Skip to content
Effective Living » Articles » Digital Minimalism – what does the evidence say?

Digital Minimalism – what does the evidence say?

man reading book with caption digital minimalism - what does the evidence say?

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport argues that we should radically reduce the amount we use our digital devices. By cutting back on our smartphones, tablets and laptops, we’ll reconnect with friends, pursue more fulfilling hobbies, and lead happier lives. But the evidence in the book is weak. This article argues that you should spend time thinking about how you use digital technology, but that ‘digital minimalism’ is not the right way to think about it.

What is Digital Minimalism?

Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport promises to do for your digital life what Marie Kondo promises to do for your physical possessions: strip things back till you have only what really brings you value.

Instead of being beholden to your smartphone, you’ll have more free time, be less anxious, think better, and have better relationships with the people around you.

But what are the benefits to becoming a ‘digital minimalist’? What is the evidence behind it? What might you be missing out on? Is it worth it, overall?

In this article, I’ll set out what Digital Minimalism promises, before evaluating whether it actually lives up to that claim.

What does Digital Minimalism tell you to do?

The prescriptions in Digital Minimalism can be boiled down to a three-step process:

  1. Take a 30 day break from optional technologies in your life. You should “consider the technology optional unless its temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.”
  2. (Re)discover hobbies, activities and crafts that you enjoy and find meaningful.
  3. After 30 days, reintroduce the optional technologies that support your deeply-held values. Make sure that the way you use them is the best way of supporting those values. Create rules for how you use those technologies, so they stay in line with your values.

After completing the process, you no longer use digital technologies as the designers want you to, but in a deliberate way to extract value and minimise the downsides.

What is the potential upside of following Digital Minimalism’s prescriptions?

Lots of time for better things

The main benefit offered by Digital Minimalism is that by cutting down your digital technology use, you’ll have lots of time for activities that are more rewarding

How much time depends on how much you currently use such technologies, and how much of that you could cut without losing too much value. To give a very rough estimate, we can take this report from data.ai, which suggests that in ‘mobile first’ markets, the average user spends 4.8 hours per day on their mobile devices. Reducing this by 80% – which seems a conservative estimate if you follow the prescription of Digital Minimalism – would save you more than 3.8 hours per day, or 58.4 days per year!

You can get a more accurate personal picture by using time tracking software on your digital devices, and calculating how much of that you could cut. Or you could also conduct your own experiment.

How much value you get from the extra time depends on what you do with it. And the benefit also depends on how much value – or otherwise – you were getting from your digital technology use.

But there is a big potential upside if you’re spending a lot of time on digital technology, but are not getting much from it.

Less anxiety

Digital Minimalism claims that digital technologies tend to make people more anxious, and less happy.

Because digital technologies – especially social media – give you intermittent reinforcement, you are motivated to check them regularly. But you don’t always get the ‘reward’ you are seeking, which leaves you anxious and dissatisfied.

Monitoring your social status has always been important, because in the evolutionary environment, humans needed other humans to survive. But social media notifications, messages, and likes – which are not that meaningful – have become a proxy for your social status. So you get overly-worried about how popular you are on social media, equating it with a life-and-death issue when it’s not really that important.

Becoming a digital minimalist thus makes you less anxious and more secure.

Better thinking

A further benefit claimed by Digital Minimalism is that you’ll become a better thinker if you cut back your digital technology use.

The main way this will happen is because you’ll have more silence in your life. When your brain is separated from the inputs of other minds, it can make sense of things on a subconscious level. Instead of constantly processing inputs, your brain will reorganise and clarify your thoughts, and you’ll be more likely to have creative insights.

Better relationships

Digital Minimalism argues that digital technologies tend to squeeze out the time you need to form good relationships. They give us the illusion of good relationships, because you are constantly connected to other people, but ‘likes’ and text messages are no substitute for real-life interactions, which are much richer and more complex. By replacing social media with social interaction, you’ll thus have better relationships.

What’s the evidence for the claims in Digital Minimalism?

Time for better things

This claim has two parts: (i) people spend a lot of time on their digital devices and (ii) they can spend that time in ways that are more fulfilling to them.

The first part seems to be generally true. Just looking around on a day to day basis in most of the world will confirm that people spend a lot of time connected to digital devices. But how much time is likely to vary a lot. The 4.8 hours quoted in the report above might be way out, either way. Thankfully, your own devices can usually give you decent data on this.

Bus is phone use all bad?

The second part of the argument is more controversial. It seems to assume that most time spent on digital devices is unrewarding, or as Newport puts it ‘low-quality leisure’. That’s not always the case. People use their phones for meditation, speaking to friends they can’t see in person, reading books, being productive, gratitude journaling, working out, learning languages, and entertaining themselves.

So even if you use your phone for 4.8 hours per day, it’s not necessarily true that you can reduce it by much without worsening your life. Newport doesn’t go into detail of how exactly people are using their phones, and how much of it is meaningful or otherwise.

It also assumes that you can replace your device use with things that are significantly better. Newport suggests walking, doing odd jobs round the house, and group-based physical activities as examples of ‘high-quality leisure’. For starters, you need to be able-bodied to do these. Nor are they necessarily appealing to everyone, and the examples come mainly from white men.

This is also just a theory, drawing on anecdotes that Newport selects. He doesn’t have data to suggest that it is generally true of most people.

That said, it seems reasonable that there are people who are spending lots of time on their digital devices without getting a proportional gain from it. The alternatives might require more effort to get started, but ultimately provide more return.

