Article / 02 April 2021

Avoiding Screen Addiction During COVID

By Rebecca Olsen

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re sitting on the couch, a mediocre TV show is making noise in the distance, but you’re not focused on that; you’re looking at your phone. It started innocently enough. A news notification. Maybe Facebook or Instagram. Now - you don’t know how - hours have passed, you missed the show, and you’re still looking at your phone.

This past year has been hard on all of us. Everything is closed, and there’s nothing else to do, so we scroll. And I’d say it’s an entirely human reflex. We want to be informed, because our lives depend on it. But our screen time crept up on us slowly, and now we don’t realize if it’s helping us or hurting us.

Screen addiction, or dependency, however, is not a new phenomenon.

NPR reported in 2018 that while the US doesn’t recognize “technology addiction” as a medical disorder (it’s not in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the DSM-V, which is considered the Bible of the psychiatric profession in the United States), the WHO does list “gaming disorder” as a result of addictive behavior.

So you’re not a “gamer” who can play Call of Duty for 24 hours straight. Is your screen time really all that bad?

That depends. Kids and teens have been especially vulnerable since well before COVID. In 2019, CNN reported on a study that used MRIs to show screen time is linked to lower brain development in preschoolers.

The human brain doesn’t fully develop until early adulthood, usually around 25 years of age. And the experts agree, the key to healthy brain development is in a wide variety of experiences. Screen time should be thought of as a complement to an otherwise rich, diverse catalog of activities. We need to allow ourselves to struggle through problems, to explore creative outlets, to try new things, to like new things, to not like new things, to like old things, to decide we don’t like old things, to succeed, to fail, and to be bored.

And if you only take one thing away from this post, it’s this: don’t try to cure boredom with a screen. One, it won’t work. Two, you’ll only be doing yourself a great disservice.

Boredom is an essential ingredient of healthy brain development and function. Harvard professor and pediatrician Micheal Rich says, “Boredom is the space in which creativity and imagination happen.”

If you’ve ever met someone who talks about being in “the zone,” they’re talking about the realm of creativity and imagination. Everyone takes a different path to “the zone”, but the sensation is the same. Your screens are like gatekeepers keeping you trapped on the other side of the zone.

Now you might be saying, “I’m an adult, I paid my dues, and I lived an analog life as a child. What’s the big deal?” Well I’m sorry to report that even though your brain developed under ideal circumstances, your nightly Facebook binges or news feed doom scrolling may be the underlying cause of poor sleep, which is causing your brain to age prematurely. And you are still far too young to allow yourself to age prematurely.

Getting enough, and good quality sleep, is arguably the single greatest thing you can do for your health. While you sleep, your body takes out the trash, so to speak. Old, bad cells are discarded, and new cells are summoned in their place. You could say that the fountain of youth isn’t in El Dorado, it’s in your dreams.

You’ve probably heard people talking about blue light. Your screens, unless they’re on night mode” emit blue light. During the day that’s great. We get blue light naturally from the sun. But after the sun goes down, continued exposure to blue light makes it hard for our body to release melatonin, which is the hormone that tells us it’s time for bed. If you keep interrupting your melatonin function, you’ll disrupt your circadian rhythm. Every animal on earth has a circadian rhythm, and without it we don’t get good quality sleep, which means our body can’t take out the trash, which means we age faster than we should.

“Light at night is part of the reason so many people don't get enough sleep, and researchers have linked short sleep to increased risk for depression, as well as diabetes and cardiovascular problems,” says Stephen Lockley, a Harvard sleep researcher.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to pay attention to your screen time. But I’m not here to tell you to put your phone, your computer, and your TV in a safe and throw away the key.

Common Sense Media suggests seven - surprisingly easy - ways you can regain control of your screen.

1. Turn off any notification that isn’t from a person. Remember our scene in the first paragraph? You got a new notification and now you’ve been doom scrolling for hours? Well that’s easily avoidable if you never got the notification in the first place. If you’re like me and you want to stay up to date on the news, try an email digest. The Skimm, 1440, CNN, Buzzfeed - they all offer good ones.

2. Set your phone to grayscale. Candy Crush is super colorful for a reason, it’s designed to trigger your brain’s reward system and make you feel good. Remember the first few minutes of the original Wizard of Oz? It was in black and white so you’d feel sorry for Dorothy's drab life. You won’t be enticed to look at your screen if it’s drab.

3. Limit what’s on your home screen. Not to brag, but I only have 8 icons on my front page. Mostly what I see is a gorgeous photo of a mountain. And I hide Facebook and Instagram in a folder. If you don’t see them right away, you’ll be less likely to click on them.

4. Now that your apps are all hidden, try typing to find them. You might find that making the effort to get back to Candy Crush once it’s hidden isn’t worth playing Candy Crush (especially in grayscale).

5. Delete your social media apps. Unless you’re rewriting Broadway hits for TicToc, social media is the place where creativity goes to die. Remember what I said about curing boredom with a screen.

6. Charge your phone outside of your bedroom. Your old alarm clock is waiting patiently for you. And with no phone in your room, you’ll be less tempted to open Instagram as soon as you wake up.

7. Turn on night mode. iPhones, and Apple computers, have a feature called night shift, that will automatically turn off the blue light around dusk.

8. (extra credit) Try a new hobby. Make your screen work for you. Take a painting class. Bring cooking videos into the kitchen. Use YouTube to learn how to re-tile your bathroom. Screens don’t have to be the enemy. But make sure you’re the one in control.

The bottom line is, you’re not alone, and there are ways you can redefine “the new normal” that are best for you. COVID didn’t come here to cancel our lives, but it has presented us with an opportunity to think about the kind of life we want to live. You are the master of your destiny. And you are worthy of so much more than endless scrolling.