You sit down on the couch, and 2 hours later you’re still scrolling, wondering where your time went.
We’ve all been there. Limiting and reducing screen time is a challenge for anyone who owns a smartphone, laptop, tablet or tv.
In fact, we spend almost half of our awake hours looking at a screen (7 hours on average). While your devices can be amazing tools that help you do things like keep in contact with friends on the other side of the globe, your devices can very easily take more than they give.
Our relationship with our phones, in particular, is often a wild rollercoaster. One minute it’s guilt and shame: ‘Holy smokes, where did that time go… what am I doing with my life…’ The next minute a notification pops up and you forget you ever had a problem with your phone.
And the problem isn’t that we don’t have enough self-control. You might even feel like your phone is impossible to manage, almost like an addiction. Many people sadly give up on ever improving screen time.
So what’s really going on? Our minds are terrible at prioritising information in our over-stimulating world, and it doesn’t help that big tech employs armies of engineers whose job it is to maximise the time we spend on their apps.
The truth is that getting distracted with your phone is a lot easier than using it in a focused, intentional way.
But there are still some simple ways you can significantly improve the control you have over your screen time. These have taken me years to discover from my deep research into the topic and I know they can help you too :)
Before you try to reduce your screen time…
Is all screen time bad?
We all know that too much food isn’t healthy. Too much screen time isn’t healthy either — it can lead to reduced sleep quality, neck injuries, computer vision syndrome, disorientation, on top of consuming time that we would otherwise spend on family, friends, self-care, exercise and hobbies.
But even more important than just the amount of screen time is the quality of our screen time. Screen time can be beneficial or harmful. There are countless good reasons why we all use smart devices — they help us: stay connected with friends and family, easily find our way around, access limitless information at our fingertips, work efficiently and so much more. When used in a healthy way they can make our lives richer and easier.
Why we should reduce screen time
Screen time becomes harmful when it starts to negatively impact other aspects of our lives — our happiness, health, relationships and work. It’s ultimately up to you to decide when your screen time is crossing this line. Social apps like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Reddit are common culprits. On average we spend 2 hours per day on social media apps like these and it can lead to anxiety, stress, loneliness, reduced empathy, loss of memory, loss of ability to focus, polarisation and even depression.
How much screen time is ok?
To minimize the detrimental effects studies suggest that you should aim to spend a maximum of 2 hours per day on harmful screen time. You have to find a balance that is right for you.
Keep in mind that the benefits of spending less time on your phone include: having more time for family, friends, work, fitness, meditation, personal growth while being exposed less to the negative psychological effects associated with phone overuse.
12 ways to reduce screen time
The good news is it's definitely not too late to reduce your screen time. So now let me explain the easiest ways you can actually reduce your harmful screen time and live with your devices in a more sustainable, healthier way. You can use these strategies to lower your screen time to one hour or any amount of time you're happy with.
1. Limit notifications
Your brain has been trained to associate notifications with an instant reward. So when you have notifications going off throughout the day it’s no wonder you constantly check your phone — on average we pick up our phones once every 5 minutes throughout the day.
This is incredibly disruptive. Our brains are terrible at quickly switching contexts. This results in a huge hit to your cognitive capacity, affecting your work and your level of presence in whatever activity you’re participating in. Notifications are also probably the biggest reason we end up spending so much time on our phones. Getting in control of these will certainly help you spend less time on your phone.
One tiny thing to do now: Go to your phone’s notification settings and turn off as many app notifications as possible. If you’re not sure — ask yourself — are these notifications time sensitive and necessary?
2. Become friends with Do Not Disturb
Don’t want to turn off all your notifications? No problem.
Do Not Disturb allows you to further limit your vulnerability to distracting notifications when you’re feeling especially distracted or you need space from your phone (and don’t worry — in emergencies people can get through to you).
One tiny thing to do now: Practice using Do Not Disturb by turning it on right now as you’re reading this.
3. Schedule your use
Planning ahead and scheduling exactly when and how long you are willing to spend on your screen makes you significantly more resilient to random urges like when you ‘just want to watch that 1 YouTube video’ or ‘check Instagram for 5 mins’. We all know how those urges play out.
Spacing out your screen usage lessens its tax on your cognition, freeing your brain to fully focus and be present in whatever activity you’re doing. It also helps you simply feel more in control of your screen time, which goes a long way.
Even without notifications, from years of phone use you will have habits that mean you automatically check your phone when you feel a certain emotion. For me, whenever I am bored my first instinct is to pull out my phone and check my emails and social media feeds. It often helps me pause and stop this cycle if I know that I shouldn’t be there and that I have dedicated time to check it later in the day (I try to stay off social media between 9am-5pm but I will allow it at lunch).
