We are living in an age where our screens are becoming so ingrained in our lives that glancing at, them refreshing them, staring at them is becoming as much second nature as breathing. I am a blogger, an instagrammer and a huge fan of mobile digital technology, so I know and love the many benefits that can be reaped through screen time.
There is also no denying that all this screen time isn’t good for us. In fact, without us even realising it, those little bright panes of glass, with so much magic inside them, are doing some funny, unhealthy things to our brains.
When we continue to stare and scroll and like way past our bedtimes, the blue light from our phones tricks our brains into thinking we should still be awake. And no, switching to night mode does not stop this. It is the kind of light that our phones and laptop screens emit that affects our brains and switching to a different mode doesn’t change the type of light, it simply makes it duller and warmer. By allowing our screen time to intrude into our sleep time, we are putting ourselves in an unhealthy position, because even after we eventually put the phone down or the laptop away and lie down to sleep, our brains are still high on that blasted blue light. It’s a bit like taking in caffeine through our eyeballs. Even when the lights are off that hit is still buzzing round our brains. Even when we eventually fall asleep it is still having an impact: our sleep is more likely to be disturbed and we’re less likely to fall into the deep sleep our bodies need to fully recharge.
And then our alarm (on our phone) goes off and, instead of getting out of bed, we start scrolling once more.
It really is a vicious cycle.
And then there are other added effects of all that screen time: our brains become increasingly wired which greatly increases the likelihood of anxious thought patterns; we get easily caught up in comparison games looking at everyone’s perfect social media lives which can make us feel low and worthless; we become obsessive about checking our phones, responding to notifications, watching the numbers of likes, followers, comments and these insignificant numbers start to intrude and dominate our thoughts. In short, for all its merits, screen time can be really damaging for our mental health and if we want to keep ourselves mentally healthy, we’ve got to learn to cut back.
I know, I know…the irony: writing a blog post about reducing screen time when – unless you’ve managed to get someone to print this off for you – you are undoubtedly reading these words on a screen. Well, you know the old adage “If you can’t beat them, join them“? I’m going to go one further and say sometimes you have to join them to beat them. So I’m using your terrible compulsion to keep checking that screen to tell you to turn it off!
It can be a little disorienting. It might sound silly but I really think that we have become so attached to our screens that when we spend time away from them we feel a bit lost. A few months ago, when I ran out of data on my phone, to begin with, I didn’t know what to do with myself when I was out and about. I had become so used to checking it all the time: scrolling through Instagram, posting to Twitter, reading my favourite blogs, Googling where was good for coffee and cake. But after a day or two, it suddenly felt very freeing. I was a bit more present in the world. I was paying more attention to things and I saw simple, lovely moments that I know I would have otherwise missed: a child waving manically at a passing train with a grin so huge I thought her little rosy face would split in two; an excitable puppy running in circles for no apparent reason; a beautiful sky as the sun set under rain clouds. They sound like such insignificant things but there was a true joy in them. And a big part of that joy came from the fact that they were happening right in front of me. I wasn’t seeing someone’s filtered, carefully angled photo of the sky. I was there, underneath it. It was panoramic rather than shrunk to a square box. I wasn’t watching a YouTube video of someone’s child or dog. They were there in front of me. Living and breathing and bursting with joy and energy. Not shrunk down to tiny figures on my tiny screen. It really was refreshing.
There are still a good few posts left in my 24-posts-in-24-hours blogathon, but I am telling you to turn off your phones, shut down your laptops, step away from your screens. The rest of the posts will still be here tomorrow. As will the rest of the internet. So right now, switch off. And if you’re not sure what to do with yourself, here are a few suggestions:
- Go for a walk.
- Light some candles and listen to some music.
- Write something with a pen and paper.
- Cook something from scratch.
- Write a letter to someone you care about.
- Go and visit a friend or neighbour.
- Go and have coffee/brunch/dinner somewhere nearby that you’ve never tried but like the look of – do NOT look up any reviews first.
- Take a nap.
- Read a book, magazine or newspaper.
- Sit outside and people watch.
- Tidy out your wardrobe/desk/bedside table/medicine cabinet and feel a sense of accomplishment in creating order in a small space.
- Talk to someone. Face to face. Talk about something daft and insignificant. Talk about the meaning of life. Just talk.
Try and start building some off-screen time into every day (especially right before you go to bed). If you really struggle to stay away from that screen, try an app like Forest, which is designed to help you reduce your screen time and focus on other things for a set amount of time. Trust me, you will feel the benefit.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health then please don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to someone. You are not alone and help is available. By opening up and starting the conversation we can move forward together and look to a mentally healthy future. Below are links to a range of fantastic organisations that can provide information, advice and services.
The Samaritans: http://www.samaritans.org
Young Minds: http://www.youngminds.org.uk
Papyrus (prevention of young suicide): https://www.papyrus-uk.org
Self Harm UK: https://www.selfharm.co.uk
Time to Change: http://www.time-to-change.org.uk
Rethink Mental Illness: http://www.rethink.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://www.afsp.org
Please do not struggle alone.