By Brian X. Chen, The New York Times Co.
When is enough enough?
Even though the presidential election is over, we’re still doomscrolling through gloomy news about the coronavirus surge. The rest of your daily routine is probably something like mine while stuck at home in the pandemic: Divided among streaming movies on Netflix, watching home improvement videos on YouTube and playing video games. All of these activities involve staring at a screen.
There has to be more to life than this. With the holiday season upon us, now is a good time to take a breather and consider a digital detox.
No, that doesn’t mean quitting the internet cold turkey. No one would expect that from us right now. Think of it as going on a diet and replacing bad habits with healthier ones to give our weary eyes some much needed downtime from tech.
“There’s lots of great things to do online, but moderation is often the best rule for life, and it’s no different when it comes to screens,” said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and the author of “iGen,” a book about younger generations growing up in the smartphone era.
Too much screen time can take a toll on our mental health, depriving us of sleep and more productive tasks, experts said. I, for one, am experiencing this. Before the pandemic, my average daily screen time on my phone was 3 1/2 hours. Over the past eight months, that has nearly doubled.
So I turned to psychology experts for their advice. From setting limits to finding alternatives to being glued to our phones, here’s what we can do.
Come up with a plan
Not all screen time is bad — after all, many students are attending school via videoconferencing apps. So Step One is assessing which parts of screen time feel toxic and make you unhappy. That could be reading the news or scrolling through Twitter and Facebook. Step Two is creating a realistic plan to minimize consumption of the bad stuff.
You could set modest goals, such as a time limit of 20 minutes a day for reading news on weekends. If that feels doable, shorten the time limit and make it a daily goal. Repetition will help you form new habits.
That’s easier said than done. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and co-author of the book “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” recommended creating calendar events for just about everything, including browsing the web and taking breaks. This helps create structure.
For example, you could block off 8 a.m. to read the news for 10 minutes, and 20 minutes from 1 p.m. for riding the exercise bike. If you feel tempted to pick up your phone during your exercise break, you would be aware that any screen time would be violating the time you dedicated to exercise.
Most important, treat screen time as if it were a piece of candy that you occasionally allow yourself to indulge. Don’t think of it as taking a break as that may do the opposite of relaxing you.
“Not all breaks are created equal,” Gazzaley said. “If you take a break and go into social media or a news program, it can get hard to get out of that rabbit hole.”
Create no-phone zones
We need to recharge our phones overnight, but that doesn’t mean the devices need to be next to us while we sleep. Many studies have shown that people who keep phones in their bedrooms sleep more poorly, according to Twenge.
Smartphones are harmful to our slumber in many ways. The blue light from screens can trick our brains into thinking it’s daytime, and some content we consume — especially news — can be psychologically stimulating and keep us awake. So it’s best not to look at phones within an hour before bed. What’s more, the phone’s proximity could tempt you to wake up and check it in the middle of the night.
“My No. 1 piece of advice is no phones in the bedroom overnight — this is for adults and teens,” Twenge said. “Have a charging station outside the bedroom.”
Outside of our bedrooms, we can create other No-Phone Zones. The dinner table, for example, is a prime opportunity for families to agree to put phones away for at least 30 minutes and reconnect.
Resist the hooks
Tech products have designed many mechanisms to keep us glued to our screens. Facebook and Twitter, for example, made their timelines so that you could scroll endlessly through updates, maximizing the amount of time you spend on their sites.
Adam Alter, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business and author of the book “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” said that tech companies employed techniques in behavioral psychology that make us addicted to their products.
He highlighted two major hooks:
— Artificial goals. Similar to video games, social media sites create goals to keep users engaged. Those include the number of likes and followers we accrue on Facebook or Twitter. The problem? The goals are never fulfilled.
— Friction-free media. YouTube automatically plays the next recommended video, not to mention the never-ending Facebook and Twitter scrolling. “Before there was a natural end to every experience,” like reading the last page of a book, he said. “One of the biggest things tech companies have done was to remove stopping cues.”
What to do? For starters, we can resist the hooks by making our phones less intrusive. Turn off notifications for all apps except those that are essential for work and keeping in touch with people you care about. If you feel strongly addicted, take an extreme measure and turn the phone to grayscale mode, Alter said.
There’s also a simpler exercise. We can remind ourselves that outside of work, a lot of what we do online doesn’t matter, and it’s time that can be better spent elsewhere.
“The difference between getting 10 likes and 20 likes, it’s all just meaningless,” Alter said.