Addicted to Screens

DSCF2692It’s the addiction du jour and it’s been sweeping the nation for years. When cell phones first came out, I remember seeing a man walking through Whole Foods with an earpiece attached to his head talking on his phone and I thought, “What is he doing? Is he talking to himself?” Now, nobody bats on eye when people “talk to themselves” in cars, grocery stores or walking down the street. And those early cell phones have, of course, exploded into iPhones and all sorts of other extraordinary technical devices.

When I’m working with a client struggling with anxiety, alongside questions like, “How did your parents handle your big feelings as a child?” and “Where did you learn to stop liking yourself (school, peers, religion)?”, I now ask, “How much time each day do you spend on your computer?” And the answer is often a staggering 4-5 hours a day. Most people begin their day by reaching for their phone then check email or Facebook, then continue on to play games, check more email and Facebook, mindlessly surf, and finally lull themselves to sleep to the bedtime lullaby of a television show or movie. Even if screen time is buffered by more nourishing activities like exercise, healthy foods, and meditation, it’s generally not enough to outweigh the life-depleting and soul-sucking effects of the computer.

Like all vices, the substance isn’t the problem. Just like we can approach food as a way to avoid, numb out or fill up or as way to nourish ourselves and even connect spiritually, so we can use screens the same way. In other words, it’s not about denigrating the object or substance and stating categorically that “computers are bad”; it’s about recognizing that we, as humans, have a tendency to become addicted to anything that offers a temporary escape from whatever is uncomfortable in our lives.

I would be quite the hypocrite if I didn’t acknowledge the truly life-changing power of computers and the Internet, as they have allowed me to work from home and create a successful business that has given freedom to my family to carve out a lifestyle that is aligned with our values. And I’m acutely aware of the different ways that I can approach my computer: I can use it as I’m using it right now, as a convenient tool that encourages creative expression in a more efficient and often satisfying way than the good old pen and paper (although I love writing by hand as well and still keep a journal to record my inner world of dreams, poetry, and feelings). We can use it to teach our kids about the world and the universe (it’s like having the world’s best library at our fingertips – although I still love taking them to the library and checking out books the good old fashioned way). I’m amazed at what my husband can create on his computer, using software that allows him to paint and draw more quickly (although I love walking into his studio and seeing his latest children’s book storyboarded all over his walls and drafting boards).

But unless you’re approaching your computer with the intention to create, express, or learn, chances are quite high that you’re using it as a way to avoid, numb or escape. And, like all addictions, while it temporarily staves off the uncomfortable places inside, in the long run it only amplifies what you’re trying to avoid. This is why one of my first prescriptions to clients struggling with anxiety is to renounce Facebook and stop Googling.

So next time you reach for your screen see if you can pause for a moment and ask yourself these questions: “Why am I turning this on? What am I hoping to gain by spending time inside this virtual world? Am I approaching the screen to learn, create or express or am I approaching it as a way to avoid, numb out, or escape? What would I be doing if I weren’t on the computer right now? Is being on the computer causing me to disconnect from the real people that are next to me (kids, partner, friends, family, and even people on the subway)?”

And then notice how you feel after spending a lot of time on the computer: Do you feel filled up and satisfied or do you feel empty and numb? This will also help you assess whether or nor your time spent on the computer is serving you or actually exacerbating your underlying emptiness, pain, or anxiety. And if you find that it’s not serving you, make a choice inside to spend less time in front of screens. It will be uncomfortable at first, just as it is when breaking any addiction. But over time, as your focus your attention on more nourishing activities, you’ll remember that we did, indeed, function just fine without screens for most of human history. If your grandparents could do it, so can you.

13 comments to Addicted to Screens

  • victoria9021

    Ack, guilty. While I don’t Google, and many of the things I look at do better my life, I get caught up in forums of people who’ve had other toxic people in their life.

    And then I start thinking I’m like those toxic people and I’m absolutely horrible. This does nothing to activate my LA, nor reassure my IC that I’m taking ACTION to change from the patterns that WS has had us trapped in my whole life.

    -exhale- It’d be easier if it was Facebook. I could just deactivate again.

    • I truly think everyone’s guilty in one way or another! And it’s never easy to change a habit. But the first step is recognizing it, and then deciding what healthier habits could take its place. If you weren’t on the forums, what else would you be doing?

