Swipe, Tap Scroll, Repeat: How to manage screen-time in a pandemic

24 February 2021

Eilidh Macdonald-Harte is a psychotherapist, personal development coach and speaker. She is Chairman of U-Evolve, a charity committed to improving the mental health, resilience, and self-belief of young people in Edinburgh, and Clinical Manager at CrossReach a not-for-profit organisation offering funded social care support throughout Scotland.

Eilidh Macdonald Harte
Eilidh Macdonald-Harte

All meaning is context-dependent. Whispering in the library, for example, is appropriate (and indeed expected) but seeing your friends whispering during a conversation may make you feel excluded and uncomfortable. So, it is vital that when we consider screen time right now, we do so in the context of a global pandemic that has transformed our screens into our main interface with the world.

Our screens connect us with loved ones and our hobbies. They enable us to work from home and help us have routine and purpose. Yet we know deep down that it’s important for us to be conscious of how we spend our time online.

Concern about the ‘always on’ culture of scrolling, clicking, swiping, and liking predates the pandemic. But for many of us, as the workplace and our homes have blended into one, it is even more challenging than ever to find good boundaries with our devices and our workplace.

We are nearly a year into the most unpredictable time that many of us have ever lived through. We are weary, we want things to get better, and on top of the usual everyday concerns in our lives, we are worrying more about our loved ones. This winter lock down has been hard.

The main worries around screen-time during the pandemic

At the moment, many of us are concerned about our mental health and the mental health of our children because our screens have become our connection to life outside of our homes. We can’t escape them. So how do we make this unavoidable reality work for us as best we can?

And that is the key here. There is some evidence to suggest that we should be worrying less about the quantity of screen time and rather be more aware of the quality of the time which we spend on screen.  To what extent is it nourishing and helping us?

Is screen-time really that bad for you?

Perhaps the better question to ask here is ‘how can we make sure the time we spend on screen is better quality and makes us feel productive and connected?’

Catherine Price, science journalist and author of How to Break Up With Your Phone explains that the problem is that much of our screen time doesn’t make us feel good. We get sucked into news cycles, social media spirals, and lose quality time that could be spent elsewhere. We find ourselves zoning out, mind numbing, and possibly self-medicating with our screens, losing hours scrolling on social media.

If our screen time is affecting our self-worth and self-confidence, it is time to stop and change those habits. And cut yourself a break too! It’s worth remembering that this type of screen time is actually designed to be addictive[i].

Catherine invites us to pay attention how screens are making us feel and be intentional about it. If we pay more attention to this, we’ll be able to make more informed choices about how to spend our time on screen.

Think about the ways that you use your screens and ask yourself:

  • Does it feel nourishing, productive, or helpful?
  • Does it help me feel strong?
  • Or is it making me feel anxious, sad, stressed, overwhelmed?

Tip 1 – notice how you feel online and do something about it!

A real risk to our mental health has been the ongoing impact of the pandemic on our daily lives. The pre-conditions of trauma[ii] that could affect our wellbeing are the lack of predictability, isolation from friends and family, loss of routine, immobilisation, (i.e. not exercising) and a loss of purpose. These factors all increase the risk of negatively affecting our mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as increasing feelings of anxiety[iii] and low mood.

Does my screen-time feel nourishing, productive, or helpful? Does it help me feel strong? Or is it making me feel anxious, sad, stressed, overwhelmed?

 

So, how do we build digital wellbeing into our lives at a time when so much of our existence is conducted online?

“Care of self and others, can sustain us in times of crisis. However we can only do it if it is embedded in our lives and communities.”[iv]

There is a great deal of research on how having a purpose[v] outside of self can increase our success, health, and happiness. Making a contribution to society, to our communities is good for us.

It is important to counter-act the negative impacts of isolation and loneliness caused by lockdown and how it has made our lives feel smaller in some ways. Helping others, even if only for a very small amount of time, is a good way to do this. It increases our sense of purpose and doing something meaningful builds a sense of wellbeing and belonging.

Most of us who volunteer do so because a certain charity has touched our lives, but now it is time to create a movement of giving back. And it’s a win-win! Both the giver and receiver benefit enormously.

