Illustrations by Jenn Kitagawa

5 ways to limit screen time for better IRL connections

From videogames to social media, how do we trade digital distractions for human interactions?

Iremember the exact moment I realized I had a problem. I was in rural Chile, at a spectacularly beautiful hacienda. After dining on roasted lamb and drinking local wines, the small group of friends I was with decided to go for a walk and take advantage of the clear night to do some stargazing. I distinctly recall what went through my mind as we got ready to leave: “Maybe I’ll be able to get better WiFi outside.”

It was a moment that I transformed into a joke at the time. Look at me, struggling to enjoy being IRL! But it wasn’t really that funny. Being online had become like caffeine to me: something I depended on that left me shaky, anxious and distracted if I went too long without.

Canadians are spending an average of more than 24 hours a week online, according to one 2016 study. For those aged 18 to 34, that number increases to 34 hours a week. And British scientists recently concluded that it’s possible to become addicted to social media—experiencing many of the symptoms you’d experience from, say, a gambling or substance addiction.

“We’re definitely seeing an impact on mental health,” says Tammy Whelen, an adult educator in mental health literacy with the Canadian Mental Health Association Peel Dufferin. “It can be an extremely addictive, time-consuming and negative distraction.”

While there are, of course, upsides to being able to communicate with people around the world via social media, platforms like Facebook and Instagram can also inspire feelings of envy and low self-worth, as we invariably compare ourselves to others. “People might find that they’re anxious and overthinking what they’re posting, or they might feel bad about their life when they’re online,” says Whelen.

Social media use has also been linked to depression, in part because it can displace activities essential to our mental and physical well-being, including exercise, relaxation, socialization and sleep. And a study of undergraduate students showed that limiting Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook use to 10 minutes per day, per platform, leads to a sharp decline in loneliness, anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out).

The pull of interactive videogames—often with manipulative in-game purchase options and even gambling features—is troubling, too. Research shows that it’s common for gamers to opt out of everyday interactions and show all the hallmark signs of addiction, including lying to family members, feeling irritable and sad, losing interest in former hobbies, and even sabotaging work, educational or relationship opportunities.  Last year, the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder as a disease.

With the digital world competing for our attention, it’s no surprise that many people struggle to disconnect from their devices and connect with the people around them. Here are some tips to help keep a healthy balance:

Illustration GIF of a do not disturb sign on a door

Pay attention to your habits

It can be hard to keep track of exactly how much time we’re spending in front of a screen. Whelen suggests using an app or notebook to track your time online and—crucially—how you feel while doing it. Are you more anxious when you’re on Facebook or Twitter than you are while reading a book? If yes, make a conscious decision to change your habits.

Fix real-life relationship issues

The world of social media can offer a temporarily gratifying hit of validation, says Whelen. But don’t get too hung up on your relationships in the virtual world versus real-life relationships—it’s so much easier to present your best self online and to engage with people in mutually ego-bolstering ways, without actually having to tackle real-life situations together. If you’re starting to obsess over likes and comments and you notice you’re going online because you can’t or don’t want to deal with the people you live and work with, address that head on, she recommends.

Set household boundaries around device use

Does your teen sit their phone on the dinner table, to avoid missing notifications? Are you scrolling through Instagram while your spouse tells you about their day? Does your kid say a rushed “hi!” to Grandma when she visits, then run back down to the basement to play videogames? Whelen recommends setting boundaries related to screen time with friends, family, colleagues and, most important, yourself. “You have to set expectations and then give yourself permission to stick to them,” she says. “Don’t feel pressured to respond to your phone every time it makes a sound, and power down any work technology when you leave the office.”

Schedule in routine screen breaks

Think about when and how you would like to be present and then commit to leaving your devices behind. Whelen suggests coming up with a personal ritual that has nothing to do with a screen, whether it’s Saturday brunch with your kids or a weekly hike through the woods with your best friend, “to try to move your relationships back offline.” Some people use apps that virtually lock them out of online activity during specified times. Even simpler: Set up a charging dock in a quiet area of your house, where you and other family members can leave your phones for solid windows of time to enjoy offline activities.

Ask for help

If the digital world is having a negative impact on your daily life and you’re struggling to manage it, reach out to an expert for help. The Canadian Mental Health Association Peel Dufferin offers a range of services, as well as referrals. Youthlink supports children and youth in Scarborough and Toronto with counselling for any type of problem. And consulting your family doctor is a good first step to find services that are local to you.

As for me, I’m still working on it. But I have started paying more attention to physical and mental cues, and I’m actively trying to gravitate toward more calming and less anxiety-producing behaviour. When I’m with friends, I keep my phone in my bag, checking it only occasionally to make sure I haven’t missed any urgent calls. And instead of endlessly scrolling through Twitter right before bed, I’ve made the choice to read a book, which brings me greater satisfaction, a sense of relaxation and better sleep. A few little changes can make a big difference and help you feel connected with tangible things and the people around you who matter.

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