Steering Clear of the Screen: 8 tips for cutting back on screen time when it feels as though there’s nothing else to do

Now, more than ever, I feel as though I’m spending way too much time on my phone. I can scroll through Instagram, read COVID-19 news on Twitter, or watch TikToks for hours. These activities seem to have only increased because of the pandemic, and the lack of things to do outside the house. Especially when classes, clubs and social interactions are online, how can we not be staring at a screen for so many hours of the day? 

At least in my personal experience, so much screen time begins to take a toll on my wellbeing. I become trapped in this loop of online activities, inside an inescapable virtual world. On top of this, there’s the pressure to stay present in one’s life. These are our university/college years, and we’re supposed to be having the time of our lives––not stuck inside the online realm of Instagram and the Property Brothers Home Design game (oh, is that just me?). But, how can we even be living to our fullest potential when all of our options are so limited (and obviously, rightfully so)? 

In the past month or so, I’ve been making an effort to cut down on my screen time, on my phone and laptop both. I’ve tried this in the past with little success, but this time I’m attempting some new methods to keep my impulses at bay. Maybe, they’ll even be helpful to you. So, here’s eight ways I’ve been attempting to avoid the screen and make the most of right now. 

1. Realize the problem and challenge yourself to fix it 

To even begin your journey of battling the screen, you must consciously make a decision to do so. Honestly, you might not even recognize a real issue with your screen time habits (and hey, maybe you don’t even have one). What really flicked the switch for me was watching the documentary, The Social Dilemma, on Netflix. I highly recommend it if you’re interested in the impacts of online social networking. This moment of enlightenment, I find, is important to have before making any kind of commitment. It’s essential to acknowledge any problems in your habits and behaviour, in order to actively repair them. Once you’ve identified an issue and made a personal pact to resolve it, challenge yourself to complete your mission. Keep accountable and conscious of your activity, and don’t let yourself off the hook. Remember the bigger picture here––you’ve got this. 

2. Fix your Phone

To make any real progress, you need to target the source of it all––which in this case, is probably your phone and its plentiful apps. The good news is that your phone likely provides helpful ways to limit your screen time. For one, you can schedule “Downtime” for any period each day, where certain apps (or all of them) are unavailable for use. The apps appear darkened with a small hourglass symbol, as you are blocked off from entering. This app block may also be applied to categories of apps, for example, social networking apps. You may set a time limit on each group/individual for the day, to cut yourself off if you’ve been on them excessively. When you’ve reached the allocated amount of time, the app will be locked off for the rest of the day.

Another limit your phone can impose is on notifications. Reducing the number of notifications you get, or from which apps, may relieve you of the impulse to obsessively check your phone and check into apps. This is a feature I’ve definitely appreciated, as each time I even get a notification from a random app, I’m tempted to check my phone. Removing any urges like these makes the challenge a bit easier.

Another way to change your device itself, is to change its appearance. Shifting your display to grayscale makes it appear only in black and white shades. The colours used by apps, notifications and more, are tricky in the way they draw us in and engage us. By eliminating colour, your phone becomes a lot less appealing to look at, and thus, easier to avoid.

3. Delete certain apps (or social media altogether)

Besides fixing your device itself, it may help to delete certain apps that are particularly “dangerous” to use. If you find that you keep coming back to one particular app to spend your time––and not in an especially productive way––then that might be a sign it needs to go. I, for one, decided to delete TikTok. This was a dangerous app for me, so I chose to rip off the bandage and take away the temptation altogether. Going cold turkey is a bit difficult, though I think if you do believe you have an issue, it’s a great route to take. Honestly, you may find that the app is not as important nor fulfilling to your time as you thought it was.

4. Or, add an app (like Flora) 

Flora is a great app that I discovered a few years ago. You might have heard of it––the app allows you to challenge yourself and others to stay off the screen. If you succeed in your task, you grow a cute little tree to add to your garden. Flora lets you pick a set amount of time, then begins counting down while blocking you from exiting the app while your phone is unlocked. If you do try to, it shouts at you that your tree is dying, and that you will kill it if you don’t return to the app. If that isn’t some good convincing, I don’t know what is. Even better, challenging your friends and comparing your tree gardens and activities (visible in a timeline on the app’s main screen) is also kind of fun. 

5. Throw it out

Just kidding––you don’t actually have to throw your phone out, but you definitely don’t have to carry it around with you like it’s your baby. I know I personally take my phone with me wherever I go. To the bathroom, to cook, to walk to the mailbox. Do I really need my phone in any of those places? No––but it’s kind of a habit, at this point. It’s comforting to have your phone on you at all times, but also, kind of stressful, as it shouts at you with notifications and messages. Gradually cutting your phone out of some aspects of your routine may help you wean off of any dependence you may have on it. This may entail eating breakfast, going for a walk, or any other smaller tasks and events, without it. I challenge you to try this––you might end up enjoying your time, alone with your thoughts, more than you think (or, maybe not at all, haha). 

6. Pick up some hobbies 

In avoiding your phone, you’ll need something to do instead. I know that as kids, we all used to do a ton of fun stuff in our free time. Playing at the park, colouring, science experiments––you name it. Although I still have hobbies today, I find myself dedicating less and less time to them, especially when I’m busy with school. But, if you have time to scroll through Instagram for a while, you have time to do another brief activity. 

To fill the void of my screen, I’ve attempted to renew some of my old favourite activities and pick up some new ones. A couple of my favourites are playing my ukulele and trying my hand at embroidery. I’ve also started to get back into reading books, starting with Stephanie Meyer’s Midnight Sun (...ironically, of course…). If you need more of a push to begin reading again, like myself, I suggest choosing an engaging book, and even carrying it around with you wherever you go, in place of your phone (Rory Gilmore style). Another fun activity that I love to do in the winter is knitting––perhaps you could even try creating that famous Harry Styles sweater. Another obvious option to fill your time is going for walks and other physical activity, something that always re-energizes me. Choose something that makes you happy, and distracts you from the temptation to turn on your phone––trust me, you might even enjoy yourself more than you would on TikTok. 

7. Up your social interactions, offline.

I definitely rely on my phone for the majority of my daily social interactions, speaking to family, friends and classmates. This dependence has only been heightened by social limitations as a result of the pandemic. Instead of Snapchatting, texting or DMing your friends as a sole method of contact, I recommend upping your off-screen social interactions (if possible). Instead of online chatting, talk on the phone (or even video call) with family and friends. Spend more time hanging out with your roommates, phone-less, if you enjoy each other’s company. Take physically distanced walks or hangouts with other friends, assuming it’s not too cold outside. I often find that more face-to-face interactions, unmediated by a screen, feel more fulfilling. Satisfying the human need for social interaction will likely make you feel a bit better––I know it does for me, when I’m not in the best state of mind. 

8. Involve your Friends

Lastly, tell others about your goals, and challenge them to do the same. I know it’s extremely difficult to avoid my screen with my friends sending me TikToks constantly. By setting some boundaries, or even involving them in your challenge, it’s much easier to avoid temptation. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to pick up hobbies with your friends, take more walks with them, and make a competition out of the experience, seeing who can spend less time on their screens. 

So, there you have it. I hope you join me in my battle against screen time, with the help of these several tips. The challenge to beat the screen is by no means an easy one, and it’s okay to slip up sometimes. There’s no need to go cold turkey––push yourself, gradually, to break old habits and create healthy new ones. I believe in you!

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