wall Street Journal

—Dr. Lembke is a psychiatrist and professor at Stanford University. This essay is adapted from her new book “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” which will be published on Aug. 24 by Dutton.

A patient of mine, a bright and thoughtful young man in his early 20s, came to see me for debilitating anxiety and depression. He had dropped out of college and was living with his parents. He was vaguely contemplating suicide. He was also playing videogames most of every day and late into every night.

Twenty years ago the first thing I would have done for a patient like this was prescribe an antidepressant. Today I recommended something altogether different: a dopamine fast. I suggested that he abstain from all screens, including videogames, for one month.

Over the course of my career as a psychiatrist, I have seen more and more patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, including otherwise healthy young people with loving families, elite education and relative wealth. Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty. It’s too much dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.

The article helped me understand the physical issues with screens that are affecting us — as much as the emotional problems with feeling left out, bullied, comparing yourself to the make-believe social media world. Although these issues with mental health affect mostly young people, I’m sure it’s not limited to their generation entirely.

To answer my own question, “Is it time for a digital detox?” I say yes. I’m trying to find little ways each day to put down the phone or other media and do something healthy. Whether it’s sitting outside listening and watching birds, or taking time to stretch, there are ways to make it a better day and improve mental health.

Here’s another excerpt:

As soon as dopamine is released, the brain adapts to it by reducing or “downregulating” the number of dopamine receptors that are stimulated. This causes the brain to level out by tipping to the side of pain, which is why pleasure is usually followed by a feeling of hangover or comedown. If we can wait long enough, that feeling passes and neutrality is restored. But there’s a natural tendency to counteract it by going back to the source of pleasure for another dose.

If we keep up this pattern for hours every day, over weeks or months, the brain’s set-point for pleasure changes. Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal. As soon as we stop, we experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and mental preoccupation with using, otherwise known as craving.

red cardinal on bird feeder
I like to sit outside and enjoy listening to and watching birds.

What do you view as the major issues facing families today?

What are your thoughts about the physical and chemical changes in the brain causing an addiction to social media, screens, video games, etc.? Have you heard about this before or is it a new concept to you?

How much time do you spend on social media like facebook, pinterest or other news sites?

22 thoughts on “Is it time for a digital detox?

  1. The biggest obstacle we face as parents is wanting our kids to be our friends. Kids have friends, they need parents. Yesterday I didn’t realize there was an internet issue until about six pm when I received an email from a company I sometimes buy things from…they said the internet might have been kaput but they were open…

    • I agree that we need to parent and not be friends with our kids. I saw a lot of the “friend moms” around me and the kids struggled with boundaries. Was the internet out in your area or was it widespread?

  2. I’ve heard about the dangers of too much screen time and agree that it could be a problem. I did notice the Facebook, etc., blackout but it didn’t affect me. Your post is very timely because of it!

  3. I think that the lack of family dinners plays a part as well as being connected digitally 24/7. I don’t allow phones at dinner so we have to actually talk which I think is good. I do check in on social media from time to time, but it’s not necessary for me to have everyday. I love getting outside though and everyday take my coffee out in the mornings even if it’s only for a few minutes. I love the photo by the way!

  4. I think digital responsibility should be something that’s taught in school and at home so there are norms around how we participate in the digital world based on what’s good for our physical and mental health..excellent food for thought 🙂

  5. It’s a major issue since mom and dad are just as addicted as the kids are. That is a broad generalization, but I believe you understand what I mean. So, what are we to do? We’re also still in the grips of a pandemic, so taking away our phones and social media seems terrifying. There needs to be a happy medium.

    I enjoy social media, despite the fact that I don’t have a Facebook account and rarely use my Instagram account. I have other accounts that make me happy. I just visit them in moderation. It took a long time for me to develop that moderation mindset.

    By the way, I see a cardinal at your feeder and I’m envious. I haven’t heard a cardinal in months. 🙁

  6. As a child therapist I sooooo resonate with all of this! I would even take it a step deeper and say that we need regular dopamine detoxes built into our weekly schedules for best long-term results. Being “bored” has been associated with being a bad thing and it absolutely does not have to be. The anxiety we feel when we are bored is because we are so used to large and repeated dopamine hits for so long that when that all goes away we almost are met with a state of existential crisis! I’ve seen it in myself and others and now include screen usage in my intake assessments haha.

    Writer McWriterson also said it well in a comment above about parental addiction to social media. Our children learn from us. If we want to correct the addictive habits our children are having with screens we need to lead by example for the children we have so we can prevent any potential addiction for the children we plan to have. I hope this all makes sense, I get a little rambly haha. Moderation with screens, as with anything, is absolutely key!

    Either way, I love your words and I look forward to reading more from you in the future!!

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