Digital Detox: How an Unplugging Challenge Affects Conspiracy Believers

Unplugging Challenge Affects Conspiracy Believers

Our lives have become increasingly intertwined with the digital world, with social media serving as a primary means of connection and communication. But what happens when we unplug from social media and the internet for 24 hours? A new research article published in identifies the negative psychological effects of participating in an unplugging challenge. However, some groups of people are more negatively affected than others.

Growing Time Spent on Social Media and its Potential for Addiction

Over the past decade, social media platforms have rapidly gained popularity, becoming an integral part of our daily lives. As these platforms continue to evolve and expand, people are spending more and more time online, engaging with friends, family, and even strangers. This increase in time spent on social media has also led to a growing concern regarding addiction to modern communication means and platforms.

A report by Datareportal reveals that the average user spends around 2 hours and 25 minutes per day on social media, with younger generations typically spending even more time online. The constant connectivity provided by smartphones and other digital devices has made it incredibly easy to access social media platforms anytime, anywhere, further exacerbating the issue.

Social media addiction can have various negative effects on a person’s mental and physical well-being. Excessive use of social media has been linked to increased levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Additionally, the fear of missing out (FOMO) can cause users to compulsively check their social media accounts, leading to sleep disturbances and decreased productivity. Studies have also found that excessive social media use can negatively impact relationships, as people may prioritize online interactions over face-to-face connections.

One possible explanation for the growing addiction problem is the way social media platforms are designed. Many platforms use algorithms and features that encourage users to spend more time on their site, such as endless scrolling, personalized content, and notifications. These features can create a dopamine-driven feedback loop, where users seek validation through likes, comments, and shares, which in turn leads them to spend even more time online.

As awareness of the potential negative effects of social media addiction increases, more people are seeking ways to reduce their time spent online. Digital detoxes, such as the unplugging challenge, have gained popularity as a means to disconnect from social media and reconnect with the offline world.

Many people want to try an unplugging challenge

Unplugging Challenge

In recent years, the concept of an “unplugging challenge” has gained popularity as a response to the ever-increasing role of technology and digital media in our lives. With people spending more time than ever on their screens, whether for work or leisure, concerns have arisen about the potential negative effects of this constant connectivity on our well-being, mental health, and interpersonal relationships.

An unplugging challenge typically involves voluntarily abstaining from the use of digital media and devices for a set period, often ranging from a few hours to a full day or even a week. Participants in these challenges commit to disconnecting from the internet, social media, smartphones, and other digital platforms, instead focusing on offline activities and personal interactions.

There are several reasons why people might choose to participate in an unplugging challenge:

  1. Mental Health Benefits: Studies have shown that excessive screen time and constant exposure to social media can contribute to anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness. By participating in an unplugging challenge, people hope to alleviate some of these negative emotions and improve their overall mental well-being.
  2. Boosting Productivity: The constant barrage of notifications, messages, and updates can make it challenging to concentrate on tasks and maintain productivity. Participating in an unplugging challenge can help people regain focus and become more efficient in their work or personal projects.
  3. Strengthening Relationships: Spending time on devices can detract from meaningful, face-to-face interactions with friends and family. An unplugging challenge encourages people to engage in more direct communication, fostering deeper connections and better relationships.
  4. Encouraging Mindfulness: With the constant distractions of the digital world, it can be difficult to remain present and engaged in the moment. An unplugging challenge can serve as a reminder to slow down, be mindful, and appreciate the world around us without the interference of technology.
  5. Re-evaluating Priorities: Taking a break from the digital world can provide a valuable opportunity for self-reflection, helping people reassess their priorities, values, and how they spend their time. An unplugging challenge can also encourage a more balanced approach to technology use in the long run.
A symbol of the unplugging challenge

The Research: The Psychological Consequences of the Unplugging Challenge

Psychologist Dr. Jolanda Jetten and her team from The University of Queensland in Australia conducted two studies to explore the effects of unplugging from social media for 24 hours. The first study involved a Chinese sample, whereas the second study used an Australian sample. Participants in both studies were asked to abstain from using digital media for 24 hours, including the internet, online newspapers and magazines, iPods, video/online games, streaming services (like Netflix and Spotify), social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), and all apps (WhatsApp, Instagram, etc.). However, participants were still allowed to use traditional media, such as print media (books, printed newspapers), radio, and television, or their phones for regular calls.

Participants were free to stop the unplugging challenge at any time but were encouraged to try and unplug for 24 hours straight. After completing the challenge, regardless of whether they successfully unplugged for 24 hours or not, participants filled out a survey that assessed their experiences during the unplugging challenge.

