There is no shortage of Ted Talks and inspirational videos about how social media, smartphones, and even just screens (computers, TV, video games, etc.) are ruining our lives, destroying our mental health, and decreasing interpersonal connections. People are going on and on about how our screens are ruining us- how the dopamine surge and the possibility of a notification keeps us coming back to our screens, making us less productive and less happy and healthy.
There was one Ted Talk in particular that caught my attention:
The speaker talks about how he quit the internet and texting for a year and the positive and negative effects of doing so. He describes how it made him a better listener with his sister but how it also isolated him from his friends since he would often miss Facebook invites and group chats to group activities. From all the talk about screens and their effects, we expect there would be so many positives to this man quitting the internet. But he also goes on to say how it didn’t make him any more productive than he was normally, he missed out on precious moments with long-distance family that he would have been able to experience with video chat, and how he ended up substituting the internet with another form of digital distraction- his video games. What this showed me was that the “annihilation” approach is neither effective nor entirely beneficial. (For a while, I’d been considering going back to my old Samsung Intensity II and using my iPhone as an over glorified iPod touch without any cell service.)
The screens and their effects on brain chemistry are often compared to drugs. And like drugs, quitting cold turkey is bound to produce withdrawal symptoms. Unlike drugs, however, it is neither realistic nor necessarily beneficial to quitting screens permanently. When a person is in rehab for drug use, it is the goal that one day the person will no longer use any drugs at all, ever again; drug use will be annihilated from the person’s life completely.
This approach doesn’t work with the internet. Many of us have reasons to use our screens ranging from the essentials such as work and connecting with family to the more optional, like shopping. It’s important to understand that when we attempt to use our screens more responsibly, we are basically trying to use cocaine on a daily basis but only a “little bit” at a time. “Safe yet frequent drug use” seems like a total oxymoron and maybe you don’t agree with the idea of safe drug use at all. I myself am not completely convinced that it’s possible to forego all addictive behaviors when dealing with the internet; there will always be moments where we get sidetracked and fall down the rabbit hole of our feeds and timelines.
The most crucial part that I took away from this talk was that he wasn’t any more productive than he was normally. He didn’t finish all the projects and goals that he wanted to. I related to this very much because I took a gap year after high school and I had so many things I wanted to accomplish. Instead of meeting all my goals this past year, it was more of the same procrastination as before. The lack of a full course load didn’t “free up my time” and help me accomplish my goals like I thought it would. In order to stop procrastinating, the issue needs to be addressed at the root. So unless you want to build a time machine and go back to 1982 or earlier, pretty much everyone will want or need to use the internet on a regular basis, especially as a student. So here are 10 ways to help prevent your devices from taking over your life.
1. Don’t start your day off with a screen
If you wake up and the first thing you do, before your feet even hit the floor, and perhaps before you even take a sip of water, is check your phone, this is a habit you need to break. I am guilty of this habit but I have recently started to stop this. What helps me is to have a list of a few things that I need to do before I even look at my phone’s lock screen:
Get out of bed (I’m ashamed of myself that I even need to say this one, lol)
Brush my teeth
Wash my face and apply sunscreen
Have a drink (I usually like water and/or orange juice in the mornings)
Get dressed (if I’m going anywhere that day, some days I never get dressed. I know, I know- bad habit.)
2. Don’t end your day with a screen
This point is mostly to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep. The blue light from screens can mess up our circadian rhythms, disrupting our sleep. Using screens can make it more difficult to fall asleep and result in shorter sleep duration and less restful sleep. Also, when I find myself using my phone or computer in bed, it’s far too easy to think Just one more article/post/video/whatever since I am already comfortable and I could go to sleep right after that one last whatever. If you want to, you can even go so far as to remove your devices from your room entirely. If you must have your devices in your room, try placing them as far from your immediate reach as possible. So, if you can stay in your bed and still pick your devices, you’re doing it wrong.
3. Turn off app notifications.
I highly recommend turning off all notifications on your smartphone for, what I call, nonessential apps. This means that I receive notifications for apps like Calendar, Phone, Messages, Mail, and a few others but the nonessentials are silenced. The fewer notifications you see on your lock screen, in your history, or on an app icon, the fewer reasons you’ll give yourself to open your phone or open your apps.
