5 Ways Adults Can Cut Back on Too Much Screen Time

If you’re overdoing it on devices during the pandemic, here’s how to reduce your use.

woman on cell phone

Medically reviewed in April 2022

Updated on June 3, 2020

If you’re like many Americans, there’s an excellent chance your screen time went up at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. And odds are, you were pretty happy about it.

Our laptops, tablets and phones didn’t just give us the news, they helped us get out of the house for a little while, if only virtually. They let us take online classes, tour museums, see Broadway shows—things we wished we could do in person, but couldn’t in order to keep others safe.

“In the beginning, there was this incredible gratitude for the technology,” says Nancy Collier, LCSW, Rev., a psychotherapist and author of The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World. But, she says, “we quickly ended up using it to distract and sedate ourselves.”

That can be a problem, because research has shown that too much screen time may not be good for your health. Among other problems, it can lead to eye strain, headaches, back pain, insomnia and even social media addiction. Staring at screens can also contribute to a more sedentary lifestyle, worse eating habits—like mindless snacking—and eventually, obesity.

“Imagine eating candy bars,” suggests Michael P. Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Pennsylvania. “At a certain point, you’d recognize that you’ve had enough candy bars. In so many ways, this is the same. We need a balance of things in our lives.”

When it’s time to take a break from devices, try these simple tips to curb your hours spent.

Make screens less attractive
You may be able to reduce your screen time by making enticing features harder to reach, says Collier. For example, she suggests re-organizing your smartphone or tablet, hiding addictive games or social media apps in folders so they’re not just a single click away. If that’s not enough, apps and programs like Freedom and Cold Turkey can block your internet access or cut you off after a certain period of time.

And if all else fails? Delete the biggest time-suckers. Candy Crush will still be there if you find you need it tomorrow.

Schedule breaks
Take time to physically separate yourself from your screens, suggests Hayes, especially if you’re zoning out more now that you’re working from home. He sets appointments for himself “to pause to get up and move outside and get some fresh air.”

If you can’t get outside, Collier recommends taking 15-minute breaks to sit and listen to music or to call a friend—anything that interrupts your attention from the glow of your device.

Give yourself something else to do
“Technology starts to fragment our sense of self,” says Collier, which is why too much screen time is associated with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Taking time for tactile activities can give you a respite.

That’s a big part of why jigsaw puzzles are having moment: They physically engage and distract you without the use of a screen. Other activities Collier suggests: playing cards (with real, paper/plastic cards), painting, coloring, taking a bath while listening to your favorite album, taking a walk by yourself, taking a socially distanced walk with a friend, or even just talking to them on the phone—without looking at them on a screen.

Give your eyes a rest
You may not be able to avoid screens entirely, especially if your home is now your office and “Zooming” has become a staple of your vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean you need to stare at the screen all the time, Hayes says. When he takes calls, he does it in a room with a window and often turns away to look outside.

“I can see trees and the sky and the clouds and the birds,” he says. “It’s one way of being able to give myself a little bit of grounding outside of the virtual world.”

Don’t have a room with a window seat? Try placing flowers or a plant in your work area and looking at it when you need a quick break.

Set dedicated news times—and stick to them
Staying informed is important but watching news non-stop isn’t helpful, says Hayes. And given that cable news stations tend to rehash the same information over and over, we’re not getting much fresh material from hour to hour. But the format is successful in keeping us glued to the screen, he adds, “just feeding into this negative habit.”

Instead of trying to absorb everything that’s available all the time, Hayes recommends setting dedicated times to check in on the news. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to limit my watching the news to this window of time and these particular outlets, and then I’ll do something else,’” he says.

And if you begin falling back into your screen habits, don’t get mad at yourself. Just try again.

Article sources open article sources

Scripps. “How Much Screen Time Is Too Much?” February 22, 2019.
Minnesota Department of Health. “TV, Screen Time and Health.”
Julie Miller. “The Panic and Guilt Inside the Quarantine Puzzle Boom.” Vanity Fair. May 5, 2020.
M Teychenne, SA Costigan, K Parker. “The association between sedentary behaviour and risk of anxiety: a systematic review.” BMC Public Health. 2015; 15: 513.
KC Madhav, SP Sherchand, S Sherchan. “Association between screen time and depression among US adults.” Preventive Medicine Reports. 2017 Dec; 8: 67–71.

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