If you felt happier and more wholesome over this holiday period than during the rest of the year, this may well be because you were spending less time on social media and had more real-life interactions with friends and family instead. Perhaps you let life move a bit more slowly than usual, taking a break from constantly checking what your friends and colleagues were doing (or purporting to do) online, or agonizing over how many likes a certain post of yours received?
When people give up social media for a time, their happiness levels measurably improve. In one Danish study a group of adults had to give up Facebook for a week. By the end of that week, the detox group reported more happiness and less depression than the control group, which continued using social media as usual. Another study asked college students to limit their social media use to ten minutes per day per platform, and no more than 30 minutes in total. Compared to a group of people who continued using social media as usual, those who limited social media use felt less lonely and less depressed over the course of several weeks.
If you ended up using your holiday time to go for a walk in the woods, your happiness levels may have further increased: people who exercise in the natural environment at least once per week have only about half the risk of poor mental health compared with people who don’t. Each additional use of the natural environment for physical activity per week decreases the risk of poor mental health by a further 6%.
If, on the contrary, you escaped stressful family festivities by retiring with your smartphone to tweet, post and upload, this may have made the situation worse. Getting a glimpse of the joyous celebrations, lavish presents or perfect holidays your peers appeared to enjoy may have made you feel even more stressed and anxious. FOMO – the fear of missing out - can be very powerful and very painful, particularly at this sensitive time of year. And the grass is almost always greener on the other end of the data highway.
So digital detox may be for you. And here is the thing: it will not only make you happier and healthier, it will benefit the environment at the same time. We rarely think about data and communications when we hear about climate change, but your data may actually be quite dirty. The servers and data centers that store and process your data have a massive carbon footprint since they consume large amounts of energy, energy that more often than not comes from fossil fuels. The carbon footprint of ICT (information and communication technologies) is already comparable to that of the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel (2% of global emissions). Some experts predict that the total electricity demand of ICT will be around 20% by 2030.
The beginning of this new year also marks the beginning of the decade in which our global carbon budget to remain within the 1.5C limit will be depleted if we continue business as usual. Where global leaders have failed, it is time for individual action, bit by bit. Consider this the next time you switch on Netflix, re-tweet a hilarious comment about Trump or upload photos to Facebook.
What’s there not to love? Your digital detox will boost your health and happiness, while also reducing your carbon footprint – and decreasing Trump’s airtime - at the same time. A great win-win-win for starting into this new decade.