I feel myself coming to a tipping point about the invasion of screen time in my life. I have to remind myself that I do have control over this, and it’s time to switch gears towards better habits, so I can have better relationships, focus and quality of life.
In my book What Waits Ahead is Way Better and Way Worse than You Imagined, in one of the chapters, I write about how I walked away from social media for four months and then went back to it. During the four months, my twitch and growing involuntary checking of my phone cleared up and my brain felt more intact.
When I went back to it, I told myself I would check it only once a day, but, as I suspected, I check social media several times a day now, as it once again creeps its way back into my life and my knee-jerk habitual reactions to it have resurfaced.
And it’s not just social media. It’s my phone in general. It’s with me almost everywhere I go. I was raised in the 80s and 90s, a time when people would leave messages and you would call them back when you got home. Now we convince ourselves we have to have a phone on us at all times, and we have to reply to people immediately to match the world’s new invasive speed of living.
If it’s not my phone, it’s my television. When I was in my 20s I lived in a tiny apartment in Chicago alone and decided not to get a television. My brain was full and vibrant as I replaced TV time with writing, reading, and listening to music. Now I have more streaming subscriptions than I care to admit, and winding down to a good show at night has snowballed into being the thing I look forward to more than spending quality time with others.
Can you relate?
I want to have less screen time, but it feels like an uphill battle in self-control since I’m surrounded by screens and constant talk of what great shows are streaming. So I’ve surrendered, but I’ve recently begun to realize how screens have been gradually making me feel like I’ve become someone I didn’t want to be when I’m not careful about moderating my usage.
I have a different energy when I’m looking at screens a lot. There’s less peace and more itching, twitching and instinctively reaching for my phone, hoping for that dopamine hit that comes with a text message or a comment on social media.
Turning on the television is harmless, but with so many choices, I find myself not always having the self-discipline to stop at one episode. In the same way I cannot buy croissants because I’ll eat the whole batch, I also find it difficult to watch just one episode when television nowadays is set up to be consumed addictively.
So what to do about this frustration with the screens invasion on our society? I stand up. I swim upstream against the noise, and I put some rules in place to save myself from my own bad habits. I create boundaries that will take me away from this deluge that feels forced and remind myself I have a say in how much of it I let into my fortress.
Although I see a lot of value in technology and entertainment, there are three substantial ways I’ve noticed screens are changing my family and me. They all work in concert on a daily basis to squander value from my life when I don’t keep my usage in check, but I’ve also created three ways to counteract them because I can’t sit back and act like a victim. I call them solutions “soul”-utions because my soul needs a little rescuing.
Problem #1: Texting has turned me into a Jumpy Person Who is Tied to Her Phone and Has Forgotten How to Have a Phone Conversation
My phone is next to me almost every moment of every day. I tell myself I need to keep it on me in case my kids need me, which makes sense, but why do I have it next to me when my kids are in the same room as me? I’m calling my own bluff, here, and it’s time to keep myself in check.
Whenever I hear the notification sound of a text, I quickly go to my phone and check it because I’ve been conditioned to jump when my phone says jump, and I’m starting to resent this control. Do you feel this, too?
I text so much that I have to talk myself into making an actual phone call to people now because talking seems like a chore compared to a heartless, quick text I can hide behind.
For being connected nonstop, I feel I am utterly disconnected. I want to change this before I go any further down the robotic path I’m already treading on.
You probably have already figured this out, so I’m not dishing out any sage wisdom here, but I’ve put a specific sound for notifications from people I know who might need me like my family. If I hear that sound, I check my phone only then. I’ve started to keep my phone in my purse at work instead of right next to me. I need some detachment to reign the squirrels back in my brain.
I will start calling people. This one is extremely hard for me, and I have no idea how to change it. I texted my best friend the other day and said, “Hey, we haven’t spoken on the phone since like the Reagan Administration. We should probably do it sometime, but I don’t know if I know how.” She didn’t reply because I’m sure I scared her, but I need to take back control and call people to hear their voices instead of communicating in caveman fragments and emojis and fooling myself into thinking that is enough to call a relationship.
Problem #2: Too Much Screen Time Steals My Focus, Drive and Creativity
Screen time, whether on my phone or staring at a television, sets me up to passively ingest the world. That is, the world comes to me, and I do nothing but slip into a trance as it pours over me. As a creative person, it is an escape from the hard work of creating by letting my brain get mushy and wrapped up in stories that will do nothing to enrich my life. My creativity gets numbed because why would I feel like creating new things when it’s so fun to sit there and let creative things come to me instead?
The challenge here comes in that I love spending time with my husband at night watching a show here and there. There IS value in enjoying utter relaxation without thinking, but when it becomes THE thing I turn to on a daily basis, I get pulled into bad habits where I start to look to screens more and more as a way to procrastinate and get sidetracked by things that are entertaining but add no value.
The bottom line is too much screen time starts to push me towards being lazier than I typically am. I go down rabbit holes online or click “Watch next episode” and before I know it, I don’t have the restraint to limit myself. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I don’t want it ever happening anymore.
I want more joy over screen time. And, for me, joy means being an active participant in life and letting my soul light up with accomplishments and dreams, not seeing which contestant the Bachelorette will choose (but dangit, it’s so entertaining still…).
