Digital technologies are taking up an inordinate amount of our time and attention. Many of us will spend a significant part of our lives staring at screens.
As a psychologist, I've seen people who struggle with an unhealthy attachment to their devices. They miss out on satisfying relationships and feel more emotional distress. Some people, such as teen girls, are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of social media.
We've been taught that the solution to this potential harm is some form of digital detox - get off screens, purge "poisonous" misinformation and opt out altogether. But the toxicity analogy mainly shows us what not to do.
If your digital life is out of balance, reducing time on devices is an important first step. But the only way to truly gain control is to take proactive, optimistic steps. Building off a food analogy, try these four steps to achieve balance in your and your family's digital life:
Determine your problem times
Identify the times and situations when being on screens is making your life worse.
It could be when you are going down a rabbit hole of social media right before bed, feeling depressed afterward and losing hours of sleep. Or you could be getting stuck on your device at the dinner table and end up getting distracted from precious time with your family. Maybe you are inefficient at work because you're doing too much online shopping.
In other words, you're consuming digital media like doughnuts - you can't stop at one, and eating five in a row is making you feel sick.
Identify your top two or three problem situations.
Identify your true craving
Once you identify the pain points (for example, scrolling on TikTok for hours keeps you from sleeping and makes you feel depressed afterward), ask yourself: What is screen time replacing and what goals is it serving? In other words, what are you actually hungry for?
You might be endlessly scrolling because you want to feel uplifted at the end of the day, or because you want to forget about a stressful situation. Perhaps you miss spending time with others, and social media seems to be the next best option. Or maybe you're just looking for a killer banana nut muffin recipe.
Write down your insights.
Try a substitute
Next, ask yourself how you can meet those needs through something other than screen time.
It's crucial to pick something that consistently makes you feel good. It's like trying to cut down - if you're me - on salt and vinegar chips. Your plan may be to stop eating chips and switch to eating broccoli - even though you hate broccoli. Well, you're setting yourself up for failure - and for binge-eating those enticing chips.
Instead, find something to replace the metaphorical chips that is also delicious and makes you feel healthy and satisfied. For example, if your goal is social connection, make plans for a nice meal with a friend or take that weekly meeting in person rather than via Zoom.
If your goal is inspiration, schedule time for oil painting, reading historical fiction or whatever it is that uplifts you.
If you just feel bored, you can use boredom as an excuse to get back to taking walks a few times a week, or reigniting your workout routine.
Pretty soon, these replacements will feel more fulfilling than the screens did.
Other ways to change screentime habits
Get prepared to replace screen time: Just like it's easy to grab fast food, it's harder to plan a healthy meal, so plan ahead. Making dates with others is an excellent way to start - it's easier to change habits when you have to keep a commitment to someone.
Start small and try variety. Don't just make a single plan. Schedule two or three interesting but doable activities, and then build on what works for you.
Identify times that will be screen-free (meal times, family activity times, weekend mornings) and stick to those boundaries.
Know yourself and the kinds of triggers that drag you back in. Maybe you're so used to checking email before you go to sleep that even having the phone in the bedroom dooms you to failure. So, let your device sleep in the kitchen.
Organizations such as Unplug Collaborative and events such as the Global Day of Unplugging help people make plans to fill unplugged time with fun and meaning, and with activities that help us forget about our devices.
These four steps can build something that digital detox alone never will: A proactive relationship with digital technologies that allows us to take the best they have to offer, let go of parts that get in the way of a life well-lived, and become empowered, healthy and wise digital citizens.