by Prof. Virginia Thomas, Assistant Professor of Psychology

Have you heard about the latest incentive to coax people into doing a digital detox? The app “Uptime,” based in the U.K., is curious what people will do with their time if they unplug, so they’re offering £2,000 to study one lucky winner who agrees to cease using social media for two months solid.

What I find so interesting about this as a psychologist who studies social media usage, is that the study is focused on investigating not just the rather predictable outcomes such as happiness levels, but on the activities that will fill the void of time left by a blank screen. Despite our better intentions to make good use of our free time, most of us spend hours every day in front of our screens, scrolling mindlessly and passively entertaining ourselves… two hours and three minutes every day (if you live in the U.S.), to be exact.

To be fair, sometimes this is all we have the energy for when our busy lives create a cycle of overwork and exhaustion. But the Uptime app’s experimental initiative invites us all to consider how else we might spend those two hours and three minutes. Would you start a new hobby? Pick up an old one? Sleep more? Play more? Connect with a friend, face to face?

A few years ago I conducted a study where I surveyed several hundred people, ages 14-79, about what they would do if they went without computer-mediated-communication for 24 hours (i.e., no social media, no texting, no emailing). First, they told me how they felt. The #1 feeling, not surprisingly, was “disconnected.” Understandably, they also expected to feel bored and anxious, but a similar number also felt “free” and “relieved” at the prospect of unplugging.

What stood out to me the most was what they would do and what they would gain with their newfound hours of non-screen time. Reading for pleasure was far and away the most frequently named activity, but a sizable portion also listed spending time in nature and gaining some “me time” to feel free to do whatever they pleased.

This is significant to me because over the past few years my research has focused on the benefits of spending time alone. When you choose to be by yourself, solitude comes with multiple advantages. The short list includes feeling recharged, regulating your emotions, and experiencing creativity and personal growth. Spending time by yourself can be especially restorative in the context of our overscheduled daily lives, and this is compounded when that solitude takes place in nature.

Perhaps this is because nature has a set of qualities that end up being well-suited to our nervous systems. Environmental psychologist Stephen Kaplan notes that being in nature, away from the sounds and sights of modern life, creates a sensation that he calls “soft fascination,” a state where we feel simultaneously transported, calm, and buoyant. You may have felt something similar when gazing at a particularly gorgeous sunset, or pausing midway through a hike up a mountain trail to gaze at the view below.

According to Kaplan, whose research established Attention Restoration Theory (ART), spending time in nature helps restore our cognition when it’s been overtaxed by directed attention (i.e., studying for exams, working on a project with a looming deadline). In nature, our minds are allowed to drift, gaze, wander, and be immersed in the moment. We aren’t focused on one specific thing; rather, we experience the world using multiple senses – sights, sounds, smells, sensations – instead of working so hard to filter things out in the name of productivity.

Being in nature not only relieves our mental fatigue, it also helps us emotionally regulate, inviting us to ponder and reflect on our relationships, our goals, or that conversation we had yesterday that’s been bugging us. What’s more, a recent study found that spending time in nature actually promotes positive body image, an effect that is directly opposite to what hours on Instagram can do.

This is good news for those of us who periodically take a digital detox challenge. Yes, we may at first feel disconnected – a logical reaction to the loss of connection that can be found on social media. But I’m encouraged by this research on nature and solitude which suggests that such a detox can actually help us feel more connected… to ourselves, and to the natural world that surrounds us.

Take Action

  • Start small. Commit to 30 minutes a day offline and in nature for a week. If you’re up for a longer challenge, try David Suzuki’s 30 by 30 challenge.
  • If you normally always surround yourself with people (or live in a busy household), try finding time to spend alone each week with no media distractions (TV off, phone off, etc.).
  • Give yourself permission to silence your phone for blocks of time. Test what it feels like to set boundaries on your media use.
  • Escape the defaults–when you do use technology, be more intentional about your digital habits.

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