By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
Screens and devices can be incredible. They give us access to an endless stream of information, enable us to work from home, attend virtual classes and groups, visit with long distance loved ones, play fun games, watch movies, even read articles about screens!
Screens can also be incredibly draining, leading many people to feel isolated, disconnected, anxious, sleep-deprived, and depressed. So, how can we use screens and devices in a conscious and balanced manner that doesn’t zap us of our vital life force energy?
Here are five points to consider if your screen-use habits could benefit from an upgrade.
Screens can absorb our attention like sponges. Most of us can easily become engrossed in computer games, social media feeds, endless videos, and TV shows while countless hours pass by. It’s extremely important to stay aware of how much time we are spending on screens and if we are consciously choosing the time and content or if we are simply getting caught up in the online whirlpool.
In addition to how often we’re using screens, it’s also really important to be conscious about when we are screening and scrolling. I often see people driving cars or riding bikes while looking down at their phones or taking care of children with their eyes fixed on a screen. I wonder if that behavior is a conscious choice that’s aligned with their values, or if they’ve just gotten sucked into the seductive pull of screens.
Of course, I have no idea what’s going on for strangers I see in passing. I need to stay aware of my own screen use and support my clients to be conscious about theirs. And, if you’d like, let’s take a look at your screen use as well.
Reflective Questions: Are you using screens in the manner and amount that is aligned with your values? Do you stay aware of your self-care and other aspects of your life when you’re screening and scrolling, or do you tend to get “lost” in screen activities and neglect your body and other important needs and commitments? Is your screen use similar to what you would advise a young person to have?
My hope is that you will ponder these questions with curiosity and compassion, not with self-criticism or defeat.
The Power of Choice
Many people feel compelled to screen and scroll, like they have truly lost the power of choice. Many people spend several hours a day on their devices without even considering how the content is affecting them, or what else they might be doing with their time.
We can begin to regain our power by weaning ourselves off screens, even a little bit.
For some, this might mean turning their phone off for a few minutes a day. For others it might mean one screen-less meal. For some, it might mean a full day off screens. (Challenging, I know!)
Reflective Questions: Is it easy for you to turn off your screens and spend time in other ways? Separate from work obligations and other commitments, do you feel like you have a choice about picking up (or not picking up) your screens? Do you feel compelled to watch programs or look at sites that contribute to insecurity, depression, anxiety, or exhaustion?
If you are constantly picking up a device or remote control, consider choosing one behavior that would feel like a healthy step towards regaining your power of choice.
Depending on your age, you might not even remember a world without computers, tablets, and phones. The digital age came upon us so rapidly that many of us have not been able or taught to adjust to the rapid changes, particularly in the area of etiquette.
My husband and I made a few agreements when devices came into our lives. One is that if we are hanging out together, we decide together how the screen use will go. We might decide to each be on our individual screens while we’re next to each other. Or we might do something together on one screen, like play a game or watch a movie. Or we go screenless! If one of us is on a screen and the other one wants to say something, as long as we’re not in the middle of work or something essential, we put down our screens and make eye contact. It’s a new day when people have to agree on eye contact and undivided attention, but this is the world we live in. Of course, we can all make our own agreements with the people we spend time with, but it really helps to communicate and make respectful requests when needed.
Reflective Questions: If you are using a screen for non-essential purposes and someone in your life speaks to you, do you typically pause and make eye contact? When spending time with people, do you decide together how the screen use will go? If you are with someone and you need or want to do something on a screen, do you let the other person know when you’ll be present with them again? Do you think your relationships could benefit from a few respectful agreements in the area of screen etiquette?
In many areas of life, when we become aware of doing a little too much or not enough of something, we have the opportunity to recalculate back to center. Of course, this is much easier said than done if we are compelled to do something, or if there are deeper issues we’re attempting to avoid, numb, or distract ourselves from.
Since the pull of screens can be extremely strong and tempting, it can help to stay compassionate and consistent about how balanced you feel in your life and if screen use may be contributing to you feeling imbalanced.
Reflective Questions: Do you feel well-balanced between your on-screen and off-screen time? How about your alone time vs. connecting with others? Do you have a healthy balance between work and play? Rest and movement?
If you suspect your screen use is contributing to a state of imbalance, consider some gentle recalculating towards center. Even small changes can make a positive difference.
Time Killer or Spirit Filler
Screens can definitely help us fill our spirits. We can listen to uplifting talks on screens, access calming meditations, attend virtual gatherings, listen to inspiring podcasts, read engaging books, just to name a few. And screens can be serious time killers and energy zappers.
Pay attention to how you feel, both during screen use, and afterwards. When we truly fill our spirits, we generally feel good during an activity as well as afterwards.
Some screen activities might fill our spirits every time, like meditation or watching a lighthearted movie, while others might feel good for a little while but can then feel depleting. For example, it might be enjoyable to play a computer game for a half an hour, but after two hours it might be time to eat something and get some fresh air. It might be enjoyable to watch a new comedy series, but five episodes later we might feel zapped of energy rather than uplifted and entertained.
Reflective Questions: How do you feel while you’re using screens? How do you tend to feel afterwards? Does your screen use feel depleting or fulfilling? Disconnecting or connecting? Depressing or uplifting?
Some final questions to ponder: What do you do when you first wake up in the morning? What do you typically do when you eat your meals? What do you do if you have a break in between scheduled events or a few free hours? What do you do when you transition from day to evening or wind down before bed? What do you do right before you fall asleep at night? How do spend your weekends or days off?
If screen use is involved in the majority of your responses, consider the percentage of time they feel like time killers or spirit fillers.
These questions are not about self-berating, rather they’re about increasing your awareness and seeing if you are finding enough opportunities to use screens in fulfilling ways, as well as getting sufficient off-screen time. Excessive screen use is a global problem but it’s up to each one of us to integrate changes in our lives that will make our screen use more balanced.