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By Stef McDonald

Do you pick up your phone to check the news and find yourself getting lost down the virtual rabbit hole of comments on a post about a subject you don’t even care about? Are you stressed out from doomscrolling? Blurry-eyed with a kink in your neck every night from staring at screens all day long?

I’ve been there. My job is working in online communications, which includes social media, so I spend many hours a day looking at computer and smartphone screens. To maintain balance and peace of mind, I’ve learned about the need to set screen-time limits and disconnect often. It comes down to boundaries for me, with time and space. Here are some specific tips that help me manage my screen time to maintain good mental health.

Manage your news consumption.

I can remember when the way to stay informed was by reading the morning newspaper and watching the evening news. Now, with 24-hour news cycles and social media platforms that update every millisecond, we can be tempted to check for updates all day long. Try setting times during the day to check the news. I also find it helps to have a few trusted news sources bookmarked and in a Twitter list so I only check the stories from these accounts. Above all else, try to avoid doomscrolling, which can make you anxious. 

Curate your social media feeds.

I found using social media to be a much more pleasurable experience when I realized it was okay to unfollow or mute accounts that made me cringe, clench my jaw, roll my eyes, or just feel meh. You don’t have to worry about hurting someone’s feelings by unfollowing them on Facebook or muting them on Instagram or Twitter (they won’t know). Follow only the accounts posting content you genuinely like or find useful.

Turn off or limit notifications on your phone.

Do you really need an alert to tell you that a high school classmate you haven’t seen since graduation liked the photo you posted on Facebook of the sunset? Keep notifications for reminders you need, like meetings and birthdays, and you’ll be less likely to reach for your phone.

Take steps to maintain your focus.

Our focus is pulled in multiple directions during the day and the options available on our devices can make us more distracted. Watching TV while also scrolling on your phone or tablet or clicking around on your computer means your attention is divided. Ask yourself, is that time well spent? Consider one screen at a time, one activity at a time. When you go to your computer or reach for your device, it’s good to have a clear idea of what you’re doing. If what you want to do is to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea to check social media for an hour because that will make you feel good, go for it. If your intent is to look up a recipe and then you see an intriguing headline or something else that piques your interest, resist clicking — and clicking again and again. If you’re time-pressed, make a note about what caught your interest and save it for later (use old-fashioned paper and pen, or pin it to a “save it for later” Pinterest board, use a notes app, or email it to yourself to read later).

Resist screen time when you’re bored, distracted, or stressed.

Have you lost interest in a TV show you’re watching then picked up your phone or tablet to check your email? Have you hit a wall while working on a work project and given yourself a break by clicking around the web? Can’t stop thinking about something upsetting and search for solace on social media? Ask yourself if screen time is what you need to actually make you feel engaged or better in that moment. If the answer is no or you’re uncertain, consider screen-less ways of taking a break. If you’re like me, you’d be better served by taking a walk around the block, listening to music, or practicing a grounding meditation. (Here’s a favorite by Jack Kornfield.)

Don’t use electronic devices during meals.

In your family, you can make a rule that no devices are allowed at the table. Live alone? The same rule applies. Put it in quiet mode to resist temptation. Also apply this rule to eating in front of your computer during lunchtime. Try to schedule your day so that you can reserve time to eat without distraction.

Don’t use your phone when spending time with others.

When spending time with friends or family, I often put my phone in quiet or airplane mode so I can devote my full attention to my loved ones, and I try refrain from using it — unless I’m taking photos.

Pick a daily time to tune in and out.

When you designate times that are screen-free, it can feel like you have more free time for the activities you miss during busy days. I like to set my mobile phone to “do not disturb” mode from 9 pm to 8 am. Blue light given off by electronic devices can disturb sleep, so I try to stop using them 1-2 hours before bedtime, or I use them only to listen to podcasts, audio books, or music. (I also use the “night shift” setting on my phone and computer to cut down on blue light.)

Make a screen-free zone or zones in your home.

Make your bedroom or another space in your home a screen-free, scroll-free zone. I have a no-news-in-the-bedroom rule, so I can maintain calm before sleep. (While we are working at home during the pandemic, working in your bedroom may be necessary for you, but you can still impose limits that work for you.)

Consider alternatives to screen time.

If you complain about how there’s not enough time in your day to exercise, connect with friends and family, break for meals, or relax, think about how much time you’re actually spending online. Next time you reach out to lazily consume an endless stream of photos that blur together, pause and change course. Call a loved one, dance to a favorite song, or choose to spend time on one of the self-care activities that make you feel good. Reducing your screen time can be easier if you find satisfaction with other, more fulfilling activities. The more you reduce or consolidate your daily screen time, the more time you will have for those activities (and people!) you feel you’re missing. Even five minutes can make a big difference.