Even before the pandemic, many Americans spent nearly half their days staring into a screen. Market research firm Nielsen found the average American logged nearly 12 hours of screen time with their televisions, smartphones, and computers every day in 2019.
And that number has likely gone up over the past year as a result of the massive shift to remote work, increased dependence on virtual gatherings, and the never-ending influx of news.
"People are more glued to their devices than ever," said Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D., a psychologist and author based in Portland, Ore. "We feel like we're doing due diligence, when in reality it's creating extra, what I call ambient anxiety."
Dodgen-Magee said technology overuse can lead to a decreased capacity to focus on one thing at a time, inability to resist distractions, and increased difficulty returning to a calm state of mind. Screen addiction can also contribute to physical issues, including chronic headaches, eye strain, and posture problems.
"The body has to contort itself into all sorts of pretzels," said Nancy Colier, a New York-based psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. "Simultaneously, people are experiencing depression at epidemic rates, and the screen has come to represent not just the absence of sunshine, but also, the absence of change and possibility — in a word, hope."
While most people don't have the option to step away from screens entirely, experts maintain that there are ways to restore balance and use technology in healthier ways.
Here are five tips for overcoming your pandemic screen addiction.
Recognize the issue. Just as with other addictions, the first step to beating your screen viewing compulsion is admitting you have a problem.
Technology dependence isn't officially recognized as an addiction in the United States, but Dodgen-Magee pointed out that the compulsion has many of the same markers as other addictions and initiates release of the same neurotransmitters.
Most people don't have the option of going cold turkey when it comes to technology because we depend on it to do our jobs and communicate with others, so Dodgen-Magee recommends dealing with a screen addiction in a similar way as you would an eating disorder. We have to eat in order to live, and we need to use technology to function in the world.
"Rather than thinking about things like cold turkey or technology fasts, I am a big believer in learning to take steps of moderation," she said.
Instead of trying to go without technology entirely, she recommends setting your wireless router to turn off and on at certain times of the day, putting a passcode on your phone or laptop, organizing your cellphone so there aren't a bunch of apps cluttering your home screen, and turning off all unnecessary phone notifications. Anything you can do to tone down digital stimuli and encourage moderation will help you wean yourself off your devices, she said.
Amplify your sensory environment. As you work to cut back screen time, it can help to bulk up on the sensory offerings in your environment.
"If we just say 'no' to our devices and screens, but we haven't given ourselves other options, we will fail every time," Dodgen-Magee said.
She recommends making your spaces smell great with candles or oil diffusers and keeping small fidget toys around that don't involve cognition. For example, rather than a cognitive toy like a Rubik's Cube, consider having a Koosh ball or rail spinner on your desk to capture your attention and give you something to do other than interact with screens.
Delineate your workday. The rapid shift to remote work has blurred the line between work and leisure, so it can help to draw your own boundaries.
Colier recommends turning off all technology for the first half hour of the day in order to set your own intentions rather than allowing your inbox or the news cycle to dictate your day. She also urges people to shut down all devices including televisions for the last hour of every day and pick up a book, simply be quiet, or listen to relaxing music to allow your body and mind to calm down.
In addition to instating analog bookends to your days, it can also help to sprinkle in tech-free breaks between tasks. Every 90 minutes, or after you've completed a chunk of work, Colier recommends getting up and taking a tech-free walk around your neighborhood or house as a way to clear your head and shift gears from your head to your body, from being outwardly focused to being inwardly focused.
"Get away from your phone for at least a half an hour a day," she said. "And if you can get away from technology for a full day once a week, it changes your whole life."
Have a clear purpose to your screen time. Internet rabbit holes can easily eat up hours of the day if you're not careful. In order to avoid mindless scrolling, make sure you have a clear purpose every time you check your inbox, open a tab, or pick up your phone.
Pause before you pick up your phone or turn on your computer to consider what your goals are, recommends Mari Swingle, Ph.D., a practicing clinician based in Vancouver and author of i-Minds: How and Why Constant Connectivity is Rewiring our Brains and What to Do About it.
Increasing your awareness around your habits and setting time limits on your usage can help you snap out of reflexive patterns.
Consider choosing set times throughout your day to check your email, rather than grazing through your inbox all day. And if you find you habitually use your phone to check the time and then get sucked in by notifications, consider getting a watch. Swingle pointed out that a phone isn't just a phone anymore, so if you want it to be a tool of communication again, you're going to have to change your behaviors and adjust the settings on your devices.
"You can alter your behavior slightly so it's about the human connection as opposed to the stimulus of the ding," Swingle said. "Make sure there's a purpose to every activity. If you're going in because you're bored or want to feel good, that's a huge warning sign."
Devote some time to silence. Research has shown that 10 minutes of meditation a day can have an outsized influence on many aspects of our lives.
Those 10 minutes don't have to look the same for everyone. You can spend them practicing mindfulness meditation, directed boredom, or even just sitting quietly. Regardless of how you spend that time, the practice has the potential of reducing stress and increasing the gray matter in the regions of the brain that are being depleted by screen use, according to Dodgen-Magee.
Aside from the documented benefits of daily meditation, devoting time each day to quiet reflection and breathing offers an excellent excuse to step away from our screens.
"Technology screams information at us all day," Colier said. "We appreciate the information, but it creates a cacophony in our mind, and one of the most healing experiences we can offer ourselves is silence."
— Hannah Pitstick is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.