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Simple ways to reduce screen time

Cell phones, computers and other electronic devices have likely been a fixture of your days for many years at this point. However, with the onset of COVID-19, these devices are becoming more ingrained in most of our lives than ever before. Between taking online classes, keeping up with the never-ending stream of news updates, staying in touch with friends and family through group chats or video calls, and turning to digital resources such as Netflix or video games to destress, it’s easy for whole days to pass with hardly a waking moment spent apart from one screen or another. 

Engaging in increased amounts of screen time is wholly understandable, and can even feel unavoidable, in our changing world. However, it may have some negative consequences on your mental or physical health. For instance, looking at screens for extended periods can result in a form of discomfort that the American Optometric Association refers to as Computer Vision Syndrome or CVS. Symptoms of CVS can include blurry vision, eyestrain and dry eyes, as well as headaches and shoulder and neck pain. Excess screen time can also interfere with sleep cycles and has the possibility to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety (particularly if you’re using those screens to absorb saddening or nerve-racking information). With that in mind, here are a few paths you can take to implement small, relatively painless reductions in your screen time.

Look away

Even brief breaks from your screen may have significant effects. Take advantage of moments like those 15-minute breaks between classes; rather than closing your Zoom call only to immediately check your texts or start scrolling through social media, try putting your device down and looking out the window, or at something comforting in your space. You may even be able to do this in brief moments during your classes. To help combat digital eye strain, the American Optometric Association recommends following the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to look at something at least 20 feet away from you.

Set personal limits

Before you use your device, especially for recreational purposes, consider setting some personal limits to prevent yourself from getting too sucked in. Maybe make a deal with yourself to only watch one or two episodes of that show you’re starting on Netflix right now, rather than watching the whole season in a day. Your eyes may thank you, plus you’ll be able to spread the fun out over a longer period of time. Even if you’re studying digitally, consider deciding in advance how long you want to spend on work for each class, and setting some timers to keep yourself on track. 

Limits for when and how often you can use certain devices or websites can also be helpful. Identifying your personal pitfalls and goals can help you establish these. For instance, if you know that looking at social media in the mornings is a big time suck for you, consider setting timers for how long you can spend on Instagram or Twitter. If you have an iPhone, the Screen Time feature allows you to track and set limits for how long you spend on individual apps or on your phone overall, and will provide reminders to you when you hit these benchmarks.

If you’ve been having recent or chronic issues with sleep, consider turning off your devices an hour or two before bedtime; research by scientists at Harvard indicates that the blue light emitted by screens lowers your body’s melatonin levels and interferes with your circadian rhythms. (If you’re facing significant screen-related sleep issues, you might also consider purchasing a blue light filter for one or more of your devices to reduce your exposure.)

Set physical limits

It can be also helpful to designate physical spaces for yourself in which you are and are not allowed to use certain devices. For instance, you might decide that you cannot use your computer or phone on your bed, only at your desk. In addition to possibly reducing your screen time, these kinds of limits can have the benefit of establishing and reinforcing useful boundaries in our space. For many of us, the scope of our accessible physical world has shrunk, and the different spheres of our life (such as work, school, and home) are beginning to overlap. Separating out different sections of what remains to you for different purposes can help prevent this blurring of the lines, and may give you and your routine an increased sense of variety and stability.

If possible, it can also be useful to take a little time to separate from your devices completely. Contact anyone you need to contact and let them know you’ll be radio silent for a few hours; then put your devices on airplane mode and plug them in to charge (since batteries are especially prone to dying nowadays). If you can, take a walk to physically remove yourself from that space; if that option isn’t available to you, consider meditating, crafting, doing some light exercise, reading a physical book, or engaging in some other form of tech-free stimulation or relaxation.