Stop screens from taking over your life

Screens are here to stay, so we’ve got to learn how to live with them.

College students looking at screens
Does this look like you and your friends? If so, you may need a time out.CandyBoxImages via Depositphotos

If you’ve ever opened Instagram, blinked, then realized two hours had somehow passed, you’re not alone. The addictive nature of technology is one of the stresses of modernity, and it’s common for people to seek out strategies for decreasing their screen time.

You came to the right place—we’ve collected a few no-shame, actionable ways that will help you lower your dependence on your devices and set reasonable boundaries for what you do with them. And yes, we know you’re likely reading this on a screen, so here’s something easy to start: Give yourself a quick break by closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and counting to 10.

Breakin’ it down: some data on screen time

People spend an average of more than three hours daily on just their computers, tablets, or phones. And this dependence on devices has true, lasting consequences, starting from youth. In fact, excessive screen time can stunt a child’s development, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. Lovely. It’s no walk in the park for adults either.

“Too much screen time runs the risk of a myriad of ill effects,” says Craig N. Sawchuk, a psychologist at the Mayo Clinic. “From a raw physical standpoint, excess screen time fosters a more sedentary lifestyle, which is a risk factor for a variety of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.”

So, simply “being on” can make you feel constantly stressed, and the diagnosis isn’t much better for your emotional well-being. For example, getting caught up in unrealistic comparisons while browsing social media may cause you to feel sad or depressed. Cyber-bullying and other forms of harassment can be harmful, too, and many people find themselves becoming more irritable as they spend more time in front of screens. You may also feel overwhelmed by responsibilities, or lose sleep, Sawchuk says.

“Depending on the individual, some folks become more emotionally blunted, so that their range of emotional expression, both positive and negative, actually can become narrowed,” he says.

The problems may not stop there, as cognitive and social issues may also arise. Too much screen time may lower your attention span, hurt your ability to make decisions, and restrict how you process emotions, Sawchuk says.

“On the one hand, we have a borderless way that we can stay more connected with others, such as family members and friends living in other parts of the country or the world. That can be a huge plus,” Sawchuk says. “However, on the other hand, there is a risk for losing social stamina.”

Essentially, constantly interacting with people virtually may make it harder to interact face-to-face. Some people find it difficult to actually answer the phone when it rings or ask for help in person—just a couple possible consequences of the loss of social stamina, Sawchuk explains. Not to mention the fact that if screens are distracting you from spending time with friends and family, those relationships may suffer.

To cut down on screen time, balance is key

Couples in bed looking at phones
Checking your phone or tablet right before bed could prevent you from sleeping well. nd3000 via Deposit Photos

Sawchuk says it well: “Tech is an inevitable part of our lives. The goal is not to get rid of screens, rather, [learn] how to use them in balance.”

It’s best to start early and set reasonable limitations with teens and adolescents. For parents, that means setting rules for screen time and leading by example. So if you request that your kiddos don’t use phones at dinnertime, you can’t be scrolling through your device either.

Dr. Howard Liu, chair of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s psychiatry department, advises against letting children have devices or screens in their bedrooms after a certain time—9 p.m. is common.

“Shutting off the wireless at that time or physically collecting the phone or device is the most effective remedy to late-night use,” he says.

Relatedly, studies show unrestricted screen time prior to bed negatively affects sleep quality and duration. To combat this, stop using all electronics (phones, tablets, TVs—you heard us) about an hour before your targeted bedtime, Sawchuk says.

“This can be quite challenging for most people, but it allows the brain to settle down and get into a better rhythm for its sleep-wake cycle, he explains. “Keep the electronics out of the bedroom. Our bedroom should be the one place in our home that can allow us to decompress fully.”

From a more general, non-parental perspective, it’s helpful to truly monitor one’s screen time.

“It’s human nature to underestimate how much time we spend online [or] plugged in.” Sawchuk says. Follow his advice: Take a week to self-monitor—don’t change your behavior, just use it as an opportunity to learn about your actual screen usage. Maybe try to predict your average daily screen time and see how close you are. “Self-monitoring in and of itself can sometimes be a powerful motivator for change,” he explains.

The next step is to actually set limits on your screen time. “This can be hard to do, as we tend to not have a parole officer setting and enforcing limits on us, so it takes personal commitment to do so,” Sawchuk says.

He also recommends creating a plan for how to spend your newfound free time, which will help ensure you stay away from your screens and, hopefully, set yourself up for long term success. Such a plan could include a list of tasks that are important to you.

“Ask yourself if you have the time and energy in a given day to cultivate those things,” Sawchuk says. After all, investing time and energy into screens means you have less time to partake in other activities you care about.

It’s important to note that screen time can be both individual and social. So, try to find a balance between the two. Spending time with others in front of screens (like watching your favorite shows) may help offset or slow down some of the harmful effects of solo screen time, Sawchuk says. So consider that, too, when setting personal and household goals for screen time.

Lead by example

Family in living room looking at screens
The family that scrolls together, stays... wait, what?anyaberkut via Deposit Photos

Rather than attempting to outright ban screens, Liu encourages parents to learn with and lead their children.

“There is no closing of Pandora’s box,” he says. “Screen time and social media are here to stay.”

That means proactively talking about digital citizenship and asking your child about the screen use habits of their peers. If you have concerns about excessive screen time and rules aren’t working, Liu recommends finding a good child therapist to develop a behavior plan. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, has a set of resources to help parents develop a family media plan in Spanish or English. The Mayo Clinic also offers resources, such as this guide.

Ultimately, using technology and staring at screens aren’t bad acts on their own. But in our increasingly digitized world, it’s important to appropriately balance our time with devices with personal and social needs for a full, satisfying lifestyle.