Ding. A notification awakens your phone with a blue glow. Ding. Ding. Ding.
Even if you grew up with a landline and a walkman, people are often confronted with technology on a daily basis. The lure of screens can feel inescapable, from social media to video games to email to Netflix.
According to the Vermont Department of Health, kids ages eight to 18 spend over seven hours a day on screens—an increase of two and a half hours in the last decade. Too much screen time can make it harder to sleep at night or concentrate during the day and can lead to a risk of attention problems, anxiety and depression; problems that affect children and adults alike.
Heather Wilson, a psychologist who works as an Early Childhood Support Team Leader at Northwest Counseling & Support Services (NCSS) in Vermont, discussed ways to help alleviate screen dependency.
“A lot of people underestimate how much time they use their phone,” Wilson said. “But I do think its across all generations.” Wilson noted that adults spend approximately three to six hours a day on their phone alone.
“It’s designed to take advantage of our desire for instant gratification,” she explained. To help alleviate screen use across all ages, Wilson suggested taking a pause to ask ourselves, “How much screen time do we engage in? And, why is it so hard to put down?”
As far as recommended guidelines for children go, Wilson said that concerns have changed over the years. Up until 2007, it was all about monitoring time in front of the TV, but since the introduction of smartphones, tablets, computers, etc, the focus has shifted, but concerns remain the same.
“Screen time is not especially helpful for the development of young children. It’s not the best approach to nurture a relationship with your child and their developing brain,” said Wilson. She also noted that, for a while, it was generally recommended that children under the age of two have no screen time at all.
Director of the Burnham Memorial Library, Kelly McCagg, offered her own suggestions for curbing screen time, as well as some relevant books to check out. For McCagg, carrying a book in your purse and setting a timer and sticking to it are both useful tools for unplugging.
According to Wilson, creating new habits is key to reducing screen time. But something important to remember is that developing new habits is based on consistency, not perfection.
Dedicate a specific time away from screens. Wilson suggested dedicating certain periods or times of the day to put screens away for the whole family—meaning everyone has to put it away. It could be just at meal times or after 4 o’clock or until homework is finished.
This could also mean making one day of the week screen-free. “If you take a period of time to be screen-free, you can really start to become more aware of your behavior,” she said.
Turn it into a game. Whoever pulls out their phone first loses, for example. This might work for competitive people or folks committing to a resolution together.
Try the “Pajama Rule”. Wilson suggested the “Pajama Rule” to some of the families she works with at NCSS. Once pajamas are on, TV’s and computers are off. This offers additional consistency for kids, but can be a house rule as well. Wilson suggested making an effort to read books, play games, or try other activities that don’t involve screens. “The key is you have to replace it with another activity,” she said—hence, breaking the bad habit and creating a new one.
Use screens together. When kids are being introduced to screens, Wilson recommended turning it into a shared family activity, encouraging interaction.
Take small breaks. For adults who use technology at work and can’t afford to curb their screen use, Wilson recommended taking small breaks throughout the day or stretching at least. McCagg also suggested this, recommending not checking email after work hours.
Wilson herself uses screens frequently, especially for her job, but she’s made an effort to change the way she approaches technology. Two years ago, Wilson gave up social media and has found that her social network is not as large, but her existing relationships are stronger and more satisfying.
Go to the library. Most local libraries offer maker kits, discount passes to museums and parks, and over programs for all ages each month each month. Not to mention the stacks of books, magazines, audiobooks and newspapers lining their shelves.
For further reading about screen use and the effects of digital media on people across generations, McCagg recommends:
The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life by Anya Kamentz
Glow Kids: How Screen Addiction Is Hijacking Our Kids and How To Break the Trance by Nicholas Karkaras, PhD
How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport
Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter