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Challenge: Cutting Down Screen Time

ELEANOR TAYLOR | REGULARS

I have had generalised anxiety since I was seven years old. As a teenager, I developed depression. As a result, my brain constantly pops off with new and nonexistent concerns. At the same time, I battle to find any motivation to deal with actual issues. Because of this, whenever I try to sleep, it feels as though my brain goes into overdrive. I can't stop thinking about everything. It's like I wander through my brain, searching every inch of it for things to keep me awake. So far, the biggest thing that's helped me with sleeping has been exercising almost every day. If I'm not working out, I'm walking the dog or doing anything to keep myself active.


Although working out has been a game-changer for me, I was still struggling with sleep at night, often staying up for hours after I went to bed. Then, I spoke to my psychologist, who suggested that I reconsider my technology habits, especially in the evening. I immediately brushed this off because I am sick of hearing people treat social media like the critical driver behind anxiety, even if it comes from an expert's perspective (in hindsight, I wonder if because I was addicted to my phone, I was more defensive about big tech and the entertainment value it provided). Despite my attempt to shrug her tech concerns off, I found myself becoming more aware of my habits. For starters, I spent nine hours a day on my phone. Five of those hours were on Tiktok. Next, I realised that the first and last thing I did every day when I woke up and went to bed was check my phone. As soon as I woke up, I rolled over and went through all my messages and socials. My default activity seemed to be looking at memes. This concerned me because I have always seen myself as someone who values efficiency and practicality.


The nine hours I devoted to my phone represented a huge chunk of my day where I often struggle to find time for activities that matter (i.e. studying, working, reading, seeing friends, relaxing). I wake up at 7:00am every morning and go to bed at 10:30pm. That's 15.5 hours of awake time, and over half of that time was being spent on my phone. Suddenly, it occurred to me: it was no wonder I was feeling stressed all the time because I was giving myself no room for the things that mattered most to me.


Next, I fell down an internet rabbit hole about technology, and I discovered through the Addiction Centre’s page on “Social Media Addiction” that social media addiction is, in fact, a real thing. The website described it as "obsessive" and "compulsive" use of social media, which I thought was interesting, seeing as I also have OCD and clearly had a strict routine (even though I hadn't realised it) where I was checking my phone to start and end my day. The definition they providw for social media addiction is "being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas". My phone was definitely impairing other parts of my life, and I always felt this urge to log on whenever my hands were free. I realised at this point I had developed a pretty severe issue and the sense that I should probably do something about it.


I also thought the explanation of what happens in our brains when we use apps like Tiktok was fascinating and terrifying. Essentially, apps like Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok are dopamine-inducing environments that produce constant neural activity similar to gambling or drug use. This continuous content stream causes the brain to trigger a reaction similar to taking cocaine. They also compare it to injecting dopamine straight into your body. When we engage in addictive activities, our brain produces lots of dopamine, making us happy. We learn to associate the activity with that happiness. It's difficult to see the long term impacts of heavy social media use because it is a relatively recent phenomenon. But I am boldly assuming that being addicted to social media use is harmful in the long run.


Now, I had to make a plan of attack. Using my phone's digital well-being controls, I opted to set app timers for all my social media; one hour for each social app. After that point, my phone locked them. Despite the Samsung app timers, you can just go into settings and disable them if you want to keep browsing. I was both determined to stick with this and lazy, so I found that I could not be bothered to mess with settings. My screen time was now down to around five hours a day, still a lot but a significant improvement on my previous nine hours. This was really difficult to keep doing. I realised just how often I felt like I needed to be on social media and how I would habitually go to it whenever I needed some form of stimulation. But I stuck it out and, after a week, made another big cut. I set my timers to 45 minutes per app, giving me three hours of entertainment.


It was at this point that I actually decided to stop checking Instagram. I quit cold turkey for about a month, and I also uninstalled TikTok. I could not look at them without going overtime, and I was almost ashamed at how little control I had over my phone. It's weird to consider how despite inventing phones for our own convenience, I was now relying on mine like some sort of weird iPad addicted toddler. The following month sucked, and I kept reinstalling and uninstalling apps because the urge to look at my for-you pages was constant. Gradually, it got more manageable, and I just forgot about Instagram. My best friend also started sending me links to the TikToks she felt I absolutely needed to see (what are friends for?).


The most significant instant benefit I saw from this was that I had so much more time than I knew what to do with. I was able to extend my gym sessions and focus on other hobbies like painting and reading. Reading was something I meant to do but never did because I felt like I couldn't find time for it. Winding down for bed now, I was sitting with my kindle and tea and reading until I went to sleep. I also decided to put my phone on a charger upstairs; I have a smartwatch I use as an alarm clock and figured that I would go longer without it if I had to get out of bed to check my phone. I had cut my total screen time to two hours a day through these strategies. It was a massive improvement for me, as I was now waiting at least 40 minutes before I checked my phone in the morning, and I was not using it anymore after 9:00pm at the latest.


During my second month, I noticed that mindfulness, a practice heralded by therapists everywhere as the cure to all forms of mental illness, much to the chagrin of their clients, was much easier to achieve. I felt this level of awareness comparable to when I run. My attention is just on my body, breathing, and the environment around me. I went outside and sat on my balcony for half an hour in the sun one day, and I did not do anything out there. I was just able to sit in peace and focus on the sensations. This was a more gradual and subtle shift that took a while for me to notice. But it was the most unexpected part of limiting social media for me. With my newfound ability to tap into mindfulness, I found myself becoming less anxious, and when I was stressed, I felt more control over my emotions; I became less snappy and irritable, and when I got upset, I was able to process it and move on way faster than before. This has been the most significant benefit of this challenge; I can now sit and just be with myself without any distractions and feel less tension throughout the day.


Lastly, we need to address my original issue, being sleep deprived and cranky. I have taken sleep medications my entire life and still had problems. I can now say hands down that changing how I deal with technology has been the most significant contributor to my improved sleep. I sleep like a log; I now get into bed and just pass out. It's wonderful. You don't have to quit social media and become a hermit to discover tranquillity. You just need to stop using your phone within two hours of going to sleep.


Unfortunately, progress isn't linear, and in life, we go through phases in all areas as our well being continually fluctuates.

Although I have yet to return to nine hour screen time, I go through periods where I spend too much time on my social media apps and have to delete them again because I struggle to incorporate my phone into a healthy lifestyle. For the most part though, I mainly just use my phone for crosswords now.


DISCLAIMER: I don't think social media is evil (I hate big tech though) and I am not shaming anyone who finds it entertaining or genuinely positive. For me, social media doesn't contribute to my life or make me happy enough to justify the negative impacts. I personally acknowledge that my propensity for mental illness is probably a huge part of why I struggle to maintain control over my tech habits.


I don't know the key to enlightenment or fulfilment, but I think not losing track of what's going on around you is an integral part of it. If you struggle with sleep, overthinking, or just want to present in your own life, I would highly recommend investigating your phone habits and reconsidering them. That's all from me. I will now attempt to use my newfound spare time to learn how to paint like a renaissance master because this seems realistic.


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