If you’re like most people right now, you are spending a lot of time in front of screens. This makes sense: In a time of social distancing, screens have become our portals to the outside world.
But how much screen time is too much? And is screen-life balance even possible (or relevant) right now, given how much of life is now taking place online?
In short, yes, it’s possible — and creating it is more important than ever, precisely because we are spending so much time on screens. Here are some practical suggestions for doing so.
Recognize that just as there are different types of food, there are different types of screen time.
The effects that screen time has on our mood and mental health can vary, depending on content, context and dose.
There aren’t any absolute right or wrong uses of screens. The point is to start thinking of your screen time in categories, rather than as one big lump, so that you can determine what blend feels right for you and your family.
Determine which uses of your screens are necessary, and in what amount.
It’s easy, especially when you’re stressed out and working from home, to spend the entire day in front of your computer. But how many of those hours are actually necessary?
Try to notice the moment when you switch from being focused and productive to mindlessly scrolling through the news or social media, checking your email compulsively, or otherwise spinning your wheels. Being busy is not the same as being productive. Do what needs to be done … and then go do something else.
Monitor your mood (and your children’s moods) while you are on screens.
The more moment-to-moment awareness you can cultivate about the mental effects of your screen time, the more in control you will be.
If your screen time is making you feel productive, soothed, calm or happy, then carry on. If it’s unnecessary and makes you feel bad, or if it helps in small doses but makes you feel worse if you binge, then cut down. The amount of screen time isn’t what matters; it’s how that screen time makes you feel.
Think of your leisure time as being divided into three categories: consumption, creation and connection.
Identify which of these feels good to you, and in what doses. Then brainstorm ways to do each both on- and offscreen. Bonus points if you ask yourself what kind of consumption, creation and connection makes you feel the best. For example, many people have been turning to old-fashioned phone calls instead of texts.
Create a list of offscreen activities that make you feel good.
Believe it or not, it’s possible, even in the midst of this pandemic, to do things that don’t require a device. The challenge is that we have our phones with us at all times, and this ease of access results in us reaching for them by default.
To change this habit, make a list of offscreen activities that you enjoy, so that when you are faced with a pocket of free time, you’ll have ideas ready for how to spend it. For example: going for a walk, meditating or praying, taking a bath, playing an instrument, listening to music or a podcast, cooking or reading a book.
To make this even easier, take out any necessary equipment and leave it in sight — for example, keep your guitar out of its case, or leave a book next to the bathtub. Also recognize that sometimes a little extra effort is worth it — for example, it’s easier to scroll through Instagram than it is to go for a walk, but the latter is likely to have a much better effect on your mental health.
Try not to start and end your day with screens.
There are exceptions, but most things you do on screens are likely to be emotionally or intellectually stimulating, whether it’s scrolling through news headlines, answering email, or reading a family member’s Facebook posts. Turning to screens first thing in the morning is likely to get your day off to a distracted and probably stressful start. Staring at them at night exposes you to bright light (and stimulating content) just at the moment when you should be winding down for sleep.
Identify your goals and priorities.
Instead of starting your morning by reaching for your phone, look at the day ahead and create a “budget” for your attention, both on your screens and off. What are your goals? What activities do you want — or need — to engage in, and for how much time? (Here are some journal prompts that can help you frame your day.)
This big picture view is important because many apps and online services are deliberately designed to consume as much time as possible, which means that if you don’t know what else you want to be doing, they will exert a strong gravitational pull. Think of your time as being like money: if you don’t protect it, someone else will be happy to take it from you.
It’s important to create boundaries between you and your screens so that when you do interact with them, you know that it was the result of a conscious choice. Charge your phone out of the bedroom (or at the very least, out of reach — you can turn the ringer on if you’re worried about missing a call), and get a stand-alone alarm clock. Create a “bed time” for your phone, after which it remains plugged in and you do your best not to wake it (to make this easier, put something calming, distracting or enjoyable on your bedside table where your phone usually sits, such as a book, a journal, an art project or a puzzle).
Create boundaries on your phone itself, too. Minimize notifications, and delete problematic apps (you can always reinstall them). Assign different purposes to different devices — for example, you could decide that you will check email and read the news only from your desktop computer, and use your phone and iPad for socialization or entertainment. (You can use an app blocker like Freedom to help you stick to your intentions, or to maintain focus when you’re trying to work.)
Remember that you’re more than a head sitting on a body.
It’s easy, in the best of times, to neglect our bodies — and now that we’re stuck at home, many of us are spending hours at a stretch sitting motionless in front of our computers, breathing shallowly, and in postures that would not make a physical therapist proud.
So make a point to get physical — both for your health, and for the underappreciated pleasure of getting back into your body and out of your head. Take a Zoom dance class. Set a timer to remind you to get up from your chair and stretch. Dig out an old hula hoop or hacky sack. Create a daily “recess” period — for your kids and yourself. Notice the change in your mood that results.
Take regular breaks.
There are many reasons to be grateful for technology right now, but it’s important to take regular breaks to reduce tech burnout. You could go for a daily walk without your phone, or practice a regular digital Sabbath and deliberately spend one day per week (or one night) completely avoiding all screen time — even the positive things, like all those Zoom happy hours — as a way to give yourself a chance to slow down.
Don’t be afraid to customize this idea. Perhaps it would make more sense for you to simply take a break from the news and social media. Or maybe you want to limit the number of screens with which you engage: You and your quarantine companions could turn your phones off for the night and take a break from your stress by doing something together on one screen, like watching a movie, undistracted.
Far from being a frivolous exercise, being thoughtful about our use of screens can help us emerge from this crisis empowered and in control, with more self-awareness to help us make smart choices about screen time in the future. We can become more intentional about how we choose to spend our time in general. And we can create new habits and rituals to help us maintain a healthy screen-life balance even after this pandemic has passed.