The participants reported a mix of positive and negative emotions during their unplugging experience. Positive emotions included happiness, carefree feelings, satisfaction, relaxation, and peace, while negative emotions primarily involved feelings of isolation and loneliness. However, strikingly, only 16% in the Chinese sample and 27.5% in the Australian sample reported that they had been able to unplug for the entire 24 hours.

Unplugging challenge for 24 hours

Conspiracy Believers are Particularly Negatively Affected

A central focus of the research was the examination of the role conspiracy mentality played in the unplugging challenge. A conspiracy mentality or mindset involves a predisposition to believe that significant events or situations result from secretive, powerful groups or individuals working behind the scenes with malevolent intent. People with a conspiracy mindset are often suspicious of official explanations, tend to see hidden connections between unrelated events, and generally believe that the truth is being deliberately concealed from the public.

Typically, when researchers want to assess participants’ conspiracy mentality, they ask them to indicate how much they agree or disagree with different types of statements. In the present study, participants who participated in the unplugging challenge rated the following ten statements from 1 (Totally disagree) to 7 (Totally agree) that were adopted from previous research:

  1. The government or covert organisations are responsible for events that are unusual or unexplained.
  2. The alternative explanations for important societal events are closer to the truth than the official story.
  3. Many so called ‘coincidences’ are in fact clues as to how things really happened.
  4. Events throughout history are carefully planned and orchestrated by individuals for their own betterment.
  5. Many situations or events can be explained by illegal or harmful acts by the government or other powerful people.
  6. Events on the news may not have actually happened.
  7. Many things happen without the public’s knowledge.
  8. Some things are not as they seem.
  9. There are people who don’t want the truth to come out.
  10. People will do crazy things to cover up the truth.

The researchers sought to understand how individuals with higher levels of conspiracy beliefs might respond differently to a temporary separation from digital media compared to those with lower conspiracy beliefs. They found that participants with higher conspiracy beliefs reported more negative emotions and feelings of social isolation during the unplugging challenge. This effect was particularly evident in the Chinese study, where individuals with higher conspiracy beliefs also reported lower life satisfaction while being unplugged. 

This phenomenon can be partially explained by the nature of conspiracy beliefs and the communities that form around them. Conspiracy beliefs often involve mistrust of mainstream sources of information and a sense that “hidden” knowledge is being suppressed by powerful forces. As a result, individuals with these beliefs may gravitate towards online conspiracy groups, where they can find others who share their views and provide a sense of validation and camaraderie. These online communities become a source of social support and belonging for individuals with conspiracy beliefs, making them an essential part of their social lives. 

When these individuals suddenly unplug from their online communities, they may experience a significant void in their social support networks. An unplugging challenge can thus lead to increased feelings of social isolation and negative emotions, as their usual means of connection and validation are no longer accessible. The research suggests that the emotional toll of unplugging may be particularly pronounced for individuals with higher conspiracy beliefs, as they rely more on these online connections for their sense of belonging and well-being. 

Furthermore, it is possible that the very nature of conspiracy beliefs makes unplugging even more challenging for these individuals. Conspiracy theories often involve a heightened sense of urgency and the belief that possessing and sharing this “hidden” knowledge is critical for personal and societal well-being. This sense of urgency may exacerbate the distress experienced by conspiracy believers when they are cut off from their usual sources of information and connection.

Implications of the Research

Overall, the study’s findings highlight conspiracy mentality’s significant role in the unplugging experience. Individuals with higher conspiracy beliefs appear more vulnerable to the negative emotional and social consequences of disconnection from digital media, potentially due to their reliance on online conspiracy groups for social support and belonging. This finding underscores the complex interplay between individual beliefs, online communities, and the psychological impact of unplugging from digital media.

The results of this research have several important implications. They offer a new perspective on how being constantly connected to the internet affects our lives. While it was known that many people struggle emotionally during an unplugging challenge, the research showed that people with a conspiracy mindset are particularly negatively affected by it.

The study also highlights the potential dangers of online echo chambers, where people with similar beliefs reinforce and strengthen each other’s convictions. This process can lead to a stronger reliance on these online communities, making it more difficult to detach and potentially exacerbating the negative effects of unplugging.

Generally, the research sheds light on the complex relationship between online addiction and personality traits. Previous studies have often focused on the role of personality in online addiction, but this research suggests that conspiracy beliefs could also contribute to the development of online addiction by driving individuals to seek out echo chambers that reinforce their beliefs.

Reference to the Study

Jetten, J., Zhao, C., Álvarez, B., Kaempf, S., & Mols, F. (2023). Trying to unplug for 24 hours: Conspiracy mentality predicts social isolation and negative emotions when refraining from internet use.,1(1), 1-19.