Want to digitally detox? How to find inner peace with a "dumb phone"
Smartphones offer us plenty of ways to connect with others. Messaging, sharing, and being a part of online communities can be enriching experiences, but this is also a double-edged sword. An increasing number of young people are experiencing mental health problems related to being constantly online. How can we reconnect with our present selves without cutting out the phone completely? A digital detox can be the answer. Here are some tips and tricks to get started.
Smartphones are one of the greatest inventions of our time. They connect us to all of the world's knowledge – and cat videos. They have given us apps to tackle all sorts of problems, whether it is our banking and payment apps, streaming and music apps, train and bus passes, doctor app and of course, social media. This is where the “FoMo” crops up.
Serving up virtually endless content, social media platforms can cause us to feel The Fear of Missing Out. This has created ever-increasing mental health issues that manifest as sleep problems, stress, anxiety and depression – especially in the hyper-digital younger generations. But thanks to smartphones, kicking our social media habits is harder than ever. That’s where a digital detox comes in.
A digital detox – going offline and taking a break from the internet, apps and social media – can be an excellent tool to get your thoughts out of cyberspace and be more present in the moment.
We reached out to Arne Bangsgaard Mathiasen, entrepreneur and owner of Dumbphone.dk, a group that works to teach young people in Denmark the benefits of being online less, how best to carry out a digital detox, and why it is sometimes necessary. Arne has experienced firsthand how anxiety is lessened when he replaced his smartphone with an "unsmart" Nokia phone.
"Dumb phone" was part of the solution to anxiety
For Arne Bangsgaard Mathiasen, the digital detox started by chance. He was experiencing a period of anxiety and stress, and everyday life was becoming too much. Then, his smartphone broke down. He switched to one of his old Nokia phones for the time being, but this temporary solution turned out to be part of the answer to Arne's problem. It helped him be in the moment again. The Fear of Missing Out started to fade away.
“Forcing me from being on all the time helped me get rid of my anxiety,” Arne told us. “It was such a simple solution to a massive problem not only for me, but also for the rest of society, and therefore it was too good not to share with the rest of Denmark and the world.”
He put this thinking into action with Dumbphone.dk. He encourages young people in schools to put away their smartphone for a long period of time, and instead borrow an unsmart Nokia phone. That way, they can still call and text with friends and family, but they don't have access to the apps and social media platforms that are specifically designed to hold on to their attention.
“Modern social media is designed in such a way that you stay in the app, and even after that, notifications beep to draw you back into the app,” Arne explained. “Messages, snaps, TikTok videos – they’re all tailored to steal your precious time. My own experience is that I think about everything online – even when I'm not online. I wonder what I'm missing out on. And my experience is that it particularly affects the young people in our society.”
What do you get from a digital detox?
Reducing your time online can have many positive effects: a better sleeping rhythm, less stress and negative thought patterns, and improved concentration. And, by being more present in the moment, you can better nurture social relationships and becoming better at managing your time. This is what Arne has noticed after asking several hundred students at Danish continuation schools to voluntarily seal their smartphones in envelopes, and only open them again several weeks later.
“The result was startling: during that period, the young people had learned and experienced getting along with each other in the physical world in a completely different way, and the majority reported that they slept better, had less anxiety and stress feelings and generally felt more calm and balanced. They felt they had more time.”
Two months after one of the trials, more than 50 percent of the students at one of the schools maintained significantly less screen-time than before the experiment. In another trial, one in four students subsequently chose to buy a Nokia feature phone.
How to get started with digital detoxing
So how do you get started with your own digital detox? According to Arne Mathiasen, you don't have to wrap your smartphone in an envelope and close it with wax, but there are a number of tips that you can follow to start an actual digital detox, and to get a more balanced, digital life.
1. Don’t go cold turkey on your smartphone
Some sources suggest that alternating from periods of zero smartphone use and unfettered access is a viable approach. But these abrupt changes can give you a bad experience that keeps you from trying to detox again.
“For the vast majority of people, it will be far too difficult to go cold turkey in a busy everyday life,” Arne points out. “If you want to use your smartphone, you should do so during a holiday, or any other setup where it does not affect your everyday life.”
2. Think of your smartphone as a tablet
In modern life, we can't do without apps like travel apps or banking apps, and most people still want to use social media, but in a more moderate and controlled way.
Arne suggests that if you still want or need access to a smartphone, use it like a tablet. Fire up those essential apps when you need them, but then put the smartphone in your bag or bookcase in the same way you would with a laptop or tablet. You’ll be less inclined to take it out when you're bored, helping you to stay in the moment.
3. Choose a "dumb" feature phone
Of course, you can choose to delete all the attention-demanding apps from your smartphone and just keep the useful ones, but you might face the temptation to download them again.
“ I recommend using an "unsmart" feature phone – I myself use the new Nokia phones and would recommend the new Nokia 8210,” says Arne. “That way, you are still always available and can be called or texted, but you will not be tempted by social media. The feature phone can live in your pocket while your smartphone with essential daily apps can live in your bag.”
4. Use screen time limiters to your advantage
Most smartphones today have screen-time limiting features or apps built in. On Nokia smartphones running Android 13 for example, the Digital Wellbeing tools offer a number of ways to check and rein in your smartphone habits.
To limit screen time for specific apps:
- Open Settings
- Open Digital Wellbeing and parental controls
- Open Dashboard
- Press the sand-timer icon next to an app and set a time limit
When you’ve used up the allocated time for that app, you’ll be notified and the app will close. Your time allocation will refresh the next day.
Balance is the key to a successful digital detox
Our smartphones have become an integral part of our everyday lives, but we should instead see our phones as a tool, rather than an entertainment device. By re-evaluating our relationships with our smartphones, we can benefit from all of the modern-day conveniences that they offer, without giving up too much of our time and attention.