Mental Challenges

How to Master Tech/Life Balance During This (Seemingly Unending) Time at Home

Devorah Lev-Tov

Photo: Getty/Capuski
As we near the (gasp) one-year anniversary of the pandemic, working, learning, and socializing has largely been happening over the Internet for a sustained period of time. That, along with the recent political turmoil and social justice protests over the summer that boosted social media usage for many, has combined into a dramatic increase of screen time and technology usage. (One survey showed an increase of 500 percent on screen time for children and another survey of adults reported an increase of four to more than six hours per day.)

We know that screen time and digital technology usage—whether via your phone, computer, television, or other device—can affect people in various negative ways, from contributing to physical issues with eyesight, reduced mobility, and sleep disruption to emotional issues like negatively impacting our self-awareness and self-esteem, and exacerbating those with existing vulnerabilities to depression and anxiety.

“Technology can seriously disrupt our ability to focus and pay sustained attention,” says psychologist, parenting coach, and digital wellness consultant Teodora Pavkovic. (She points to research from the University of California at Irvine showing that it takes us just over 23 minutes to get back to a task after we have been distracted and a 2017 University of Texas study that found that the mere presence of a smartphone reduces cognitive ability.)

What exactly happens to our brain when we use digital technology? Pavkovic says it depends on the precise technology being used, as well as someone’s age and their physical and mental health, but we do know that exposing a child to technology after keeping it to a minimum will cause their brain to “behave” in a different way. And in terms of affecting our mood and attitude, recent world events have unfortunately given researchers an opportunity to further study social media’s emotional affect.

“The potential is certainly there for social media to have an incredibly negative impact on us—both because of its content and how it has been designed to function,” says Pavkovic. “By ‘designed to function,’ I mean design elements such as the infinite scroll that makes it impossible to know where social media ‘ends,’ as well as the fact that we can see how many views and followers other people have.”

According to Pavkovic, some of the benefits from reduced time on digital technology include feeling calmer, more connected to yourself and to nature, and greater mental clarity.

But as we’re forced to rely on digital technology now more than ever, what can we do to mitigate its negative effects?

Liana Pavane has been concerned with digital usage since well before the pandemic started. She grew up in what she describes as an anti-tech household, with limitations on television and video games, but as she got older she began to rely on her smartphone just like everyone else around her.

“I started to notice a shift in myself, and how I always had this shiny thing in my pocket and had all the notifications and buzzing and likes,” she recalls. “Instagram was just becoming a thing when I was in college, and once when I was on vacation with my family and I was having FOMO for my friends back home. I stepped back and thought, ‘This is crazy, I’m in this beautiful country, I need to be enjoying it and living in the moment.’”

She began to feel nostalgic for childhood play, when she was encouraged to use her imagination and be creative. So Pavane, who had studied directing and playwriting in college, decided to find a way to encourage others to live in the moment and detach from their phones, if just for a little while.

In 2018 she launched TTYL and in 2019 she began holding happy hour events where people would voluntarily surrender their phones and interact with each other through activities like coloring, board games, playing with Play-Doh, and getting tarot card readings. She soon expanded into more curated events, like ones that focused on wellness or sex and relationships. At the door of each event, patrons would check their phone at the door for the duration, encouraging them to interact and be present.

“We are always looking for the better thing, and oftentimes, we feel like it’s in our pockets,” says Pavane. “We’re always being pinged and pulled in different directions, rather than living in the moment. So by taking away that pull, it gives you the opportunity to connect in the now and talk to the people around you.”

In 2020, Pavane got her life coaching certification and is specializing in digital wellness coaching. So when in-person events came to an end last March, Pavane found herself—like the rest of us—needing to turn to technology in order to help her clients…avoid technology.

As with most things in life, balance is key. So while we’re all forced to rely on digital technology more than usual, there are some ways to lessen our intake and make sure we don’t overdo it.

Here are some of Pavane’s top tips for how to master a tech/life balance and achieve digital wellness.

1. Create morning and evening routines

Since you must rely on technology for so much of your day, Pavane suggests creating specific routines and environments when you wake up and before bed to set the tone. “Set up your night for success by putting your phone, computer, and TV away, because blue light does keep us awake at night,” says Pavane, who doesn’t bring any tech into her bedroom. She suggests replacing scrolling on your phone before bed with an analog activity, like reading a book or writing in a journal, and turning off overhead lights. In the morning, try to avoid using your phone for as long as possible. “Once you scroll first thing in the morning, the day is really shot and you’re going to be pulled in that direction the whole day,” she says. Instead, replace scrolling time with yoga, stretching, or other exercise.

2. Take screen breaks

While taking breaks might be an obvious tip, some people struggle with what to do on their break, maybe even turning to social media on their phone as a pause from Zoom meetings—which, as you can guess, isn’t quite the digital break your body needs. If you’re able to be away from your screen, take a walk around the block or longer, or read a book or magazine for a few minutes. “I love having a puzzle out so I can just go and put some pieces together for 10 to 15 minutes and then go back to work,” says Pavane.

3. Look out the window

When you can’t take a full break, Pavane recommends looking out your window several times a day—even if it’s just for 20 seconds. And if you don’t have a window, simply removing your eyes from the screen several times a day and looking at something at a distance (like a wall on the other side of the room) for a brief period can let your eyes rest.

4. Do tech-neck stretches

Our neck and shoulders get hunched over from looking down at our phones and hunching over our keyboard, says Pavane, causing tightness in our neck, shoulders, and back. In order to realign and recover from so-called tech-neck, yoga stretches like downward dog, cat cow, lion’s breath, or even just stretching your arms out horizontally in front of you can help.

5. Give your phone a rest

Even when you must work on your computer, having some analog downtime, or eating a meal, you might find yourself distracted by another piece of technology: your smartphone. The easiest way to avoid looking at your phone is to put it away, or at least have it face down so you don’t see notifications. There are also things like cell phone sleeping bags to put your phone in so you don’t see it, and have to be more active in accessing it. “It adds time to the action, so that you can ask yourself if this is really what you want to be doing,” says Pavane, who also recommends simply putting your phone in a drawer.

6. Limit apps and try out Brick Mode

While some of us might not be ready to give up on social media entirely, there are ways to decrease your usage. A good first step is to solidify the computer as your workspace by removing texting capabilities and blocking websites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, says Pavane. Next, turn off notifications for all or most of your apps, especially social media ones. (Do you really need to know the second you get a “Like” on Instagram?) Take it a step further by scheduling certain apps to close out after a certain amount of time (you can do this in your phone’s settings).

Finally, there’s Brick Mode, which, like Do Not Disturb, automatically sends a text reply to any messages you get letting people know you’re taking a break from your phone for a while. But don’t feel like you have to go all in immediately. Pavane suggests taking baby steps instead of trying to go cold turkey—if you typically spend five hours a day on social media, cutting back to 30 minutes probably isn’t realistic right away.

7. Buy an alarm clock

One of the biggest reasons people have their phone near their bed is for the alarm clock. Pavane has a simple solution for this: buy a separate alarm clock. “I just got a Loftie, a new company that designed an alarm clock to wake you up with soothing sounds. It also has sound meditations and breath work pre-recorded. It’s basically an alarm clock and wellness tool in one,” she says.

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