One tiny thing to do now: Start by deciding on 1 short period when you would like to keep free from harmful screen time every day. Maybe 8–9am?
4. Keep off your phone in the morning
The morning, right after you wake up, is by far the most important part of the day to limit your screen time and stay off your phone. Doing so can be so beneficial it warrants its own separate point.
Whilst starting the day with a scroll through Instagram might seem harmless on the surface, it affects the rest of your day in a big way. When you’re doing something highly stimulating like scrolling through social media your brain experiences a large increase in a neurochemical called dopamine (a chemical important for motivation and pleasure). The problem is that after a dopamine high like this, dopamine levels drop significantly below their usual levels, causing us to feel low on energy, anxious and even depressed. Then these feelings motivate us to go back and keep scrolling to feel better. You’re essentially teaching your brain every morning to care about nothing but social media. Not a fabulous way to start your day…
One tiny thing to do now: Set a daily schedule for Do Not Disturb to turn on between your bedtime and until an hour after you wake up.
5. Find alternative ways to spend your time
“You can’t call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from.” — Nir Eyal
At your fingertips, 24/7, you have an endless assortment of ways to entertain yourself — games, socials, video, news. To avoid wasting time on your phone like this you will need to decide on different ways you want to spend your time. If you’re anything like me, you have so many things you would love to do with your time! Want to read more books? Want to learn a language? Spend more time with family?
Finding alternatives is especially important at night. You have likely had a big day at work, you’re low on energy, you’re too drained to decide what to do with your spare time. So the easiest thing to do is sit down on the couch and watch Netflix or scroll through social media for hours until it’s past your bedtime. If you want to reduce screen time before bed make sure to find an alternative activity like reading books, journaling, listening to a podcast, or meditation. It’s also a good idea to cut down on screen time at least an hour before bed, which has been proven to improve the quality of your sleep.
One tiny thing to do now: Write down 3 different ways you want to use your spare time. Bonus points for adding a picture of these to your phone somewhere like your lock screen.
6. Block distracting websites and apps
If you find yourself constantly opening certain websites and apps subconsciously the key is to make them harder to access.
On your phone you can set app time limits. Another interesting strategy that works well for me is re-arranging the home screen by dragging time-wasting apps to a faraway screen. Even if you can’t completely block access to an app, you can still make it take longer to open, which gives you more time for you to become cognisant of and deal with your impulse to use your phone.
On your computer blocking websites is much easier, with many browser extensions available such as Freedom.
One tiny thing to do now: Take your phone or computer and restrict access to 1 problematic website or app.
7. Social media feed blockers
Unfortunately, once you’re inside social media apps it becomes almost impossible to stay mindful of your time and attention. This shouldn’t be a surprise because the big tech companies have designed their apps for this purpose.
Sometimes you need to access social media from your computer. We’re lucky on computers in that there are more very helpful browser extensions like News Feed Eradicator which hide certain elements of your social feeds to make them less distracting so that you can spend less time on social media. This is a really effective way to limit screen time on YouTube in particular.
Whilst you can’t use similar extensions to eradicate the social feed in apps, here at Unscroll we have built an all-in-one social media feed with features to make the feeds significantly less addictive.
One tiny thing to do now: Find a news feed eradicator extension that works in your computer’s browser and install it. Or download Unscroll on your phone.
8. Watch your screen time
Frequently monitoring how much time you’re spending on your phone gives you a feedback loop. This allows you to adjust how much you’re using your phone throughout your day and manage your screen time before it can get out of hand.
One tiny thing to do now: Make your screen time obvious by placing a screen time widget on your home page.
9. Make your phone less fun
If you ever feel really attached to your phone you can make your phone less stimulating and therefore less addictive by turning the display greyscale setting. This is often found under accessibility settings and on iPhones you can set a shortcut to toggle greyscale with 3 taps of the home button.
You can also do something similar in order to break the habit of subconsciously picking up your phone. The latest version of iOS allows you to customise your lock screen font and colour. I have changed my background and text colours to dull shades of brown and I changed the time display from Arabic numerals (123) to the Devanagari number system (१ २ ३). No, I don’t know how to read these numbers — so it forces me to check my watch for the time instead of my phone.
One tiny thing to do now: Find the greyscale setting for your phone and try turning it on.
10. Take a digital detox
A digital detox is when you take a break from the non-stop stimulation of the digital world and refrain from using your digital devices at all.
Taking a step back from all our hyper-stimulating tech allows us to relax, recharge and increase our motivation for less stimulating activities.
One tiny thing to do now: Plan a 1-day digital detox sometime in the next month.
