Thriving Digital Connections: Building Healthy Online Habits

In the latest instalment of our Thriving Digital Connections series, we take some time to talk about the widespread yet often little-discussed issue of screen time and how to use it wisely. While, especially in the last year, more aspects of our lives have migrated to the digital realm, the use we make of screens and Internet access can make the difference between thriving and languishing––whether during a pandemic or the ongoing digital transformation many nonprofits are currently undertaking.


Screen Addiction: How Serious Is It? 

For many of us, screens have become the place where work, personal time, and household management now converge into a single destination, one of few constants in a time of uncertainty and rapid change. But while the ability to work remotely, order groceries or takeout, or even visit with friends has undoubtedly helped us cope under exceptional circumstances, 13 months into the pandemic it might be time to assess our relationship to screens and think about our online habits more closely. 

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, even well before the pandemic 43% of subjects reported checking social media “constantly”, with 20% of them naming it a source of stress. Another article by The Guardian reported that people spent approximately 3.5 hours every day looking at their phones, while a recent report by Common Sense Media found that half of interviewed teenagers felt they were addicted to their electronic devices. We may not have a lot of available data to evaluate the impact of COVID-19 on our screen and online habits, but preliminary studies already suggest an increase in impacts on our mental health.

In fact, with increased screen time come a slew of consequences ranging from muscular complaints (think: ‘text neck’) to compromised sleep, and mental health issues such as ADHD, anxiety, depression, and declining life satisfaction. Studies even show that symptoms of social media addiction can be similar to those of addictions to substances, such as withdrawal, relapse, and mood modification. The Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma summarizes the mental health effects of social media (and, by extension, screens) like this: 

 


Tips for Healthy Online Habits 

 

While thinking about screen use can feel overwhelming at first, there are several strategies and tools that can help counteract the powerful attraction to screens and develop healthier, more balanced online habits. From empathetic leadership to better posture, the benefits of a ‘reset’ are many, and they can include: greater connection with the people in our life, the ability to deepen focus and improve productivity, improved sleep, and stronger protection against burnout and ‘screen fatigue’.
 

Know Your Numbers


The first step in reclaiming our time is being aware of how much of it is spent looking at a screen on a day-to-day basis. Most smartphones and laptops now offer built-in features that report on daily screen use, often also broken down by specific apps and categories. Learn about your number, then set a goal for yourself by picking a new one that feels more balanced for your needs.
 

Protect Your Time

Once you have a target in mind, you can use a blend of digital tools and off-line strategies to help create healthier online habits––whether for you, your team, or possibly even for your family and friends. Several site blockers give you the option of blocking out particular sites so that you are less distracted while working. RescueTime, for example, creates powerful reports that help you see exactly where your time goes, then helps you block our distractions for you and/or your team (they also offer a 4-week masterclass in becoming your most productive self!) Freedom is a tool that lets you block both websites and apps, and you can start sessions on the fly or schedule dedicated ‘distraction-free’ time in advance. If you’d like to practice your mindfulness skills, Pause is a simple web extension that creates a gentle interruption by displaying a calming green screen before loading a distracting website.  After pausing for five seconds (an adjustable length), you can then choose to continue to the site, remain on the green screen with the site temporarily blocked, or close the tab. If you’d like to reclaim your focus and productivity, you can also make the most of ‘distraction-free’ time by experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. The Forest app makes it fun and builds in great incentives: for every successful session you complete, a digital tree will grow in your forest so you can track your growth in real time. Bonus: the app also partners with a real-tree-planting organization, Trees for the Future, to plant real trees on Earth!  
 

Non-Digital Hacks 

Here is a non-exhaustive list of prompts to help you build healthier online habits without relying on non-digital tools: 

  • Turn off notifications: if you are able, turn off notifications on your phone and/or your work computer to avoid being distracted by ‘pings’, tempting websites, and other incoming alerts. You can enable ‘night mode’ in your settings to pre-program automatic time ‘off’ for both phone and computers. Then set aside a recurring time once or twice a day for ‘checking in’ and responding to whatever may have come up during your protected time.

  • Delete social media apps: similarly, deleting distracting apps off your phone can help significantly decrease your screen time. The trick is to make it inconvenient to check your feeds, whether that’s typing a full URL manually each time, having to input your credentials with each log-in. You can apply the same principle to limit social media distractions on your computer and other electronic devices. 

  • Go greyscale: Another simple yet effective tip is to make your screen less exciting and appealing. Switching to grayscale is one way to do so, or consider enabling ‘dark mode’ on your browsers to reduce brightness. 

  • Try a mini ‘digital detox’: There are many ways to set up a detox, so don’t be afraid to get creative! Examples include: leaving your electronics in a designated room (and outside of the bedroom), to limit distractions and make a mental separation between work time and personal time; scheduling tech-free dinners and/or no-tech periods on a recurring basis; increasing non-screen activities such as sports, face-to-face time with loved ones (socially distanced, of course!), walking in nature or reading a book.

 

Further Reading 

  • We need to reclaim our lives from our phones and 'reset,' says CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert (CBC)

  • Designing for dependence: How your devices and apps are built to get you hooked (CBC)

  • Excessive Internet Use––Developing Policies and Programmes to Address a Growing Problem (World Health Organization)

  • Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (Book

  • How to Break Up with Your Phone (Book)

  • The Social Dilemma (Netflix)





 

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