Reducing Screen Time

Nearly a decade ago, my firm purchased a smartphone for me and so began my brush with screen addiction. The phone was great because I could correspond with clients instantaneously and had a mini-computer with me at all times. Soon, I was checking my phone all the time: I would wake up in the morning to check my emails, I would drive while typing out text messages; and I would even check my phone in the middle of the night.

Over time, the technology became easier, faster and more interesting. I was not present in my relationships and my friends and family started joking about my “crackberry”. I would justify my habit by saying “I am working” but I was also wasting time on the internet, social media and playing games at the expense of my personal relationships. What I did not realize was that my family and friend were right; I was experiencing an addictive behaviour.

Every time, I checked my phone, my brain would get a hit of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, learning and memory. It interacts with another neurotransmitter called glutamate which is associated with reward based learning. At a very basic level, these two neurotransmitters cause the brain to associate the pleasure with the activity and seek out the source of pleasure. Evolutionarily this works well for humans when looking for water in the desert but not so great when you end up binge watching Netflix.

I was also using the phone to cope with my stress which in turn was causing more stress because I was plugged into work 24/7. I was in constant fight or flight mode and I gave my brain no time or space to relax. My ability to effectively communicate and think analytically was diminished even though I was not aware of it. When I started to realize my relationships were suffering and I was anxious all the time, I severely cut down on my technology use. Although I have been known to “slip” occasionally, I no longer check my emails or texts during the middle of the night and can put my phone away without feeling anxious.

The following five suggestions helped me to reduce my screen time:

1. Turn off the Beeps and Notifications. Beeps and notifications make you want to check your phone. You are momentarily distracted with the person you are connecting with, the work you are doing or the vehicle you are driving. Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair author of The Big Disconnect explains the “many moments of disruption” that interrupt our conversations or interactions such as the sound of a “ping!” have a profound effect on our relationships. We abandon people in conversation and do not connect with as much depth and openness. Turning off your notifications allows you to give your full attention to what you are doing and be present with the person you are connecting with.

2. Screen Free Times. In her book, Dr. Steiner-Adair suggests that families negotiate screen free times. Some of her examples of screen free times are while driving and during meal times. Her suggestions make a lot of sense for safety reasons and relationship reasons. One of the most important times we connect with another person is over a meal or coffee break. Put your phones away or put them on silent when you are in conversation with another person. Resist the urge to go on the internet to search for something you want to know or replying to a text that just came in. You may get waylaid by something you find interesting and spend more time on your smartphone than you anticipated.

3. Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. A study by Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, found that blue light from computers, tablets and even e-readers can adversely affect sleep patterns, reduce melatonin secretion and reduce next-morning alertness. Researchers suggest that going to bed with printed material like a book or magazine is far better for your health. These findings are important in light of research suggesting that most people do not get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to poor interpersonal communication and decision-making. Some studies suggest powering down any screen two hours before bed. I struggle with the two hour suggestion but try to make it a habit to have at least thirty minutes screen free time before sleeping.

4. Spend Less Time on Games. Gaming is fun and has even been shown to have some health benefits. However, if you are spending excessive amounts of time on the game and not dealing with your life, work and relationships it becomes a problem. Brain scans done on chronic gaming/internet users resemble the brains of drug addicts. They show decreased grey matter in the prefrontal cortex where executive functioning such as organizing, planning, prioritizing and impulse control occurs. Try to cut down on your video game use and you may have to delete the game to control your behaviour.

5. Monitor your Use. There are many devices like fitness monitors that track your health goals by providing biofeedback. It makes sense to have an application that provides feedback on your screen time. Fortunately, there are apps like MOMENT that set daily limits for smartphone use. It sends notifications when you go over the limit and can even force you off the device when you have exceeded limits. The makers of the application have recently created MOMENT FAMILY which tracks your family’s use of computer, phone and tablets and helps set up screen free times.

If you are having trouble reducing screen use or experiencing any behaviour you think is addictive call the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia.*If you would like to speak to LAPBC counsellor on a strictly confidential basis, contact us at 604-685-2171, or 1-888-685-2171, or