11. Create a pact
If all else fails, you can increase your commitment and accountability by creating a pact. The best pacts are those where you receive some kind of punishment for not doing what you want. The good old swear jar is the perfect example: if you swear you have to put $1 in the swear jar.
You might commit to give a friend a certain amount of money if you spend more than 2 hours per day on your phone.
Not everyone should do this now.
Your emotions — like boredom, anxiety, anger , uncertainty— are very often the reason why you feel urged to pick up your phone and spend more time scrolling.
Breathing is so simple yet powerful at helping you refocus and be more aware of your emotions.
One tiny thing to do now: Take a deep breath: 4 seconds in, 7 second hold, 8 seconds out. What emotions are you feeling right now?
Bonus FAQs on screen time
What counts as screen time? ⏳
Our devices measure ‘screen time’ as the amount of time our screens are turned on. While both positive and harmful screen time add up to what our phones call ‘screen time’, we find it much more important to concentrate only on the harmful screen time and how to reduce it.
How much screen time per day is healthy for adults? 🧑
To minimize the detrimental effects of poor-quality screen time studies suggest that adults should aim to spend a maximum of 2 hours per day on harmful screen time. If you’re wondering how to reduce screen time as an adult 3 great places to start are: limiting your notifications, scheduling when to use screens and finding alternative activities to fill up your spare time.
How much screen time per day is healthy for kids and teens? 🧒
Helping kids and teenagers get their screen time is incredibly important as when children use devices in an unrestrained way it causes permanent changes in brain structure that impact how they think, feel, and act for the rest of their lives.
One study of 7102 adolescents found that teens should spend less than 60 minutes per day on their mobile phone in order to avoid most of the detrimental impacts (assuming these 60 minutes are entertainment and not productive). Using this study as a guide, younger children should also spend less than 60 minutes on entertainment-based screen time.
Considering these recommendations it is worrying to hear that on average adolescents spent 7.7 hours (mostly spent watching videos) in front of screens per day in 2021, up from approximately 3.8 hours before the COVID pandemic. Teens are the age group with the highest screen time, with screen time typically increasing with age.
How to reduce the risk of problems when working at a desk? 🧑💻
Sitting at a desk staring at a computer all day can be damaging for your neck, eyes, and energy levels. Ensure you have an ergonomic seating position (I personally use a laptop stand, mousepad, and mouse). Next make sure your eyes aren’t strained, by keeping a good distance from your screen and maintaining a reasonable display brightness. When working early or late, the night shift function which reduces the amount of blue light emitted from the display, helps reduce eye strain among other benefits.
What is the average screen time in different countries? 🌍
Thanks to data from DataReportal we know that:
- In the United States the average daily screen time is 7.04 hours.
- In China the average daily screen time is 5.15 hours.
- In the United Kingdom the average daily screen time is 6.12 hours.
- In India the average daily screen time is 7.18 hours.
- In Australia the average daily screen time is 6.03 hours.
- South Africa and the Philippines have some of the highest average daily screen time counts at 10.46 hours and 10.27 hours respectively.
- One of the tech capitals of the world, Japan, has one of the lowest daily average screen time counts at 4.25 hours.
What are the consequences of too much screen time? 💥
Even spending just 2 hours per day on social media apps like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can lead to anxiety, stress, loneliness, reduced empathy, loss of memory, loss of ability to focus, polarisation and even depression. The consequences are exacerbated with more screen time.
Am I addicted to my phone? 🎰
Addiction is defined as a chronic dysfunction in the brain causing persistent, compulsive dependence on a substance or behaviour. Addiction can be a very difficult cycle to break because it involves a reduction in the number of things that give you pleasure.
So is spending too much time on your phone an addiction? This is a hotly debated topic but at the very least it is clear that addictions and addiction-like habits can range in severity and phone overuse can be somewhere on that spectrum.
Note that there is no metric, such as the number of hours you spend on your phone, that can be used to classify an addiction. If you regularly feel like your phone is the only thing that can give you any pleasure, this may be a sign you are struggling with a form of phone addiction. The is no 1 easy way to cure social media addiction but the tips I’ve outlined above are the perfect place to start to find solutions for a social media addiction. If you believe you are addicted to your phone you should get support from a mental health professional.
How can I live without a phone? 🌲
If you want to live without a phone in today’s highly connected world you should let your work, friends and family know first. You may still want to buy a ‘dumb phone’ so you can still take calls and reply to important text messages.
At Unscroll we believe that while living without a phone can sound great it isn’t often a feasible long-term solution. Phones are essentially required to participate in much of modern society. They come with their benefits and drawbacks, and luckily there are some easy ways to deal with the drawbacks and become more self-aware at the same time!