Drug Dealers and IT are the only people who call their customers “users”. – Daniel O’Leary
It is quite impossible to dodge all the foreboding articles lamenting that people nowadays spend too much time on their phones. All this time online is supposedly going to bring our society to ruin, melt our brains, turn us into slaves of evil robots — pick your Armageddon ending. While I do concede that having too much of anything can turn out badly, is all screen time bad though?
Maybe as someone who works in IT, I’m a bit like the fish who can’t see the water. Maybe it’s a bit like being the alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge that she has a drinking problem.
At some level, I think it would be good if I can funnel some of the time I spend scrolling through social media into something else more productive, but herein lies the conundrum for me: I think my online life is very necessary, as an immigrant who lives far, far away from my home and my deeply-rooted relationships. I actually have much to gain by connecting via social media, for my own emotional and mental health.
By the nth podcast I heard bemoaning this generation’s addiction to gadgets, I did something different. I decided to stop ignoring the issue for once, and take time to confront my own preconceptions about my screen time.
Suddenly, my brain was flooded with so many questions, the first being: Do I lose more than I gain from having my phone around all the time?
To answer the question above, I have to first think about: what is it exactly that I gain?
- I get to connect with family and friends despite the distance.
- I can share updates with family, who would like to still be a part of my and my son’s life.
- Online is where I can learn more skills and get insights about topics I’m interested in.
- Of course, still as important: I use my phone to entertain myself and destress.
See? There you go, I told you I had practical reasons. Onto the next question, then: what is it exactly that I lose? And here is where the floodgates opened:
- When I’m facing my screen, I lose face-to-face time with my husband, with my son, and with friends around me.
- People who would otherwise want to start a chat with me would think that maybe I’m too busy to talk, or that I’m not interested at all.
- I lose out on physical exercise.
- I’m starting to buy and want things that are actually unnecessary.
- My screen time habits are rubbing off on my son: when I plop down on the sofa and whip out my phone, he immediately sits next to me and shouts with glee when I launch Tiktok. At many times, he would try to sneak away our phone, and go somewhere to punch the buttons while staring intensely at the screen.
- I find myself now unable to focus on tasks, and that I have a shorter attention span compared to my university days, where I would be still keep my eyes and ears open despite an hour-long calculus lecture from the most boring teacher in the world.
The moment I found myself just furiously writing down my losses, I got my wake-up call. If anything, that last two points are enough reasons to take up serious screen time reforms.
A few seconds passed, and my brain started to panic after this threat of a social media detox: how am I going to socialize now without going online? How did I even do this before the Internet existed? Should I start going over to my neighbors’ and ask if they just wanna hang out? Do people actually do that still? Should I just stay home and resign myself to cross-stitching, like some actual summer vacations of my childhood?
Thank God some other part of my brain clicked, and told my inner chaos monkey to calm the f* down. The teacher’s pet-part of my mind then took charge: now that we’ve done some pre-surveying, it’s time to articulate actual goals based on the data. I now know what I want to get rid off (teaching bad habits to my son, and my inability to focus), as well as what’s important for me to retain (nurturing relationships, learning and de-stressing). I’ve set the following aims:
- Be intentional when using social media: remember that, at the end of the day, I want to use it for nurturing relationships and for learning.
- Gain back mindfulness, which means less brainless scrolling.
- De-stress and entertain myself more often with offline hobbies.
And for these goals, these are my actionable items:
- When I find myself with free time, choose to fill it up with offline hobbies I actually wanted to have time for: reading, writing on an actual notebook, dancing, working out, trying out new recipes, etc.
- If I’m feeling a bit extra, I might as well do chores, too! (uncluttered house = uncluttered mind = better focus)
- As much as possible, use my phone only for calls and messenger apps, to get in touch with loved ones.
- Schedule a time for when to scroll social media. I like to check IG stories to see what my loved ones are up to, so I doubt that I’ll be able to shut out social media altogether, but just limiting the time and being intentional about it is a good first step.
- Delete accounts I’ve followed for a long time, but actually didn’t bring much value to my daily living. In the past, I’ve followed more than a few accounts of strangers, hoping that they give me some inspo to work out/cook/create more, but when I think about it, I usually just scroll past them anyway to move on to posts of people I actually know.
So there you have it, the story of how I went from “OMG, you guys are overreacting,” to “Fine, I’ll look at it,” up to “Here’s my action plan!”. If you, by sheer coincidence, also have the same concerns swimming haplessly around your head, I thought it would be just interesting to share the questions that helped me scrutinize the situation, turning these thoughts from abstract concepts, to actual data, and into actual steps.
I do realize the irony of me having this entire epiphany, only to share it afterwards to the online world. But as I’ve said from the start, I don’t necessary think that all screen time is bad. A lot of times, there is something to gain from choosing to go online than do something else offline. If I could do my part to fill the online world with something useful, hey, I’d give it a shot.