Like most things in my life, I’ve found I’m most productive when I have self-induced tangible goals and deadlines instead of ambiguous ideas of things I’d like to do “one day.” Lately, I’ve been setting a timer to help push me to accomplish things with the confines of a deadline fueling me. This way, I do not let myself stray away from the work I’m doing to look at social media or television. When the work is done, I allow myself to enjoy a show, but only when the work is done.
I installed an app on my phone that tracks my usage. I get 15 minutes on social media because that is all I’m willing to give to it. These guidelines are like bumpers on a kiddie bowling alley–they push me back on track to do better in life by reclaiming my focus.
I have created something I call “TikTok Detox — 21 Days to Get Your Brain Back” for my kids. I have a parental control app on their phones, so there’s no way they can access it. As I type this, we are on day #2. They complained about the idea, but at the same time, I feel they need me to save them from themselves and their bad habits.
One of my step-daughter’s friends said, “Not look at TikTok for one day? I have no idea how to do that.” When I heard that, I decided then to step in for my own family since it is now glaringly obvious to me screen time can take over if we’re not careful. And I get grumpy when I start to feel the world has more pull on my children than I do, you know?
Cutting back on screen time is not enough. I need to replace it with better options that have more depth. I put an Alexa in our kitchen to have music and podcasts fill the space while we cook and hang out together instead of falling into the rituals of everyone going to their rooms to unwind alone on their phones after school and work.
I put reminders on my phone to play board games, exercise and get outside with my family. I love all those things, so it’s not hard to make that shift back, but it does take a step off the busy conveyor belt to make an adjustment sometimes, and I’m not afraid to admit we are in need of that to have a louder voice than the screens do.
An important side note I’ve stumbled upon is that I now use technology to save me from using too much technology. I use apps and Alexa to help me stay on the healthy side of technology. The benefits and middle ground of screen time is where I want to spend more of my time instead of teetering over into too much of it pulling me down.
Problem #3: I Have Less Tolerance of Being Bored and Want Instant Gratification
Today I drove past an adorable old man sitting on his porch. Guess what else he was doing. Nothing. He was sitting and looking at the world and just being. As I looked at him, it occurred to me, I don’t see people being still anymore. If we’re still for a moment, we pull out our phone. We don’t sit and breathe and look. We hate being bored and get itchy in our own skin, don’t we?
We’re setting up the next generation to one day be elderly folks on their porches who swipe on screens instead of looking up and saying hello to people, and it makes me sad. We’re getting so absorbed into our screens, we’re losing the ability to find beauty in ordinary life right before our eyes.
We crave constant entertainment, and that is one slippery slope. Since my phone is on me, I tend to reach for it when I have downtime to catch up on texts, emails or to scroll through social media to avoid silence to avoid “boredom.” Taking time to sit in silence and just breathe is exactly what I need sometimes instead of bombarding my mind with a constant stream of information that will not land most times.
I’ve had talks with my kids about what addiction feels like and have been very blunt about how their screens are going to start stealing their focus, peace, social skills and intelligence. It’s difficult to pull them away from something the whole world seems to be on board with, but I’m willing to fight against the current to get them back on track. So to do that, I need to pull away from mine as well.
I purposely have limited data on my phone, so if I’m at my kids’ sports practices, I won’t get on my phone at all. I carry a book at all times and keep it in my purse to read if I ever have to wait anywhere. Lately since I’ve pushed myself to just read while my kids are at their practices, I’ve noticed how much better I feel. I’m feeding my brain in a way that screens can’t. Sitting in silence is not boring and I want to convey to my kids that this is not something to avoid.
I have been meditating for several years now, and I’ve made sure to put this back into my daily practice. For just ten minutes every morning, I sit with a cup of coffee, light a candle and breathe, thinking about how I can make this day the best it can be. Along with that, I do not check my phone when I wake up because nothing is so important that I need to start my day staring at a screen. When I do that, I feel my whole day is on a trajectory I don’t like. A walk outside under the stars feeds me much more.
All this is not to say technology or screens in general are ruining my life. The key in finding joy with screen time is to make sure it’s in the background, not the foreground. It should complement my actual life and not take the place of it.
Screen time has not encroached on my life to make the situation dire, but I want to avoid that by taking back control now. I want to look back on my life one day and remember the time–the actual time together–with others, and when I’m on my screen too much, it dulls the edges of the actual world around me.
I challenge you to take a look at your screen habits. You might be devoting more time than you realize to mindless scrolling, viewing and texting. And although all these activities can bring joy and relaxation, if we don’t make time for things that ground us and help us grow, we’re planting a life on shallow ground.
I want more. Are you in?
Rebecca Rine is a writer and speaker at RebeccaRine.com where she writes with raw honesty about the joys and challenges of an ordinary life, feeling it all and living simply and deeply while not being a bag of turds to others. Readers say her writing connects with them because she openly writes about her life and shortcomings regarding marriage, parenting, spirituality, and aging with a goal of embracing your imperfect, authentic self. She is an opinion contributor to Dayton Daily News and public radio, and has been published in places such as: Scary Mommy, Blunt Moms, Fatherly, and The Write Life. Her podcast “Real Life out Loud” can be heard on various platforms, and her short videos about “one thing to think about” can be found on YouTube. You can follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe to her website and to purchase her book, “What Waits Ahead is Way Better and Way Worse Than You Imagined: True Stories of Balancing Joy and Poo in Life”.
Image courtesy of mikoto.raw Photographer.