Screen Time and Anxiety
As in-person events stopped, workplaces shut down, schools closed, and many of us spent more time at home than we would have imagined possible, screen time was at an all-time high. Screens gave many of us our only access to social interaction and a lifeline to emotional support. When we couldn’t be connected online to distant friends and family, some of us were completely alone.
Spending so much time in front of a screen has negative consequences. Excessive screen time contributes to increased anxiety for many people. Many people who had low-grade anxiety before the pandemic began experiencing full-blown, difficult-to-manage anxiety symptoms. Unfortunately, for some people coming to my practice, the elevated levels of anxiety don’t just disappear as the pandemic gradually comes under control.
We know screens aren’t good for us. During the pandemic, most people didn't have a choice but to up their screen time. As we emerge from the pandemic, will emotional difficulties created during the pandemic, and by device binging, just dissipate? For those who continue to work remotely for part of the week, or more, will anxiety continue to build?
Increased screen time means more blue light exposure
One of the reasons screen time contributes to anxiety is because of the blue light exposure. Blue light has a specific effect on our brains, keeping us alert and awake. This is okay in small doses, but artificially stimulating the brain for an inordinate amount of time throughout the day can create long-term and short-term problems. In the long term, you can experience impaired concentration and difficulty focusing. In the short run, blue light can make it challenging to wind down at the end of the day. If you don’t have a wind-down practice, the increased stimulation can also increase anxiety.
Incessant task switching on our screens creates anxiety
Typically, when we spend hours on our screens we are constantly opening apps, responding to different message threads, and jumping from task to task. During any given block of time, you may be checking your e-mail when you are pinged by a WhatsApp message. You quickly go to respond to that message but are distracted by an incoming Slack message. You see that someone else responded to a different message, then you get an Instagram notification that someone requested to follow you so you go check out their profile. You may only remember to get back to your email after a half dozen or more distractions.
Incessant task switching is mentally tiring and creates a degree of background anxiety that increases with screen time. The resulting panic attacks, insomnia, or general feeling of nervousness can be disabling. As the pandemic winds down, I have seen increasing numbers of people who never had panic attacks or other acute anxiety symptoms before.
Blue light and task switching create a perfect storm for anxiety and ADHD
Excessive screen time worsens your concentration (a result of both overstimulation from blue light exposure and constant switching between tasks). Many of my clients this year either had some inkling that they might have ADHD or were diagnosed with ADHD as children, but only briefly treated, and are now proactively seeking treatment because their symptoms have been exacerbated during and after the periods of lockdowns and restriction.
It’s common for people to have both ADHD and anxiety because people who have ADHD often have a great deal of anxiety about starting a project or task, marshaling the amount of energy they will need to complete it, and completing it successfully.
Treating ADHD can help reduce your anxiety
When anxiety is driven by attention difficulties (your concerns about the ability to focus and complete projects), getting treatment for ADHD tends to lower anxiety levels while improving everyday functioning.
When you are more confident that you can do things other people seem to be able to accomplish, your anxiety goes down.
Make the lifestyle changes needed to lower anxiety
Since screens cause concentration difficulties for anyone, not just those with existing ADHD, it is all the more crucial to learn how to use screens in a safe and healthy way.
How can we deal with the collateral damage of screens (decreased concentration and increased anxiety) given the technological reality of our work and social landscape? We could go live off the grid, but that’s not so practical for most people and certainly not practical for urban professionals. Here are a few simple ways to create a healthier environment for yourself and your family.
Five tips for reducing your screen time
Consider what kind of activities you can do during the day that are not on your computer, tablet, or smartphone – and incorporate them into your schedule.
Consider printing out documents that you may typically read on your computer (news, forms, contracts, documents, etc.).
If you use a Kindle, try reading without the background blue light, or try reading a paper book.
Find entertainment options that are not related to a screen. Playing cards or board games may seem a bit old-fashioned, but they are often better options.
When you can, choose an outdoor option. Taking a walk, riding a bike, or even just sitting outside in fresh air are great choices.
Four tips for healthier screen use
Close all other browser tabs except the one you're working on.
When you are working, put your phone on do not disturb. At the very least, put your phone screen side down. Ideally, put your phone out of sight!
Focus on the one task you are working on. Don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked. Even if you are getting bored, don't jump to something else.
If you need a little break, step away from screens altogether. Go outside for some fresh air, talk to someone, get up and stretch, or even draw for a few minutes.
Sometimes a notification on your phone is a welcome distraction when you are working on an article and need a little break. Overall, however, the interruptions from your phone will reduce your concentration, tax your mental energy, and increase anxiety.
Try to push yourself beyond your instinct to reach for your phone, and give yourself some more nourishing breaks, away from your screen.
Your future self will thank you for choosing a healthier way.