Habitually reaching into our purses or pockets to check our messages, staying up through the wee hours of the morning scrolling on social media, hearing phantom phone vibrations—these are all sure signs of a screen addiction.
Like most people in the world these days, I have struggled with controlling my use of screens and technology. But over the past couple of years, I have made a concerted effort to get screen addiction under control. After some trial and error and inevitable relapse, I came up with a three-step process to break my screen addiction.
Before we get to the three steps, however, we need to decide on at least three “replacement activities” we can engage in instead of being on the phone. Generally speaking, we all have things we’d rather be doing than scrolling on our phones. Make a list of these things. Pick some old familiar ones as well as a couple of completely new ones. For example, when I delved into this process, I immediately chose classical drawing and reading, as they have been longtime interests of mine. I also chose to list cooking and crocheting, which are activities I could do while caring for my two toddler sons.
The other thing to consider is how much screen time we reasonably need. As much as I sometimes want to throw my smartphone out the window, I do need it to keep in contact with family members as well as for work tasks. To sort out screen addiction from necessary phone use, I simply estimated the time I needed to check work emails and answer important family texts. Then I scheduled this half-hour of time into my day and stuck to it. But don’t worry too much if the time limit shifts a bit at the beginning—sometimes a bit of trial and error is required.
Now we can move on to the three basic steps to breaking a screen addiction:
1. Dumb down your smartphone. Let’s begin by taking as many apps and notifications off our phones as we can. Uninstall everything possible, especially those apps that are favorites to scroll on.
This is when I personally chose to delete my social media accounts. It took some extra digging to figure out how to delete them because most such sites would rather put us on “pause” than let us leave entirely.
This is also the opportune time to turn our phone on “silent,” mute notifications, set timers on the remaining apps, arrange sleep mode options, and add a grayscale screen. All of these little tweaks will “dumb down” our smartphone, making them less tempting to pick up. If we don’t have all the apps notifying us to click and scroll, we will quickly start putting the phone back down after inadvertently picking it up.
2. Hide your phone. By this I mean, embrace the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality. We rarely reach for things we can’t see, so the next step is to put our phones somewhere where we can’t see them. Why? Because even with our newly dumbed-down phones, we may find ourselves picking it up for no reason or “just in case someone texted.”
This can be a tough reality check. I found myself picking up my phone every forty-five minutes! Once I “hid” my phone by putting it in my dresser drawer, I stopped reaching for it because it wasn’t nearby anymore.
We can’t pick it up if we can’t see it or reach it. So we can put our phones in a different room or shut away in a drawer.
I have even heard of spouses carrying each other’s phones in their pockets so neither spouse can pull out a phone on a whim. The point is to get it out of our daily spaces. (This can work for addictions to video games, television, iPads, and other screens, as well.)
3. Replace screen time with other activities. Let’s take a look around our physical spaces. Where did we set our phones before they were hidden away? When I put my phone out of sight, I suddenly noticed my nightstand was empty, the kitchen table was clear, and my desk was screenless. We often put our phone on couches, counters, windowsills, or in our pockets. These spaces will now hold our replacement activities on our list from above.
It’s very simple: We put one of our new activities where we used to put our phones. For example, I put my library books on the nightstand, my crocheting on the kitchen table, and my sketchbook on my desk. Then, when I absentmindedly reach for my phone, I immediately am reminded of one of the things I actually wanted to do instead.
This simple environmental change has been powerful. It not only subtly reminded me how often I reached for my phone but also pushed me to pursue my real interests. Even five minutes previously wasted scrolling can instead be spent on something I love doing!
One final thing to consider is documenting our experiences breaking screen addiction. When we record our progress and look back on it, we will be amazed at how our lives change. I took the time to journal my experience, making a note at the end of every day to see how I felt and what I had done. The first few days I found myself getting antsy and wanting to scroll on my phone. But that soon passed, and it was as if a light came back on to illuminate my real life. I didn’t realize I had felt so hurried, distracted, and irritable when I had unlimited screen time. Now, I feel peaceful and relaxed. My focus is better, my mind clearer, and my attitude better. My relationships with my family and friends have even improved. On top of that, I now have the time to pursue my other interests.
Those journal entries helped show me that screen addiction is insidious. It sneaks up on us. But clearly, it can be beat! Life is waiting to be fully lived and fully embraced if we just put away our phones.
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