 

Virtual volunteering and screen-time

A study of volunteers found that during and after volunteering 95% of them felt happier. This became the foundation of the research on ‘kindness’ and how good it is for your health, wellbeing and importantly your mental health[vi].

The charity and third sectors rely on volunteers. What we have seen in the last year is an inspiring amount of creativity and innovation in response to the pandemic.

It can be challenging to find volunteering opportunities just now that don’t increase you screen-time. But even so, it’s likely that volunteering will add to your nourishing, positive screen-time and reduce the time and opportunity to endlessly scroll through negative, energy-sapping screen use.

We even have studies to prove it, Dr David Hamilton’s research on volunteering and kindness makes the positive impact volunteering can have upon our mental health clear.

Work-from-home, kids, and screen-time…

If you are a parent juggling work-from-home with home-schooling right now, it can be a challenge to find the time to divert your children’s attention from screens. The key is supporting them to not be passive consumers of digital content, where they are zoning out.

Rather, we need to help them be creative and engaged users in content that nourishes them and helps them remain connected and purposeful with their life[vii]. For example, during lock down we have seen many clubs and activities go online, where young people are positively engaged and remain connected with others.

As with adults, to protect young people’s mental health and wellbeing, help them have a healthy relationship with their devices. To use them for research, for creativity, and not for endless zoning out, watching YouTube video after video. Use screens and apps to learn something new like a language or crafting.

If you are worried, do a bit of a screen audit, ask your child what they love about screen time and what they don’t like. Involving them in a structure of the day that involves getting outside, exercising, enjoying hobbies that are away from the screen will help with balance.

person scrolling through a screen on their laptop and their phone at the same time, taken from above

 

Screen-time restricting apps and control settings

 

If you are really concerned about the amount of screen-time you are getting right now, it is possible to restrict your use through apps or by changing the settings on your phone.

Back in the 80’s my Dad was a big fan of his Total Quality Management Training, his mantra was ‘if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it’. I think there is a lot of truth in that. I don’t use an app, but I do notice my screen time updates and reflect on my usage. It’s like everything, apply some common sense and do what works for you and your personality type.

Perhaps instead of framing this as restriction, think of it as reminders to do nice things for ourselves. Personally, this nudges me towards self-care, instead of the self-judgement I might have around my screen hours. This is a subtle yet important distinction in supporting our wellbeing.

Building a healthy relationship with technology and screen time

The most important thing is to choose nourishing screen time that helps reduce our anxiety.  Examples might include yoga, meditation, virtual meet up groups with friends etc.

I believe that self-criticism is the enemy of self-care. We can be harsh on ourselves, believing that we are not getting everything right in these difficult times.  However, it is important to be kind to yourself and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can.

Make routine your friend. Schedule it in or it won’t happen.  Plan for when are the best times to get outside each day. Self-care is a tool for survival, so that we can engage in the struggle again and again to get through this

Our focus should be on how we increase our wellbeing. Build it like a resource so that it supports us when things are difficult. Focus on contribution to a purpose outside work, friends and family. We know that happiness[viii] is a by product of having a purpose and of being kind.

Volunteering, giving back, being kind, all contribute to a greater sense of wellbeing, happiness, and resilience[ix].

Written by Eilidh Macdonald-Harte

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Further reading:

[i] Addictive nature of screen scrolling of facebook etc – read  https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/#:~:text=Due%20to%20the%20effect%20that,when%20taking%20an%20addictive%20substance.

[ii] Pre-conditions of Trauma – Basel Van der Kolk  https://youtu.be/GSAfyYJG1kY

[iii] Anxiety – Data in Scotland is that we are more anxious

[iv] Hell Yeah, Self Care, a Trauma Informed Workbook, Alex Ianataffi & Meg-John Barker, 2021

[v] Purpose a meaningful life makes us healthier, happier and live longer https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2648692

[vi] Being kind supports and improves mental health and wellbeing – https://drdavidhamilton.com/three-ways-that-kindness-impacts-the-brain-and-body/

[vii] https://www.theschoolrun.com/positive-screen-time

[viii] Happiness – Dr Laurie Santos, Yale University – The Happiness Lab

[ix] Dr David Hamilton – Kindness Make you feel Happier – https://youtu.be/frbN1KOt1gc

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