What I Learned From A Decade Of Staring At Screens
Sagas of a Life Ruled by Screens
My first laptop was a high school graduation gift. I was 17 and bound for college. Before that moment, the one where I tore into floral wrapping paper and unveiled a shiny computer, my parents had strictly monitored my digital consumption. I was a ‘90s child from a small town in the mountains, after all. Most of my adolescence was spent running barefoot in the woods with neighborhood kids.
In 2009, I got my first smartphone. Forever attached to my LG Chocolate phone (RIP Razr), I was behind on the trend. I added another screen to my collection and carried the tiny computer with me at all times. For the first time in my life, I was plugged-in and connected. Available and online at all hours of the day.
It’s now been over a decade, and, like many others, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with screens. I’ve loved the efficiency of technology but hated the way it has affected my relationships. I’ve needed my laptop for work and school. Still, I’ve loathed how the digital world has archived calligraphy and typewriters; traveling with maps and disposable film; evenings spent crowded around the radio or record player.
Moreover, I’ve wrestled—oh how I’ve wrestled—with the paradoxes. Life with screens has proven itself nuanced, from FOMO and poor posture to valued connections and content accessibility. During COVID, screens have offered us connections and news when we need it most; they’ve also been a source of burnout, exhaustion, and escalated loneliness.
Nonetheless, after a decade of living with screens, I’ve begun to wonder about the long-term effects on my emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. While I’m not naive to think I can escape tech altogether, I do believe I can be more skeptical and deliberate with my screen time.
The physical impact of staring at screens? Well, we could grow horns
I reach for my phone first thing in the morning. It’s my white noise machine and alarm clock, and it’s the first thing I look at each day. My eyes hate me for this. They angrily protest as I force them to focus on the bright and artificial lights. Every time, I promise myself I’ll buy an analog alarm clock and be more conscious of protecting my eyes. I’ve been saying that for ten years.
Caring for and treating my body with respect is one of my core values, so I have to wonder why I allow for apathy here. I know how staring at a screen makes my body feel—it’s opposite the feeling of running barefoot in the woods as a kid. Staring at my phone, sitting at a desk all day, scrolling on the couch after work—all of it makes me feel physically terrible. So why do I keep doing it?
I recently learned (on a TV talk show, of all places) doctors are conducting studies to see if our bones are morphing to accommodate tech-neck; apparently, our skeletons may even be growing horns. But we don’t need science or medicine to tell us too much screen time negatively affects our physicality—we only need to listen to the aches and pains and our bodies’ pleas for movement.
Too much of a good thing: dealing with content stimulation
Have you ever felt so stimulated by content that you can’t think straight? There is the news and the commercials, the radio during your commute, and the flashy billboards lining every street. When you get home, your phone is a chorus of social notifications and promotional emails creeping into your inbox. Even when the content is beneficial (think podcasts and documentaries and emotive playlists), it’s still noise and stimulation.
Same as my body sirens warnings after too much screen time, I can tell I’ve consumed an overload of content when silence invokes anxiety. Other tells are feelings of FOMO, depression, and discontent. Worst of all, too much content clogs my creative bank, which, for a writer, is fairly problematic.
The good news is, for me and anyone else familiar with these feelings, we can play gatekeeper and set up boundaries; screen time and content consumption unsurprisingly go hand-in-hand. We can be more aggressive about our content (choosing to consume slowly and only what serves us), which will, consequently, minimize screen time. It’s the beauty of intentional living.
The Cost of Zoning Out: Screen Time and Escapism
This is the most worrisome for me and the primary reason I’m taking this evaluation so seriously. After a decade, I’ve discovered I use screens to escape the present moment.
I realized this during my commute home, while unconsciously flipping through the entire range of radio stations two to three times before shutting it off in frustration. I didn’t actually want to listen to anything; I was trying to fill the silence and escape my present reality. If I hadn’t been driving, I’d have been scrolling my phone.
This response, of course, isn’t limited to screens—anything can be an escape mechanism if we allow for it. But screens are often easier and within reach. Zone out, tune out, mindless scrolling—call it what you want; media is an inviting escape portal, especially when we’re experiencing pain. We’d rather watch, laugh at, and cry about someone else’s life. Reaching for our phone or turning on the TV can be signs we are subconsciously trying to escape the present moment.
Even when this isn’t the case, and we’re not trying to escape or avoid something, screens can numb us long enough that we become ungrounded, disembodied, and removed from the present moment.
There’s a fine line here and one I want to walk carefully. Media can (keyword ‘can’) be beautiful and educational and inspiring, but it can also be abused. And at what cost?
Creating A Healthier Relationship With Screens
I’m left with this question: now what? Do I quit it all and become a modern-day Thoreau? (No, although tempting.) Do I throw my hands up and say, ‘Oh well. This is how life is now.’ (Also no.) Life without screens isn’t possible for most of us, but we can practice boundaries and conscious consumption.
It starts by taking accountability for former habits and (yikes) addiction-like behaviors—because, yes, screen addiction is a thing. Asking hard questions is important, too. For example, I’m asking myself to write down the practical steps I need to take to minimize my hours with technology. Sometimes this means opting out of Friday movie nights because I’ve already spent too much time working on my laptop that week. Other times it looks like turning my phone off after work to avoid the pull-to-scroll. This list of screen-free hobbies is useful as well.
It’s also asking for and embracing help. Screen monitoring apps aren’t just for parents. Here are a few of my favorites for phones and computers to encourage mindful consumption and self-control. If you live with family or roommates or a partner, ask for their help, too. They may even be eager to minimize their hours spent with screens, and you can keep each other accountable. Finally, I bought an alarm clock. And you should, too. My eyes are already thanking me.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on screen time and content consumption. Share your stories and experiences in the comments below!
Kayti Christian (she/her) is a Senior Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.