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Do You Need a Digital Detox?

A new APA survey highlights the stress caused by digital technology

How often do you check your smartphone over the course of an average day? And how stressed does this checking leave you feeling? A new survey conducted by the American Psychological Association suggests that our relationship with technology and social media can have a major impact on stress and health.

Conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association, the Stress in America survey provides a nationwide snapshot of stress, health, and technology use. As a follow-up to previous surveys, 3,511 American adults were questioned about technology use, stress, and well-being between August 5 and August 31, 2016. Survey results showed that virtually all adults (99 percent) owned at least one electronic device (including a television), 86 percent owned a computer, 74 percent own a smartphone connected to the Internet, and 55 percent owned a tablet.

Overall, social media use has skyrocketed over the past ten years going from 7 percent in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. For young adults (age 18 to 29), this is even higher with ninety percent reporting regular social media use. Facebook remains the most popular social media platform with 79 percent of respondents reporting using it in 2016. Other popular platforms include Instagram (32 percent), Pinterest (31 percent), LinkedIn (29 percent), and Twitter (24 percent).

Results also show that 43 percent of Americans are "constant checkers" who repeatedly check their emails, social media accounts, or text messages over the course of an average day. As expected, constant checkers report greater overall stress than adults who don't check as frequently.

“The emergence of mobile devices and social networks over the last decade has certainly changed the way Americans live and communicate on a daily basis,” said Lynn Bufka, PhD, APA’s associate executive director for practice research and policy in a press release. “Today, almost all American adults own at least one electronic device, with many being constantly connected to them. What these individuals don’t consider is that while technology helps us in many ways, being constantly connected can have a negative impact on both their physical and mental health.”

Nearly one-fifth of Americans surveyed (18 percent) identified technology as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Overall, the one aspect of technology that is most likely to cause stress is when it fails to work properly with 20 percent of adults reporting stress due to connection problems, or hardware/software issues.

And the need for constant checking seems to be linked to the need to remain online on a regular or semi-regular basis. For respondents who are employed, 45 percent report being constantly connected while 40 percent describe themselves as often connected. With unemployed respondents, the percentage who describe themselves as constantly connected drops to 34 percent with 47 percent being often connected. Even on non-workdays, employed Americans who check their email constantly still report elevated levels of stress. Constant checkers are also more likely to feel stress due to political or cultural arguments online.

More than ever, there seems to be a growing divide between constant and non-constant checkers. Not only are constant checkers more worried about negative feedback on social media than non-constant checkers, but they also report feeling more disconnected from their families (even when together). They are also much less likely to meet with family and friends in person rather than relying on social media.

While most Americans surveyed (65 percent) describe "digital detox" or temporarily unplugging from digital devices as a good way of preserving mental health, only 28 percent actually manage to accomplish this. Other strategies that respondents describe to curb their technology use include turning off social media notifications and not allowing their smartphones at the dinner table.

Millenials seem even more dependent on technology than older generations and often view it as an important way to establish their own identity. Despite this dependence however, millenials also report the highest levels of technology-related stress compared to Generation X, Baby Boomers and seniors.They are also much more likely to feel disconnected from their families and to experience conflict in the home over issues relating to technology.

The APA survey also highlights some of the challenges that parents often face in trying to maintain a healthy relationship with their children while staying connected. Even when not working, 67 percent of parents report often or constantly checking email and 57 percent checking social media. It's hardly surprising that parents find themselves floundering when they try reining in their children's online activities. Not only do almost half of all parents surveyed (45 percent) report feeling isolated from their children due to technology, more than half (58 percent) complain that their children seem permanently attached to their phone or tablet. Most parents (58 percent) also report worrying about how this technological fix is affecting the mental health of their children.

And a child's gender seems to make a difference. Teenage girls are considered to be much more likely than boys to use social media, they are also seen as more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media than teenage boys are (69 vs 39 percent respectively).

So, what can be done about this digital binge? Considering how dependent we have become over the past ten years, there are no simple solutions except to encourage the use of digital "breaks" away from all online activities, including texts and email. Parents worried about their children would probably do well to lead by example and show them how healthy digital detox can be, whether for a weekend or even longer.

Leaving your smartphone at home once in a while could make all the difference in handling the stress this changing world keeps throwing at us.


Stress in America: Coping with Change. Part 2, Technology and Social Media, American Psychological Association, Part 2; Feb 23, 2017

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