This is a huge one for me as I’m the type of person who hates a messy inbox and I can’t stand that little red icon with the number of unread emails floating above the Mail app (note: you can turn this off too in the notifications). And so many of the emails we receive, we don’t even need. I for one subscribe to so many email marketing lists for online stores to get a discount for a certain item when I have zero intention of reordering from that store again. Emails like these do nothing other than clutter my inbox, tempt me to spend more money and waste my time. So, every time one of these unnecessary emails pops up in your inbox, I suggest taking a few seconds to scroll down to the bottom of the email and click the unsubscribe button that’s at the bottom. That way, those emails will never bother you again.In terms of social media, our feeds in addition to the popular page can keep us scrolling for days. Personally, I have accounts on Instagram, Youtube, Reddit, Tumblr (which I honestly don’t even use), WordPress (obviously), and Pinterest (Whatsapp doesn’t “count” for me as social media since it’s a messaging app, there’s no feed or timeline). I pay the most attention to my Insta, YT and Reddit feed.In order to limit distractions, try to follow/subscribe to as few accounts/blogs/subreddits as possible so that your feed isn’t an endless black hole of procrastination and despair. (Note: This doesn’t really work for YT since it gives you suggested videos regardless.) On Insta, I’m following less than 20 accounts, most of them are my friends (as in people I’ve actually spoken with face to face, whether IRL or over video chat) and a few of them are “social celebrities” whose YT channels, blogs or podcasts I follow.I think it’s insane when I tap on my friend’s profile and I see that they’re following hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts. It only leads to an endless newsfeed and it makes it nearly impossible to find the post you saw last. IMO, there’s no way that they actually really like the content being put out by these accounts but I think that the “follow-for-follow” idea is what has people following or subscribed to too many accounts. I keep my account private and I don’t let people follow me unless they are one of my friends. If you do decide to unfollow a bunch of people, maybe you will lose a lot of followers as well. But if that’s the only reason that’s holding you back from unfollowing, I think that fear of losing followers is a sure sign that you care wayyy too much about your online persona.
5. Only log in to social media from a web browser
The best way to prevent rabbit trailing through your Instagram feed, Twitter timeline, or Youtube suggestions is to delete the apps and only log in through a web browser. Ideally, (well, ideally you’d delete your accounts altogether AND if you have more than one Instagram account, barring a distinction between personal and professional use, you should probably only have one) you’d only log in on a computer (which is more of a “hassle” to start up than a smartphone) but I find that I’m just too lazy to log into my accounts on Safari all the time so the “web browser only” rule works well for me. For Youtube specifically, I highly, highly recommend using it only on a computer with a Chrome extension called ImprovedTube. It’s free and it allows me to hide the suggested video sidebar as well as comments so that the only video I see is the one I want to watch. I love this extension and it’s a great tool that keeps me focused only on the information I came to learn from YT and I have no problem closing the tab once I’m done.
6. Delete apps you don’t use
You know that feeling when you don’t know what to do with yourself, maybe you’re in a new environment or you’re stuck somewhere like a long car ride, so when you open your smartphone and in a weird way, you’re actually looking for a distraction or something to do? Instagram doesn’t look very interesting and there’s nothing for you on Youtube right now but you continue swiping, scrolling, and switching apps in an almost desperate attempt to be entertained. You don’t really want to be using your phone right now. Part of you wonders why it’s even on. That feeling I described is called withdrawal.I know this feeling all too well. I think the causes behind this are that first, it’s simply become a habit like nail biting or hair twirling, and second, there is the reward me! part of the brain, which is often talked about in those Ted talks, that is searching for a reward– a Like on this app, a Follow on that app, a message from someone, an intriguing article, hell, even the news, something, anything, to give us that dopamine hit that we’re craving.This kind of goes along with Number 5 but I’ve deleted all my time-sucking apps- Youtube, Instagram, Reddit (I don’t spend time on Pinterest much)- so this helps me not to simply use those apps as a reflex. I also just like the “cleanness” of having fewer apps on my phone. Furthermore, having fewer apps on your phone gives you fewer options to choose from when that withdrawal feeling prompts you to meander about your home screen.
