screentime

Say no to the scroll

Worried about how much time you spend on your phone? Here’s howto cut down on your screentime and reclaim your time and mind.

Most people take their phones with them to the bathroom. Sixty-five per cent, in fact, are guilty of toilet scrolling. There are people who sleep with their smartphones underneath their pillow and, according to a 2021 survey, we stare at our phones for an average of five and a half hours each day. This isn’t just unhygienic and an inordinate waste of time, it’s telling of a growing epidemic of a society addicted to their phones.

Smartphones, and the various apps they hold, are designed to be addictive. Shouty notifications and endless feeds snare your attention for hour-long stints. Addiction isn’t an infrequent side-effect, it’s a feature of the tech industry.

In the much-talked-about Netfl x documentary The Social Dilemma, tech ethicist Tristan Harris explains how the design features of common social media apps, such as continuous feeds and the pulldown refresh element, derive from the gambling industry, devised to keep people hooked and lose track of the passing minutes.

While clearly designed to be addictive, it is the individual (not the industry) that picks up the phone and chooses to engage. Often, the urge to check your phone happens as you experience an unpleasant emotion — a lull in conversation, simple boredom, overwhelm or facing an insurmountable task — so you seek refuge in the online world, looking for a quick boost, distraction or validation, and finding yourself sucked in for half an hour or more.

Even while writing this article, I have felt the pull to reach for my phone for no reason other than it’s there, seemingly winking at me. It’s like a compulsive tic — write a few lines, look at my phone — on repeat (sound familiar?). I am no off -grid guru, but my hope is that by better understanding the harm, I might be more motivated to fight the urge.

There’s a science behind the habit. Dopamine, the brain’s major reward and pleasure neurotransmitter, is triggered at merely the thought of checking your phone. The chemical, often referred to as the “feel-good” hormone doesn’t actually make you “feel good” but motivates you to seek pleasure. It’s what drives us to crack open a tub of ice cream after dinner, and the higher the dopamine release, the more addictive something tends to be. But as soon as a dopamine-inducing activity is finished — a square of chocolate eaten, a notification opened, the end of a television episode — we experience a dopamine dip that makes us crave the next “high”.

This is where your phones snare you into a joy-seeking abyss. In the world of smartphones, there is no real “end”; you don’t run out of gambling funds, bottle shops don’t close, you don’t even need to “load” the next episode — those never-ending social media feeds simply keep going and going and going.

So how can you release the stranglehold tech has on you? For most people, it’s not realistic to live off -grid or even delete the most time-consuming apps. Modern living relies on technology. There are the WhatsApp groups, the banking apps, the maps and payment services. Even our wallets have become redundant. The battle then is attention management, rehabbing your relationship with your phone through healthy boundaries and mindful use.

Know your triggers

The subconscious reaching for your phone often happens when an uncomfortable emotion arises. If you can recognise these feelings in the moment, it’s easier to resist the urge to smother them with screens. Get comfortable with discomfort; not every moment in life is supposed to be easy. We’ve forgotten how to be socially awkward or stuck with a task.

Dopamine-fuelled cravings often pass after a moment or two, so fight the urge to pick up your phone and see if you can navigate a conversation lull or re-engage with a taxing task.

Out of sight, out of mind

Keep your phone well away from your desk or workstation and off your bedside table (or even better, out of your bedroom altogether). If you use your phone as an alarm clock, buy an analogue clock to wake you in the morning.

Turn off alerts and push notifications, set the “Do Not Disturb” mode during the evening and early morning and switch your phone to greyscale. No single one of these things is going to “cure” you of the urge to check your phone, but done together and with other measures, you’ll be better equipped to eliminate mindless scrolling.

Get your news from elsewhere

I often find myself opening my phone with the best intentions — getting news updates — and re-emerging many minutes later, having made my way onto social media or some other time-consuming application.

One way you can avoid these sorts of spirals is by getting your news from curated newsletters or newspaper websites (rather than apps) and logging on only via your computer.

Alternatives to scrolling

First thing in the morning:

Keep your phone out of the bedroom and dedicate the first 30 minutes of your morning to gently setting the tone for the day.
• Have a cup of tea in bed.
• Listen to a podcast.
• Commit to a fi ve-to-10-minute stretch routine each morning.

On your commute:

Commutes are an Achilles heel for scrollers, but reframed as important “you” time before and after the demands of work can help motivate you to use them more productively.
• Learn a new language.
• Leave more time and walk to work, even a portion of walking can boost your energy levels and calm your mind.
• Meditate: you don’t need a quiet, isolated space to mediate, it can and should be done anywhere.

In the evening:

The portion of the day after work should be dedicated to family and relaxation time. The stimulating and isolating qualities of scrolling inhibit both these important life pillars. Utilise your downtime eff actively with activities that help you decompress and bond with loved ones.
• Go on a walk.
• Cook a new recipe.
• Do a puzzle, crossword or Sudoku.
• Play solitaire, a group card game or a board game.
• Plan a mindful movie night with phones stowed away.
• Learn a musical instrument or take up a new class.Craft-based activities such as knitting, pottery and life drawing are enjoying a resurgence, so you’re likely to find a class near you.

Before bed:

It’s no secret that the blue light from your phone inhibits the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. But the stimuli from social media apps also fires up the mind when you need to be winding down.
• Write a journal entry.
• Read a novel.
• Meditate.
• Go to sleep earlier.

Practise being bored

Every spare moment is an opportunity to fall into a smartphone vortex. We might have an endless vault of dopamine at our fingertips, but we’re unhappier than ever. Depression rates have soared in the past 30 years and, according to a World Happiness Report, people in high-income countries have become increasingly unhappy over the past 12 years.

Practise being alone with your thoughts; look up and pay attention to the world going by. Moments of stillness are crucial to maintaining a balanced mind. If you have ever emerged from the Instagram vortex feeling empty and disorientated, you’ve experienced the sapping, destabilising effect of scrolling. If your instinct is to reach for your phone whenever you it a lull in your day, you exist in a state of constant stimulation. This dysregulates the brain, never allowing for pauses or space where the mind can rest or subconsciously problem-solve.

Challenge yourself during a particularly slow movie or a long commute not to pick up your phone. Instead, take a moment to check in on yourself or mull something over that needs your attention. I fi nd carrying a notebook around so I can record important thoughts or tasks to be a helpful way of keeping my mind ordered, without the need for my phone.

Move away from instant gratification

Our phones are homes of convenience, but what we gain in the name of “ease”, we lose in essential character building. Instant gratification powers up our limbic brain, which processes emotions, rather than our pre-frontal cortex, which deals with problem- solving and is often thought of as the “personality centre” of the brain. Say no to convenience more often: walk to the supermarket, pick up your take-away and ask for directions. A little discomfort helps us build important life skills and makes room for crucial social connection.

Article featured in WellBeing 210

Charlie Hale

Charlie Hale

Charlie Hale is an English-born journalist who writes about a plethora of things women care about, from pasta to politics and everything in between.

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