How To Manage Screen Time During A Pandemic : Life Kit Screens keep us connected while we're socially distant, but phone fatigue is real. It's important to take breaks from your device to destress. In this episode, expert advice for balancing screen time during quarantine.
NPR logo

Screen Time Overload? Here's How To Find Balance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/846767505/847400320" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Screen Time Overload? Here's How To Find Balance

Screen Time Overload? Here's How To Find Balance

Screen Time Overload? Here's How To Find Balance

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/846767505/847400320" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Fed up with your phone? Burned out on Zoom? Journalist and author Catherine Price has tips to help you find the right screen time balance for your life. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Fed up with your phone? Burned out on Zoom? Journalist and author Catherine Price has tips to help you find the right screen time balance for your life.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

We're using screens more than ever now — Zoom staff meetings, FaceTime playdates, virtual workouts — not to mention endless push notifications with the latest coronavirus news. It's necessary to stay connected, but after so many weeks of quarantine, the burnout is real.

Journalist Catherine Price is the author of How To Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan To Take Back Your Life. Since the pandemic, she's been offering new resources for finding a healthier balance with screens.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Anya Kamenetz: How do you decide what screen time is useful in helping you cope during the pandemic, versus what's over the top?

Catherine Price: I always recommend to people that they try to gently get into the habit of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness of how they feel while they're on their screens.

I also recommend reducing "ease of access." If you've got that device in your pocket, it's very easy to access every news app in the universe. So instead of carrying your phone in your pocket all the time, maybe create a charging station for your phone somewhere nearby, but not within arm's reach.

If you're having issues with compulsively checking before bed, maybe get your phone out of your bedroom and put a book on your bedside table instead. Put some kind of craft project or a puzzle out on your table so that when you do have a down moment, you have some option that's really easy to get to that's not your phone.

I'm not saying that phones are inherently bad, but just in many cases, our phones are direct portals into the news. And the news is extremely stressful. The solution is to make nourishing activities as easy as possible, and to reduce your ease of access to the devices that are stressing you out.

Right now, my phone is not only a conduit to the news, but it's also a conduit to every single person I care about who's not in my house with me. So how do you regulate that access?

So just as screen time is not all the same, the uses of our phones are not all the same. Our phones are like little refrigerators that have all sorts of different apps in them, some of which are beneficial and some of them are not. We shouldn't think about our phone as just one lump object. We should ask ourselves how each particular app is making us feel.

If you recognize that using your phone to actually call friends is making you feel great, well then you want to have the actual phone icon in the bottom of your menu bar, where it's easy to get to ... I've been taking a lot of pictures of trees in bloom recently and I like doing that, so I'm keeping my camera on the home screen. I want to use my phone, as you alluded to, to connect with people or to do things that I actually enjoy.

For most people, social media maybe makes them feel connected in small doses, but bad afterward. If that's you, maybe you don't want to have social media on your home screen. Maybe you want to delete it entirely and then just reinstall it when you actually want to check. That's going to help you reduce the number of mindless scrolls that you get sucked into.

Just like a fridge can be full of healthy food or junk food, a device can be full of tools or apps that are beneficial to you or ... not. Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Becky Harlan/NPR

Just like a fridge can be full of healthy food or junk food, a device can be full of tools or apps that are beneficial to you or ... not.

Becky Harlan/NPR

I agree with you that generally, it feels life-affirming to connect with other people on the phone. And yet there are a lot of people in my network who are also quite anxious. And so I feel torn between being available to them and getting locked into someone's anxiety spiral. So how do you calibrate your own availability and your own sanity?

I think that this goes back to the idea of monitoring how certain activities and interactions make you feel in as real-time as possible. If you notice that every time you talk to your sister or something, you feel bad or you feel more anxious, then you've got two options. Either reduce the number of interactions you have with her, or have a conversation about how this is making your own anxiety worse. And while you know it's hard, would it be possible for the two of you to try to talk about something else when you connect? I think communication is really important.

I also think it's really important to recognize that even though it's wonderful to connect with people during this time using the tools that are available to us, it also can get to be too much, even if the other person isn't particularly anxious. I mean, I find that my Zoom schedule is so packed that sometimes it starts to feel exhausting. It's especially important during this time to consider giving ourselves breaks because it's easy to burn out on connection even when it's good.

That's a really big point. I think people need different amounts of connection.

Yeah, I think that it works both ways. It's surprising how nourishing and good it can feel to connect over a video call or the phone. But at the same time, it's interesting to realize how wearing it can be to connect with people this way, because you start to become really, really grateful for the lack of lag time in face-to-face interactions.

Yeah. Talking about this idea of Zoom fatigue, do you have parameters? I'm starting to think about when to switch off my video and just have an audio conversation, or even walking while talking. A friend mentioned that she's taking social phone calls around 5 or 6 p.m. every night while she walks around, which I thought was a really nice approach. What do you think about that?

As I believe is true for all of this, we need to come at this from an individualized approach. So don't feel that you need to come up with a schedule that's the same as everybody else or even that you're going to have the same needs day-to-day. I think that in general, it's very helpful to experiment with taking breaks from your devices. Ideally, full breaks, just to see how it feels. You might find it to be more restorative and more necessary than you realized.

Something that my husband and I have been doing is really trying to get into the "digital sabbath" idea. We take an evening a week where we actually do not schedule Zoom calls and we light a candle at dinner and we turn off our screens and we keep them off until the following morning. People can customize that as they want. You could have your phone on "Do Not Disturb" but allow calls from important people to come through if you feel anxious about that.

So you're really encouraging people to think of this break as self-care and not as some productivity game that they're imposing on themselves. Right?

Exactly. I don't think we should be imposing more things on ourselves right now. Is that ever really the best approach?

I feel like there's all these "shoulds" that we always put on ourselves instead of asking: What is right for us? What is going to make us happy and productive people, people who are not just nervous wrecks all the time during this stressful period? For some people, that might mean that they want to binge on Netflix every night. And that's what makes them feel good. For other people, they might rather do a Zoom happy hour. For another person, they might want to turn off their screens and read a book. For some people, they're just surviving right now, whether it's emotionally or financially. And the idea of adding anything else to their plate is just out of the question.

It's a time to really look at your own screen habits and try to figure out what you actually want your boundaries and routines to look like with your devices. In many cases, we haven't even stopped to think about that before, because we've been so busy with all this other stuff. So maybe now there's an opportunity to actually look at that and make some small changes that will make you feel better in the moment and that you can take with you. But maybe you just want to survive. And that's fine, too.


Catherine Price is the creator of the #QuarantineChallenge, the founder of Screen/Life Balance, and the author of How to Break Up With Your Phone.

The audio portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.

Do you have tips for cultivating a healthy relationship with your device? Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you want more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.