Our dependency on tech has soared during the pandemic. The app analytics company App Annie found that people spent around 4 hours and 18 minutes per day on mobile devices in April 2020. That’s a 20% increase from the year before, equating to an extra 45 minutes per day of screen time.
Research shows that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with spending more time on screens—especially right now. Apart from the benefits of connecting with friends, family, and coworkers, turning to tech can help us manage difficult emotions and even reduce stress.
Not all screen time is created equal, though. Some online activities do bring a degree of risk. Spending long periods passively scrolling through social media, for example, is linked to greater feelings of envy and loneliness, and a higher risk of depression.
What, then, should we do in the months ahead to make sure our relationship with tech stays as healthy and constructive as possible at a time when we’re all so reliant on it?
The answer depends somewhat on your own proclivities. You might be the type of person who feels soothed and inspired after spending a half-hour curating themed boards on Pinterest—but mindlessly scrolling on Instagram for the same amount of time might make you feel tired and irritable.
Regardless of who you are, though, I believe we can all benefit from a more deliberate approach to how we spend our screen time. Our goal should be to find our personal tech balance. Recognize that what works best for you may not be what works for everyone else.
Here are some of the ways we can change our behaviors and mindset to achieve a better balance in the weeks and months ahead.
Build your awareness. It’s difficult to change any behaviors when we’re not clear on what they look like. A good place to start is by tracking where you spend your screen time by using an app, like Moment, or your phone’s built-in tools. Remember that tracking alone isn’t enough—you must check these stats regularly.
Checking in is important because studies suggest we tend to underestimate how long we spend scrolling and swiping. Tracking will provide some perspective and give you a sense of which changes you may want to make.
I also suggest doing regular “mood check-ins” every few hours anytime you’re online. As we scroll, it’s often not clear which conversation, app, or Twitter thread has colored our mood. By consciously checking in with yourself, you can better home in on what triggers bad feelings and decide what activities to avoid or dial back in the future.
This is important because research shows that when we’re asked to imagine how technology affects our mood, we tend to think the time we spend on our devices makes us feel worse than it actually does. It’s possible that fearmongering around tech’s potential impact on our mental health has biased our expectations.
So ask yourself: Am I feeling bad because I spent 20 minutes on TikTok, or because I think I should feel bad about spending 20 minutes on TikTok?
Get clear about the benefits. Our devices can be a source of stress and worry, but they can also be a source of joy. There isn’t a single right way to figure out which social networks or apps will deliver these positive effects without many downsides. That’s why we need to understand what works for each of us.
It’s far too simplistic to tell ourselves we’re going to cut down on our tech usage. The things we enjoy doing with our devices matter. Whether that’s playing video games, curating image boards, or experimenting with fonts, you should factor these on-screen activities into your daily schedule just as you factor in exercise or work. It’s also important to communicate these needs to the people you live with to help everyone balance their time between doing tech-based activities alone and offline ones (like cooking dinner) together.
Be alert to active vs. passive social media use. Passive time spent on social media can be worse for our well-being than more active use. A number of studies suggest that the more time we spend scrolling through social feeds without actively engaging, the more likely we are to experience depression and other negative effects of comparing ourselves to others. Passive use could mean seeing a new photo posted by a friend and continuing to scroll, whereas active use might be writing a comment or sending a quick DM.
This doesn’t mean we must all write comments under every new post we see, of course. Instead, we just need to recognize when we’re not feeling communicative and perhaps find a different screen-based activity to occupy that time.
Refresh your mindset. The words we use to talk about ourselves and our lives matter a lot. Phrases like “tech detox” or “digital detox” have become ways for us to talk about taking time away from tech. But a detox mindset, which is more about achieving an extreme goal in the short term, doesn’t carry the long-term value we need to maintain a healthy lifestyle in a digitally connected world. Our aim should always be to find the balance that works for us and supports our long-term well-being.
There are other ways we can describe our tech relationships—as “habits,” for example—that make our screen time feel like an aspect of our lives we can gradually change instead of a toxin that must be expelled. Sudden, radical changes in our tech behaviors run the risk of making us feel even more isolated at a time when a lot of us need more ways to connect.
Humans and technology
VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence
On key metrics, a VR experience elicited a response indistinguishable from subjects who took medium doses of LSD or magic mushrooms.
The 1,000 Chinese SpaceX engineers who never existed
LinkedIn users are being scammed of millions of dollars by fake connections posing as graduates of prestigious universities and employees at top tech companies.
Social media is polluting society. Moderation alone won’t fix the problem
Companies already have the systems in place that are needed to evaluate their deeper impacts on the social fabric.
The fight for “Instagram face”
Meta banned filters that “encourage plastic surgery,” but a massive demand for beauty augmentation on social media is complicating matters.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.