Four Ways to Hack Your Screen Addiction

Here’s how to have a healthy and mindful relationship with media so you can stay informed, engaged, and feeling good.

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I got my first email address in college in the nineties and had to log into a black and green Unix network on a clunky laptop in order to access it.

Flash forward more than twenty years and now I feel utterly naked without my smartphone and daily, if mildly annoying, notifications from family, friends, and the small collection of apps I have an oddly intimate relationship with.

As a psychologist, I’m all too aware of the emerging and sobering body of psychological literature showing the serious and quantifiable emotional downsides to all this screen time, video gaming, Netflix-bingeing, and social media scrolling. When I read that higher levels of self-reported unhappiness and depressive symptoms are not merely correlated with more hours in front of the screen but are actually caused by more time in front of a screen it gives me pause.  

When does our enthusiasm for convenience, entertainment, and distraction become too much?

It’s not just unhappy, lonely people who use social media more — more social media use actually causes us to feel crappier about ourselves.

A report this year from the Pew Research Center found that a quarter (26%) of US adults are online ‘almost constantly.’ Interestingly, the number goes up when you look at what kind of device people are using. Among mobile phone users 89% go online daily and 31% go online almost constantly, compared to non-mobile users where 54% go online daily and just 5% say they go online almost constantly.

Clearly, our phones have ahold of us. So, what can we do to loosen their grip and create healthier mobile habits?

Here are four ways you can have a healthy and mindful relationship with media to keep you informed, engaged, and — most importantly — feeling good.

4 Ways to Cultivate a Mindful Relationship with Your Screens

1) Beware of “Compare and Despair”

Hours of social media use, according to Dr. Jean Twenge, is correlated with higher levels of self-reported loneliness and unhappiness. And, research indicates that this relationship between screen time and dysphoria is not merely correlational but causal. A 2014 experimental study found that scrolling feeds of people we think are better off than us significantly decreases our self-esteem—We call this the “compare and despair” experience. Importantly, experiments like this demonstrate that it’s not just unhappy, lonely people who use social media more—more social media use actually causes us to feel crappier about ourselves. The next time you’re scrolling, take time to pause and examine how you’re really feeling.

2) Turn your smartphone into an ally.

Your phones were created with tools to hook you and distract you, but you can hack them so they help you log-on less. First, turn off your push notifications. Cal Newport, Ph.D. suggests after one of these seemingly harmless little diversions, it takes an average of 20 minutes to return to your previous level of deep, productive focus. Second, when you do need to take a break or pull up from deep work, make sure it is a deliberate one. Set an alarm to go off after a certain amount of work time and include a customized prompt to yourself to pause, breathe, stretch, go for a walk, feel gratitude—something that allows you to be intentional with your time, your health, and your focus.

3) Purchase some print.

Get your news through print media: newspapers and magazines, not the Internet. You’re far more likely to get emotionally derailed by the single-issue, un-fact-checked, extreme tirades that are frequently found online — especially as Facebook continues to run into problems expanding its fact-checking efforts. With print, you get a thoughtful editorial board rather than an algorithm selecting your news feed, so you can expand your perspective rather than just reading things that confirm it. According to Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., widening the scope of our perception and understanding supports our well-being and fosters positive emotions. Your morning paper with coffee could become a treasured ritual again.

4) Walk in the Woods.

Combining sedentary behavior with lots of screen time is a recipe for depression, anxiety, and poor sleep. While study after study comes to that same conclusion, and we hear more about how addictive our phones really are, it’s important to remember that the solution is simpler than we think: Go outside. Put your phone in your pocket, resist the urge to document your walk (don’t tweet it, Facebook it, or Instagram it), and just find a bit of nature to walk around in. The researchers looking into the emotional and health benefits of walking in the woods call it “forest bathing.” Sounds nice, right?