7. Don’t “Multitask”
I must admit, I am so, so, so guilty of this. I’m watching episodes of a show on Prime while I write this post. I guess that makes me a hypocrite. But, just because someone is a hypocrite, doesn’t mean their advice is worthless. If a heroin addict told me not to do drugs, I wouldn’t ignore that advice and start doing heroin because they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about. Hypocrites. Keeping with the drug parallels, we have to remember that using the internet is like a drug in some ways. So, let’s pretend for a hot second that you want to use some certain substances. If there is such a thing as “safe drug usage,” taking LSD, heroin, meth, cocaine, weed and a few shots of Bourbon all at the same time would not be it. And I can attest to the fact that trying to watch TV while doing something else makes doing the “else” more difficult. I noticed that I’m more efficient at getting my thoughts out while the video was paused for half an hour. So when you are using your computer or whatever device, try not to toggle between multiple websites or apps. Focus on one project at a time.
8. Consider deleting social media accounts
I know, I know. Social media- we can’t live with it and we can’t live without it. When I was a HS freshman I deleted my Instagram accounts (yes I had 2; never had FB or Twitter). My use of social media was contributing to my depression, body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and self-harm. It was difficult to let go, yes, but I felt that it was the best decision for me. I spent about 4 years off social media (nearly the entirety of my time in high school actually) and that time away really fostered a better mindset for me where I could begin to build my self-love, esteem, and confidence. You may not want to delete social media entirely and that’s totally ok. But I encourage you to consider it as an option and to think about if it would be the right choice for you, at least for a while.
9. Schedule time for mindless screen use
If you really want to just endlessly browse through your feed, timeline, or video suggestions, try to plan a specific time for you to allow that to happen. Perhaps you decide that you will log in to your accounts once a day at 7:30 pm and until 8:30 you get to browse and scroll and watch as much as you want. Maybe you will do this once a week, maybe for only 30 minutes; it’s totally up to you. This will help you to eliminate the feeling of having to check your accounts or watch that video now since you know that you have a set time to do so. Whatever you think you need to see or watch or read, you can bookmark it and come back to it at your scheduled time.
10. Just turn it off
When all else fails, just turn the damn thing off. I know, I sound like our grandparents. But it’s ok to just turn your phone off once in a while, perhaps even several times a day. Here are a few times when it’s ok to just turn off your phone (even when you don’t have to):
During meals, even when you’re by yourself
At work or school (I shouldn’t even have to say it)
When you’re out shopping
At the gym (try using just an iPod for music or iPod touch + WiFi if you stream)
Now you obviously shouldn’t turn your phone off when you’re expecting an important call. But I think we should all give up the idea that we need to be accessible 24/7. I know for myself, the need to be accessible all the time is due to the fear that comes from “what if.” What if *family member* get in an accident? What if there’s a dangerous criminal on the loose and I need to know? What if such and such happens? This type of thinking is fear based and I for one don’t want to live in fear. Besides, what do you think people did back in the old days when *family member* got in an accident but they were out shopping at the time? They went on with their lives and they learned of the news once they got home and checked their answering machines. If something truly terrible happens, there’s nothing you’d be able to do about it anyway; you can’t change what’s already happened. Maybe the kids will need to call, maybe the boss emailed us wants a response, maybe, maybe, maybe. In the case of family, if someone needs to get a hold of you, you can give the phone number of your work or your gym and let them know when you work or exercise. As a kid, I had my mom’s work number in my phone and I could call them if I needed (usually just wanted) to talk to Mom. If it’s really that important, they’ll find a way to get a hold of you. Besides, when you have a cell phone you don’t need to wait until you get home to check your messages. You can turn your phone back on as soon as you get into your car.
I hope these tips help you in some way. I know this is what works for me and what I am trying to implement in my own life. Please let me know in the comments how these tips work for you!