A few months ago, I stood up from staring intently at my monitor at work when suddenly I couldn’t focus my eyes. I had a moment of fear: I’m only 23 and already damaging my eyes from looking at screens. How much will my eyesight deteriorate in 10 or 20 or 30 years? Will I be able to see anything by the time I’m 50?
The moment passed and my eyes cleared, but the worry stayed. I started noticing how much time I spend on computers or my phone. Between a full work day, reading articles at lunch or on my commute, watching Netflix before bed, and periodic social media scrolls throughout the day, I could easily be looking at screens for 11 or 12 hours a day.
Alarmed, I took some quick steps. I bought a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses to wear while at work and I keep my phone and computer on night shift 24/7. I started carrying a book to read on the metro and during my lunch break. I set “downtime” periods on my phone, prompting a popup that I need to dismiss before using any apps besides my alarm in the mornings.
But within a few days I realized — old habits are hard to break. Despite my resolutions, I constantly found myself in a moment of downtime on the train platform sliding my phone out of my pocket and checking my messages. Whenever my mind wasn’t stimulated, my instinctive reaction was to reach for my pocket. The same is true in the mornings, despite the pop-up telling me my apps were temporarily blocked. It’s too easy to hit “remind me in 15 minutes” then drowsily browse Instagram until it interrupts me again…and again.
It wasn’t just my phone, either. Even if I stick to my no-phone-commute rule, I’m surrounded by screens. Digital displays cycle through as I wait for my train. Colorful, animated ads, bright enough to see even through closed eyelids, play in the dim metro stations. As soon as I finish paying for gas, the screen switches to ads and weather updates.
I challenge myself to just not look, but they’re so damn hard to keep your eyes away from. They’re designed to be. The screen is usually the brightest, loudest, most movement-filled thing around. Even when you look away, it sneaks into the corner of your eye, tempting you to just give in and watch.
The same is true of smartphone apps. The more time we spend on them, the more profit they generate — so they hook us and keep us there with infinitely scrolling content and carefully timed rewards. Apps are designed using the same behaviorist strategies as casinos. As anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll put it, “The world is turning into this giant Skinner box for the self.”
We all know we need to disconnect more often. We know the possible health problems: prolonged screen time can cause eye strain, and constantly looking down at your phone has been linked to neck pain dubbed “text neck” by chiropractors. Those are just the short term effects. It’s hard to know what the long-term effects will be, since each generation is growing up with more technology than the last. One of my friends offhandedly said when I texted her about my eyesight scare that screens would be our generation’s cigarettes. By the time the health effects have been researched, we’ll all have been staring at screens for decades.
And it’s not just physical health, either; smartphones have proven to reduce our focus and cognitive ability, even just from being in the room and the allure of checking them. By constantly stimulating our brains, we’ve effectively cut out boredom from our lives, leaving our brains with no downtime to process, daydream, or just be. I’m so used to being inundated with information and stimulation that being alone with my thoughts provokes anxiety. And while the distraction of a phone soothes it temporarily, I know that’s only making my dependency worse.
We know that being dependent on a constant stream of information isn’t good for us. We’re told to disconnect, put the phone away, turn off — but what do we do when the screen won’t turn off? What do we do when it’s designed to make us stay?
One artist tackled this question with a pair of IRL Glasses that use polarized lenses to block out LED and LCD displays. Ivan Cash says he was driven to create them by his sense of powerlessness in the face of constant information flow. He hopes to restore some agency to the individual by giving them the ability to opt out of public screens. To someone wearing IRL Glasses, blaring screens appear simply black — both a social statement and a sensory relief.
In a way, IRL Glasses still place the responsibility of change on the individual. Its existence is predicated on the resignation that we cannot expect any meaningful change in companies’ technological ethics. But at the same time, it puts pressure on companies in a different way, as an IRL ad-blocker, reducing media’s reach and efficacy by simply tuning out. In this sense, IRL Glasses function as a general boycott of digital media as well as an instrument for individual well-being.
Ultimately, we’re both actors and acted upon in this system. We need to hang onto our own agency, our right to refuse to consume what we’re fed (or at least control the times that we eat). It’s also important to recognize the forces acting upon us in order to oppose them — publicly or personally. Time will tell if outside pressure will have any effect on tech giants’ practices, but understanding the tactics affecting our behavior allows us to become aware of our own responses to them — the first step to resisting our established patterns and making intentional choices.