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Zoom yourself out: Slash screen time for mental health

Tired Eyes From Screen Time

It’s hard to deny we all spend to much time on our phones. Texts, emails, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Candy Crush, the latest game….the number of hours we spend staring at that little device is frankly embarrassing. 

It turns out, spending excessive time on our devices is more than just embarrassing or inconvenient – it’s harmful to our mental health.

Part of the harm stems from the activities on the screens themselves.  The apps we use so often are actually designed to give us a dopamine hit, which keeps us coming back for more.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good, and who doesn’t want to feel good?  So when we get a text or a social media notification of a like, and it gives us a surge that makes us feel great, we want to get another one.  So we text back, or we await the next notification.

Unfortunately, that same anticipation of something more also leads us to be in a constant state of stress.  Our hearts race, breathing speed increases, and even our muscles contract when we feel the phone buzz or hear the alert go off.  That means we aren’t relaxing, which is critical to being mentally healthy.

In fact, overuse of screens has been linked to anxiety, depression, sleep problems, and relationship conflicts.

A tremendous contributor to the harm is what we are missing when we are on our devices.  Real human connection is at the core of what we’re missing.  How many times have you been in a gathering of people (even if it’s just immediate family these days), and someone is zoned out on their phone?  They are not connecting with the people around them, causing both them and the others to miss a great opportunity to connect. 

Staring at the phone also means you’re not staring at the stars, getting moving for exercise or fresh air; sitting quietly with your thoughts, or breathing deep.  These are all critical activities for a healthy mind.

Devices also suck our time away from productive endeavors, leading us to fall behind at work and school (not to mention at home). 

Of course, our devices are necessary to much of what we do each day for work and for school.  It would be nearly impossible (or at the very least completely impractical) to swear off using our phones or other screens.  Device addiction is more like food addiction than alcoholism; we can give up alcohol completely, but we can’t stop eating.  We also for practical purposes cannot be off screens entirely.

So what can we actually do to improve our mental health and stop the damaging behavior of phone addiction?

First, like with other addictions, admit there is a problem with our screen use.  Stop reasoning it away; if it is causing any strain or stress, it is a problem.

Then, consider how far you are willing to go to address the problem.  To curb dopamine production and rest your dopamine receptors, you could try a full day with no dopamine-inducing activities (so no phones, no TV or music or other stimulation).  Less drastic is one day a week where you choose to avoid one high dopamine activity.  For example, stay off all social media for a day, or silence all phone notifications, and keep that up each week.

Also, take an inventory of all the ways you’re using devices, and then seriously consider which activities you can eliminate.  With COVID, a lot of people are finding that activities they have paused by necessity, they would now like to eliminate intentionally.  When all the activity stopped, some things were simply not missed.  Similarly, if you were to stop all of your screen activities, you might find a good number which could be cut entirely and not be missed.  Evaluate the games and other time suckers on your phone, the websites you frequent out of habit, and how else you are using screens in a deleterious manner.  Try cutting those uses and see which you are just as well off without. 

Finally, grab an accountability partner and gamify cutting back on screen use.  See which of you can use screens the least, or who can come up with the best alternative activities.  Challenge each other to go out for the day without any device.  You just may find your outlook improve dramatically.