The catch-22 of living in the brave new world of pocket-sized smart devices is that we know we’re getting too much screen time, but we can’t seem to quit it.
The addiction to screens is partly social — born of the need to feel connected to others, or your boss’ expectation that you’ll never be fully “offline”.
But it’s also partly by design: You’ll never finish the internet; it’s all one big infinite scroll. And in a world where clicks are currency, it makes sense that the setup is like a slot machine, exploiting our pleasure centers and gamifying content to keep our thumbs on the screens and our butts in our seats.
The system works. Just not in our favor.
Research shows the average American spends more than 42 percent of their daily waking hours with their eyes on a screen. More than half of the respondents surveyed (52 percent) said they take a break from the computer by checking their phones. Close to a third (27 percent) said they look at their phones while watching TV.
It’s not an easy habit to break. After all, for many Americans, a lot of that time spent in front of screens is mandated by the nature of their jobs.
But there is a way around it. In an article on Verge, researchers said recommended limits on screen time set by WHO in 2019 are less about the dangers of staring at screens (science is still looking into that) and more about the physical, mental and emotional trade-off that happens when you limit human interaction and physical activity.
So how do you find a balance? Here are three ideas:
Swap screens for headphones. It’s not realistic for everyone to overhaul your lifestyle to be totally screen-free, but you can offset some of the detrimental effects of screens by adjusting your content consumption habits.
If you typically take a working lunch at your desk, reading articles online while eating your salad, try the audio version of the article instead and take a walk around the block while listening.
In addition to the vitamin D you’ll get from being out in the sun, the very act of walking while you listen can improve your cognition. Research shows that exercise increases the brain’s baseline for new neuron growth. And greater neurogenesis is linked to increased cognition, better memory and a lower likelihood for depression.
Think you don’t have the time to build exercise breaks into your routine? Consider these findings by Dwyer, Sallis, Blizzard, Lazarus, & Dean, 2001: When comparing school-age students who had 90 minutes of exercise time during the school week to students who had four times that amount (6.25 hours), the extra time away from the classroom did not result in lower academic scores.
In fact, the students who got additional exercise showed improved social skills and a better attitude toward school as compared to the other students, with no loss in academic achievement.
Set limits on your apps. It’s not easy to self-monitor your habits online, especially when using smart devices is practically second nature. Inc. recommends one way to help yourself is to set time limits for how long you can spend on a given activity on your phone or computer before the device will flag it for you.
If you set limits on your social media use, make a plan for how you can spend the time once you’ve hit your quota but you still need a brain break.
Meditation Minis, a podcast available on Spotify and other streaming services, is a nice option where you can choose a short meditation session based on time and theme. Eight minutes after pressing play and closing your eyes, you’ll be more refreshed and re-energized than if you’d lost 30 minutes to Twitter.
Build reward breaks into your day. The pomodoro technique is a popular way to improve productivity by breaking your day up into focused sprints. You simply choose a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and do as much as you can without stopping/opening a new tab/refreshing your email. At the end of the sprint, you get a 5-minute break. Rinse and repeat.
To make the most of those 5 minute breathers, science suggests music and movement.
Quartz references an analysis of over 400 studies from the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences focused on the impact of music on patients undergoing medical procedures. Patients scheduled for surgery were instructed to either listen to calming music, or take anti-anxiety drugs beforehand. Based on measurements of the stress hormone cortisol, those who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisone levels than those taking the medication.
Research on movement and cognition shows that regular exercise can improve concentration and memory, foster faster learning, prolonged mental stamina, enhanced creativity and lower levels of stress.
Why not try one of these strategies now? Disconnect from your screens and reconnect with the physical world. Even a few minutes of movement and music a day can make a positive difference.