It’s therefore worth asking yourself the question: how much of your time on digital devices is ‘time well spent’, and could you get more out of other activities, even if they are less immediately appealing?

Better mental health

The main evidence Newport offers for the link between digital devices and poor mental health is this article by Jean Twenge. Twenge says that members of what she calls ‘iGen’ i.e. those who were born between 1995 and 2012, and thus grew up with smartphones, are more anxious and depressed than members of previous generations.

She argues digital devices are the cause, including graphs that show some of these changes correlating with the release of the iPhone in 2007. But that is not proof that the devices are causing the changes. And some of the trends on Twenge’s graphs started before 2007.

The articles also offers anecdotes of teenagers who believe their phones are causing them unhappiness. That doesn’t make it generally true, but does indicate it’s worth thinking about.

A 2018 study of 143 undergraduates (not mentioned in the book) does suggest that reducing social media use can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. But it’s worth noting the distinction between using social media and using digital technology generally.

Better thinking

Newport offers two strands of evidence for the claim that digital minimalism will make you a better thinker.

The first is to draw on anecdotes. He writes that Abraham Lincoln used to take time away from the White House to think, Neitzsche used to take long walks, and Thoreau thought silence was important, so spent a lot of time at a cabin near Walden pond. This is very weak evidence, drawing on selected anecdotes from famous men.

The default mode network

The second strand is to cite research1. which used PET scanners to look at what the brain was doing when attention wasn’t directed towards something. Rather than simply shutting off, your brain has thoughts about yourself and others, and the relationships you have with others; remembering the past; and planning the future. This is what has come to be known as the ‘default mode network‘.

When not taking new things in, the brain also engages in so-called ‘higher-order’ thinking. Such thinking is required to solve complex problems, and so depriving the brain of this time in the default mode network is likely to damage your ability to solve difficult issues.

This seems plausible, and at least fits with what you experience consciously: it’s hard to make your mind do nothing. So if you’re constantly receiving inputs from your digital devices, cutting down your time might help you solve more complex problems.

That said, I’m not aware of any studies testing the problem-solving skills of people who are allowed some silence, versus those who are constantly plugged in. How much silence you need, and of what kind, is likely to be contingent.

Better relationships

On relationships, Newport points out that whereas offline social interactions are rich, with information conveyed by body language, tone, cadence and so on, most online interactions are less so. That is true. But does more information being exchanged make those relationships much more meaningful? It would seem so, although that’s not really proven in the book. The only evidence Newport offers is to quote Sherry Turkle, a researcher on human-technology interactions at MIT who says that lots of ‘sips’ of conversation don’t add up to one ‘gulp’.

What’s the downside of Digital Minimalism’s prescriptions?

It can make some social relationships more difficult

Becoming a Digital Minimalist when your friends are all over social media can make it harder for you to maintain some relationships.

Newport concedes this is the case, but advises people to use the time they save to cultivate those relationships in person, or cast aside the relationships as not worth having.

That might not work for every friend you want to keep. Some friends are just more comfortable in the online space, or circumstances (such as COVID lockdowns) might dictate you can’t see them frequently in person.

You might miss out on other benefits of digital technologies

Depending on how you use digital technologies, cutting down your usage could actually result in missing out on useful or meaningful things.

Newport gives a couple of examples of people saying going without Google Maps isn’t that bad, but it probably does waste some time. I wouldn’t want to have to try to remember directions for everywhere I go, especially in new places.

Similarly, if you use your phone to listen to audiobooks, but want to cut down the time you spend on your device, you could miss out on learning things that might give you meaning.

Not spending time reading the news each day might save you a lot of time, but might make you a less informed voter, or make your conversation less interesting.

Potential for engaging in worse behaviours

The Twenge article mentioned earlier also notes that alcohol consumption and homicide rates have gone down for ‘iGen’. That may or may not be related to greater digital device usage. But it serves to show that cutting down screen time is only as good as what it’s replaced with. If you have an existential void in your life that you’re trying to fill with Instagram, filling it with whiskey instead is probably going to be worse.

Should you become a ‘digital minimalist’?

Plenty of people spend a lot of time on their digital devices. It’s so easy and attractive that it’s often the default activity when you’re bored, or are procrastinating from something more difficult. It’s likely that some of that time could be better spent – not in a moral sense, but in a way that ultimately gives you greater satisfaction. Thinking about your values, then deciding how you’re going to use your technology to support them, rather than mindlessly adopting new things, will probably make your life better.

But should you become a ‘digital minimalist’? Not necessarily. An optimal strategy for personal digital technology use will look different for different people. What constitutes ‘high quality leisure’ is also a personal choice. Some activities are probably generally more rewarding than others, but putting up a shelf in your house is not necessarily better than reading a novel on your phone.

If we are to say that less screen time is necessarily better than more, the evidence needs to be stronger.

What to do next

  • Do some analysis of what digital technologies you use, and how you’re using them
  • Consider what value you’re getting from them. This might involve doing a ‘digital declutter’ to give you some perspective on whether or not you actually miss things
  • Make your own strategy for how you’re going to use technology. ‘Standard operating procedures’ can be useful, but just trying to reduce your overall numbers isn’t necessarily good.
  • Try out different things

If you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing to the weekly newsletter:

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Footnotes

  1. Shulman, G. L., Fiez, J. A., Corbetta, M., Buckner, R. L., Miezin, F. M., Raichle, M. E., and Petersen, S. E. (1997). Common blood flow changes across visual tasks. 2. Decreases in cerebral cortex. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 9, 648–663