We were once a society obsessed with tracking our screen time. We spent evenings on our phones, pouring over how many hours we'd scrolled that day on Instagram and TikTok. We flipped open our laptops to Google blue-light glasses and look up the health risks of spending too much time online. We texted our friends to ask how much time they spent with their own screens. All of that added up to a lot of time spent on screens, obsessing over spending time on screens.
But today, any expert who warns against "screen time" is immediately written off as being out of touch. Most of us work remotely in front of our computers. That's also how most kids go to school. It's how we stay in touch with most of the people in our lives. It's how we continue to be engaged citizens and it's also how we kill the hours of time some of us now have in surplus.
Sure, search interest for "blue light glasses'" spiked in early April and late May, in sync with the COVID-19 spikes that kept us home and in front of our computers. But more telling is the increased search interest for things like, "screen time passcode hack" and "how to get around screen time limits." At some point earlier this year, most of us realised our screen time trackers were causing us unnecessary stress. By now, chances are most people have just done away with them altogether.
Dr Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a clinical psychologist and digital wellness expert, hopes the increase in screen time brought on by the pandemic is helping us confront our digital habits and technology fears. "At first we thought, 'everyone is so addicted to screens and Zoom and we'll never want to be face to face again.' I think the opposite is true. We actually realised we have a more balanced view of what the benefits and costs of screen time are."
Tara Kirkpatrick, a PR professional and yoga instructor, has begun to think more critically about the pros and cons of screen time. When her yoga studio went virtual, Kirkpatrick's screen time skyrocketed, and she and her yoga clients found themselves growing sick of Zoom. "Friends that really wanted to support me and clients that enjoy my classes were just exhausted from finishing a whole workday on Zoom and signing on to Zoom again for a relaxing activity,” she shares.
Until recently, she was between jobs and freelancing, and the lack of a fixed schedule also made it that much harder for her to structure her screen time. "When I would sign in to Instagram, I would see current events, influencers, memes — the media consumption was coming at me, and I couldn’t filter it out to pay attention to just my job," she recalls. But instead of spiralling about how much time she was spending online, she began finding little ways to help herself stay focused during her screen time. Now, she mutes a lot of Instagram accounts so her feed only shows what is timely and job-related.
Rather than worrying about how much time she's spending online, Kirkpatrick now worries about what she's seeing while she's there. The pandemic made her realise how often she talks to friends about things she sees online, only to learn their feeds are all radically different. "That's a concern I never had before."
Because we're spending even more of our professional time on screens, many are finding themselves instinctually jumping offline to enjoy non-work-related activities. We're going to parks, we're hiking and camping like never before. Refinery29's very own social media editor Hannah Bullion says she stopped limiting her screen time altogether: "It's just one more thing to stress about. I just try to make an active effort to put the phone down if I find myself spiralling." While she still has concerns about screen time — she feels her vision straining significantly since she started working from home in March — she has found herself spending more time outdoors and away from her phone while quarantining in Michigan with her family. After spending the whole workday in front of a screen, who wouldn't be eager to hit the great outdoors?
Whether or not screen time has historically been something you worry about, you've probably observed that once it became clear we'd be carrying out most of our lives through screens, the screen time experts got real quiet. A few months into the pandemic, though, they re-emerged with retractions and hot takes like: "I Was A Screen-Time Expert. Then Coronavirus Happened." For so long, "experts" were sounding major alarms about the Big Bad Wolf they called screen time, with some even saying it destroyed a generation. But as months of Zoom socialising, remote work, and distanced learning have demonstrated, it takes a lot more than doomscrolling through some blue light to destroy a generation. Once so maligned, it's screens that have actually given our lives some sense of normalcy during this extremely abnormal time.
Dr Dennis-Tiwary champions a more nuanced understanding of digital wellness, one she hopes will continue even after the pandemic: "A lot of people realised that it's not tenable anymore to be so black and white and maybe they've come around to the data that's coming out that calls that into question." After all, nobody wants a fire-and-brimstone lecture about the evils of technology, especially when our current reality says otherwise. And for those still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of screen time a largely remote world demands, the answer might lie in becoming less anxious about the amount of time we spend on our screens, and more intentional about what we see, do, and interact with while we're there.