Too much of a good thing

So, what is the problem with spending too much time on our screens? After all, screens are part of modern living; the Internet, and all the ways we access it (especially our Smartphones), have become seemingly indispensable. We all know there are many amazing things we can do with our devices using the Internet. No one would argue this; however, what also seems clear is that many of us spend so much time on our devices that we lose track of time – often to the exclusion of other important aspects of our lives, such as sleep, health, social relationships, school, and work.

Our brains make us do it

The problem with our screens is that they are powerful mood-altering devices that have the ability to help us lose track of time and ourselves along the way. They do this in the guise of stimulating and entertaining content – ok, sometimes not so stimulating, but compelling, nonetheless. All this boils down to an inherently addictive experience that even the best of us have trouble managing effectively. Our screens seem to highjack us (and our brains) on a journey with the mood-elevating, pleasure neurochemical dopamine. This very old part of our brain, called the limbic system, has been in animals and humans for thousands of years and is programed as part of our evolutionary biological survival system.

The world’s biggest slot machine

No one realized, until after the Internet started to become popular, that it was stimulating the same area of the brain that drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and food do, and we tend to repeat pleasurable behaviors, even in the face of negative consequences and problems in our lives. This is especially true with screen use as the Internet is essentially the world’s largest slot machine, providing us with intermittent reinforcement in the form of desirable content that is unpredictable in terms of what, when, and how much we will get — just like a slot machine. Our brains are hard-wired to respond to such variable reinforcement with a habitual pattern or addicted response. The other challenge here is that often we are not aware of the subtle changes taking place in our lives until things have gotten out of hand.

What we have is a form of entertainment that is always available and easily-accessible (our Smartphones rarely leave our pockets or purses); it’s very stimulating and addictive, while also creating a time-distorting experience. We discovered in our research back in the late 90’s that we are terrible at monitoring what we are doing online or how much time we are spending doing it.

There’s no going back, so let’s go forward

So, what can we do? We cannot turn back the clock and stop using our screens. The Internet and Smartphones are here to stay, so we need to develop a different attitude and relationship with our screens. We must become more mindful and conscious when we are choosing to use our tech and screens. We must use tools to help us monitor and block the most problematic content . The first step is to reverse engineer to determine what digital content and apps we use and how much time we spend on them; sure, they are purported to be useful (or fun) and give us something great, but not without a cost, which is our time and attention. Time is the only commodity that we cannot get more of.

So, before you download that new app, visit that new site, or endlessly scan your social media channels, think about what time it costs you and how that fits into your overall goals for living a balanced life. Our unexamined and automatic screen use eats our time and attention and ultimately leaves us only leftover time for perhaps some of the most important aspects of our lives. There is no app for living, and most real-time living is not done with our screens. The goal here is to build your Smartphone use around your life, not the other way around.

There are apps and programs that are great tools to help us block, monitor, and filter our use when we can’t do it on our own; I often recommend these apps because digital content makers know how to keep you engaged and how to manipulate your senses and to keep you a digital captive and they might be particularly useful for those apps that you just can’t stay away from and that are eating up too much of your time and attention. I have found the following apps/programs, such as: Circle, Qustodio, Kaspersky, and Norton, to be of great help in keeping us, or our loved-ones, conscious when we are being lured by ever-stimulating screen time. For example, tools like Circle Home Plus, which is designed to bring balance to the modern-day connected family, allows parents to set limits, block content, and keep track of their children’s online habits across all devices – both in and out of the home.

The reality is all of us could do with a whole lot less time on our screens. The Internet, and all the devices we consume it on, were always meant to be dessert not the main course of our lives — and the nutritional part of life will never be found on a screen.