Digital detox: How to break your screen habit

The more we scroll, the more our brains crave those quick bursts of pleasure and connection, keeping us coming back for more. Here's how to cut back.

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Digital detox: How to break your screen habit

ILLUSTRATION by ANA GALVAÑ

Between Zoom meetings, scrolling social media, and streaming music and television, Americans spend almost eight hours a day in front of screens—more than they do sleeping. While there are perks of being online, like staying in touch with friends or bonding over shared interests, spending too much time interacting with others through screens can “create the illusion of connection, as opposed to genuine human intimacy,” says Dr. Robin Casey, founder of Spring Psychological Services.

The more we scroll, the more our brains crave those quick bursts of pleasure and connection, keeping us coming back for more. Add in nonstop advertising and filters that create impossible beauty standards, and it’s easy to see why screen time has been linked to depression and anxiety as well as physical ailments like headaches, wrist tendonitis, and chronic neck pain, says Dr. Oluseun Olufade, an Atlanta-based sports medicine physician.

Since living off the grid isn’t a viable option for most of us, Casey and Olufade recommend these strategies for breaking bad screen habits.

Set boundaries
Casey suggests turning off notifications, setting time limits on app use, and unfollowing or blocking accounts that make you feel down. Her workday hack: Put your phone on airplane mode to block out distractions. And if you’re meeting up with a friend, don’t be shy about suggesting you spend your time device-free.

Take timeouts
After work, Olufade stashes his phone away to spend time with his family, sans screens. Casey suggests charging your phone in another room at night, so you’re not tempted to scroll mindlessly before bed or when you first wake up. Share your commitment to spending time offline with someone who can help hold you accountable.

Replace screen time with other rituals
Olufade and Casey both say replacing screen time with other hobbies can help you form new, healthier habits. Casey opts for morning runs and meditation, while Olufade and his family play board games and take walks together at night and on weekends.

Reevaluate and moderate
Your approach doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Casey advises, “Be open to reassessing your screen usage periodically, and set boundaries that work for you.”

This article appears in our December 2021 issue.

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