  • Marissa

    How very timely! After a recent trip to India with my husband, I decided to deactivate my Facebook account. I had been spending increasingly more time being a voyeur, and being privy to aspects of people’s lives that I didn’t particularly care to know! Being connected to the pulse of yoga while in India made me realize that there are many more nourishing and generative things that I could be doing, even if it’s during a much-needed five minute break from work.

    Another major reason that prompted my decision to stop using FB is because I find that – and my friends have said similar things – I tend to compare myself to other people based on the narratives that I create from their posts and photos. I think that this is especially true for anxious people; we confer our happiness/unhappiness based on how we rate our lives to as compared to other people’s “profiles”.

    It is true that some people have easier lives than others, but it is also true that most people curate their lives to look more appealing through the lens of social media platforms such as FB, and we the consumers are guilty of “buying” into the messages conveyed, real or not.

  • Sean

    Not to mention the false ideas of seemingly “perfect” worlds portrayed by Facebook statuses and Instagram that can leave someone with relationship anxiety wondering why their relationship doesn’t seem perfect all of the time!

  • MEG

    I am also quite guilty of over-googling in times of self-doubt. A question I need to ask myself more is, “Is grabbing your device to Google part of your urge to ‘find out’, ‘reassure’ or ‘check’?”. If it is, it’s not a healthy intention.

    Like many of you, I am learning to live with obsessive thoughts. When I feel uncertain or in doubt, it’s very easy to check my symptoms or thoughts on a forum to make sure what I’m experiencing is normal; as a way to truly find check the validity and truth of distressing thoughts. Googling helps temporarily but is a terrible thing to do in the long run. Lately I have been able to catch the urges to check and reassure much quicker, and I’ve been able to consciously move toward the uncomfortable feelings by closing my eyes and finding the places in my body that are aching and anxious. I now can call out the word or phrase that is distressing and move through the fearful thoughts instead of fearing them and tip-toeing around them.

    I am due for a new iPhone upgrade, but keep telling my husband that I am going to downgrade. I think it would be refreshing.

    • Clara

      I am with you, Meg. It’s in moments of doubt or fear that I find myself manically Googling…. searching, searching, searching for that concept or quote or piece of information that will resolve my confusion and terror. Definitely a strategy for deferring actually feeling those uncomfortable states.

      But on the flip side I need to acknowledge that it was just such a search that led me here to Conscious Transitions… a very true refuge for which I am very grateful.

  • Beautiful. Well said. How bout we all turn off our computer for an hour and take a walk on the land!

  • Jen

    Thank you for this post! I also work from home and as a writer, I’m online on my computer almost all day. I know I’m addicted to being “plugged in” and “learning” online. But often whenever I feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed and need a break, I don’t totally unplug, I just go check Facebook, blogs, email–which is what brought me here. 🙂

  • Susie

    Fantastic post, something which as a student I struggle with immensely. So easy to distract yourself from real life and yet add even more stresses to it with Facebook… I have started using a software in which you can blacklist yourself for a chosen period of time from the websites you find yourself mindlessly wasting time on, at least until I can feel significant changes within my mind set. This way, I’m proactive until a bad habit is changed, and I’ve already got so much more done!

  • Sarah

    Love this! With a new baby in the house, my husband and I have noticed how he behaves differently if our phones are nearby. I’ve been trying to keep the phone somewhere else anytime my baby is awake and it has been very valuable. I also agree about not googling things… Although the one good thing that came of that when I was anxiously engaged was that I found your website:).

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl love this blog!! People do what other people do with technology. It’s the norm these days. But I must confessed I use to google and I was on Facebook only for 6 months. I would rather see my friends face to face. It’s all
    About competition how many friends you have on Facebook. Wake up world there are better things to do that will help your mind and emotions. If you use the computer to create, learn and explore then go for it. The internet can be addictive but I choose to get addicted that will benefit me not destruct my behaviour.

  • Angela

    And also that’s there are so many people without social skills and people that are incredibly overweight or underweight because they choose to be in front of the screen all day. They forget about what’s really important themselves.

  • Ashley Chapman

    I wish I had known this way back when I was googling like crazy looking for relief now no matter what I view I feel numb unaffected. Like the further I googled the worst it got. Now I am at standstill where nothing works and im convinced my relationship wnt work. Everything is so positive and I only get relief from the anxiety when i believe we need a break cuz I have obsessed over the relationship so much nothing seems to convince long enough to believe or hold. Funny enough my boyfriend is away at basic training and I go to visit him next week and I am praying for a miracle that things will be ok because he is my best friend and I know I love him somewhere inside.