6 Keys to a Rewarding Digital Detox

Digital Eye-Candy

In every direction, digital eye-candy tempts our eyes. Our screens project images to us that are more attractive than our real lives, and that’s all by design. Lured in, we escape into our screens, get hooked, and find it difficult to escape.

Most of us cannot purge screens from our lives, but can we take time away from our screens? Should we? And to what end?

A digital detox can help direct your gaze away from the digital media glowing on screens and recenter your life on what matters. It is a brief season of life, at least seven days, set aside to intentionally detach from social media, breaking news, video, gaming, and the compulsive magnets that attract our fingertips to our screens. Like all fasting, a digital detox is a way we can disconnect from good things in order to reestablish love for the greatest thing. A digital fast can help us reaffirm that God himself is everything we need.

Here are six keys to pulling off a rewarding digital detox.

1. Awaken to the attention economy (and get more sleep).

All fasting is countercultural, but a digital fast cuts the cord from the pervasive sphere of images and spectacles that vie for our attention. We live inside what is now labeled the “attention market.” Attention is the currency of our age, and our focus is exchanged into the plays and likes that translate into tremendous social power, influence, and wealth for the spectacle-maker.

The goal of the digital age is to engage our attention, attract our eyes, and get us to click, scroll, double tap, laugh, and share. The digital economy wants you to stay up until midnight online, and then wake up to the buzz of your notifications in the morning and do it all over again.

So who is Netflix’s greatest enemy? Perhaps other streaming giants like Hulu or Amazon Prime? Nope. In 2017, Netflix’s CEO named their main competitor—sleep. A few days later Netflix's Twitter account repeated the ominously succinct sentiment in a tweet: “Sleep is my greatest enemy.” That’s no joke. Sleep patterns affect corporate profits. Netflix’s greatest enemy is sleep—your sleep, to be specific.

Our conscious attention is now a scarce and precious commodity for the Willy Wonkas of digital eye candy. And it’s the scarcity of human attention that brings value to accrued likes and plays and shares. Discrete moments of human attention have become the new social currency. Commodities become more valuable as they become more scarce, and our attention is limited. Eventually we must close our eyes and fall asleep.

As we sever from our screens, as we become more attentive to what is not on a screen, we become more attentive to where God calls us to focus our attention. And then we can get more sleep!

Competing Spectacles

Tony Reinke

In a world of shiny attractions that grab our attention and demand our affections, Competing Spectacles helps us to thrive spiritually by asking critical questions about where we place our focus.

2. Get real with social media (and choose to stop).

The first step is to admit that many of us slide into an uncritical and naive view of web giants like Facebook. We need a moment of prescription-grade reality, and one dose of straight talk comes from marketing guru Seth Godin (intentionally not active on social media).

“Social media wasn’t invented to make you better; it was invented for you to make the company money,” Godin once said. “In social media you become an employee of the company. You are the product they sell. And they put you in a little hamster wheel and throw treats in now and then. . . . The big companies of social media went from being profoundly important and useful public goods that created enormous value, to becoming public companies under pressure to make the stock price go up.”

And stock prices are rising. Twitter is valued at around $50 billion. Pinterest $18 billion. Snapchat $20 billion. At $500 billion, Facebook is the social media behemoth, now the sixth most valuable company in America.

But social media platforms reach valuations in the billions only if the hamsters keep spinning out content and shares and likes. Social media platforms need your buy-in, your attention, and your skill in grabbing the attention of others. They must convince you to never stop.

As we sever from our screens, as we become more attentive to what is not on a screen, we become more attentive to where God calls us to focus our attention.

3. Become aware of the dopamine rush (and treat it like sugar).

Dopamine is a chemical molecule in our brain released as a reward for certain behaviors, to cause us to repeat those same actions. Sugar is famously connected with dopamine release. Our bodies tell us to eat more sweets, and when we do—rewards, rewards, rewards! It feels good. But what dopamine rewards—more and more sugar!—is bad for us, if not kept in check.

This same dopamine-driven, approval-reward response is connected with sex, compulsive gambling, alcohol, tobacco, heroin, and cocaine. Socially, dopamine is part of that satisfying feeling you get when you make other people laugh or smile. To be approved and affirmed and accepted by others brings with it a brain-based pleasure that makes those activities of social approval extremely addictive. Social media platforms know it, and they hack this reward-response.

Last year, a brain researcher at Harvard Medical School wrote, “Although not as intense as a hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli also result in dopamine release, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded them. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopamine reward pathways. Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a ‘like’ on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”

Dopamine explains the rush we feel when we impress people with our wit or cause others to laugh at our humor. It’s what drives our compulsive twitch to want to be the first on the scene of a social media catastrophe. This is the “treat” that social media platforms promise to feed us.

And whichever social media platform can best deliver you the feelings of belonging and approval wins! Like sugar, be aware of how these platforms work, and how unhealthy they can become.

Until the love and acceptance found in Christ become real to you, all the love and approval your screens offer you will never satisfy the hunger you feel inside.

4. Delete your apps (and go greyscale).

I’ve never pulled off a digital detox without first deleting the social media apps from my phone and laptop. Some users hide the buttons in a buried folder. I find it best to get rid of them altogether (I can reinstall them later, in about fifteen minutes). Out of the range of my mouse pointer and click-finger, the apps are, for me, rendered inaccessible. When Instagram is not handy, my phone habits change drastically.

For the apps you may need professionally and personally (email, phone, navigation, etc.), one trick is to mute your screen’s colors for a season. On the iPhone, go to: Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters: on > Grayscale. Losing color makes pics, video, apps, and app badges (those little number bubbles) less attractive and compulsive.

5. Refocus on spiritual disciplines (and soak in a greater approval).

In my survey of 8,000 Christians, I discovered that most tech-savvy believers are willing to postpone or trade away their morning devotions for digital distractions in the precious morning hours.

We grab the phone, turn off the alarm, and immediately start clicking around for digital candy. As we remove social media from our lives and our mornings, as we push the phone out of sight, we can more eagerly focus on the spiritual disciplines. A weeklong detox will help reset this priority in your life.

Whatever else you do, consider reading the Psalms, Proverbs, and the New Testament this week. Slow down and especially soak in Psalm 139. Let God’s acceptance and love for you be the promises that wash over you and wash away the desires for digital self-notice and acceptance that drive our activities online.

Until the love and acceptance found in Christ become real to you, all the love and approval your screens offer you will never satisfy the hunger you feel inside.

6. Read soul-feeding books (and at least one you can finish).

A digital detox will reclaim the time you need for focus and planning. My screen-free seasons are essential for dreaming about big projects, thinking about life goals, and reading books that will help shape my affections for Christ.

For detox weeks, I prefer printed books over ebooks. There are many options, and I struggle to find the right book, something immersive and helpful, something that can capture my heart like the digital world around me so often does.

After writing 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, I stepped back and asked myself: If I were taking all my own advice and embarking on a weeklong digital detox, what type of book would I want to read?

And then I made the attempt and wrote one.

Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age is my companion to digital detoxes. I did my best to write a book that could be read cover-to-cover in a realistic timeframe, help confront the dominant visual media, reset the heart with Scripture, and encourage new disciplines in a temporary season of digital detox.

But most importantly, I wanted to feed minds and souls with what will most nourish it: the splendor of Jesus Christ.

The endgame of a digital detox is not ascetic withdrawal. Most of us can’t become digital hermits. The digital detox is a strategic recentering of our lives. May these times away from screens refresh our souls as we march toward an unseen heaven, elbowing our way through the shouting and clamoring marketplace dominated by the attention merchants.

Related Articles

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.