My Big Aha About Women and Too Much Screen Time (and a book to help).
You’ve heard about the negative effects of screen time, right?
I’m betting you know that screens can affect your sleep/wake cycles. They can also leave your body and brain feeling foggy, sluggish and unused, not to mention a lot of other consequences.
Too much screen time ups the possibility of depression, anxiety, isolation and loneliness.
Obviously, the negative effects of screen time can impact both your physical and mental health.
And while everything I just wrote is very real and important, there’s another truth about it that I’m finally beginning to understand at a deeper level. Unfortunately, it isn’t mentioned nearly enough: screen time can steal you away from the rest of your life.
It’s a wily thief that’s deliberately built to rob you of your precious time and attention so that you have less to give to what matters most to you.
You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.
—Seneca, The Shortness of Life
What if the real negative effects of screen time are loss of abundant time and meaning?
I’m wondering how often you’ve said these words: There’s not enough time in the day.
I’m guessing a lot. I’ve said them and the women I’ve counseled and coached throughout the years have too. Hardly a week goes by without one of my clients bringing it up.
There’s an unending variety of phrases we use to bemoan our lack of time…
- If only I had more time
- I need to make more time
- I need to find more time
- I’d love to stop time
- Where did the time go?
Or my personal favorite (but not really): I wish I had one more day or I wish it was still yesterday. I cringe a little as I write that, realizing I’ve said it far too often in my adult life.
Yet I know I’m not alone and I know my relationship with screens has something to do with it.
I’ve recently had a big aha about my own challenges with screen time.
But first I’ll fill you in on the backstory, because this isn’t my first go round exploring my relationship with time and technology and meaning.
It began about a decade ago when I happened upon a New York Times article by Tim Kriedler: The Busy Trap. In the midst of reading the article I noticed that Kriedler’s take on busyness was hitting uncomfortably close to home.
He suggested that chronic busyness might be a self-imposed practice that boosts our egos and is perhaps linked to compulsive behavior.
He also proposed that one of the reasons we default to busyness is the potential existential angst and emptiness waiting on the other side.
In other words, when we put a halt to all the doing (and scrolling and clicking), we might find ourselves pondering those uncomfortable questions about who we are, how we’re living our lives and how we make meaning.
People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.
—Seneca, The Shortness of Life
Right then and there I decided to stop using the word busy.
I stopped answering, “I’m really busy” when someone asks how I’m doing.
Like some people pick a word for the year, I made this my unword for the year. I started using it like a verb: I’m unwording my vocabulary.
Surprisingly, it stuck. Each time I’d start to say or think “busy” I pulled myself back.
Deleting busy from my vocabulary opened my eyes to what I’d suspected for some time.
I learned I’m very sensitive to the negative effects of screen time.
Too much time online feeds my own personal Busy Trap and can take me down the road toward overwhelm, fatigue, anxiety and hypervigilence.
Without a doubt, too much screen time increases my (and probably your) dopamine-induced seeking behavior like nothing else.
That said, I understand this isn’t the case for all women. I actually hesitated to write this post because I didn’t want it to be shaming or blaming in any way.
Nowadays we know even more about why screens are so addictive.
Furthermore, it’s been estimated that adults average between 11 to 19 hours a day on screens, while 30% “say they’re online almost constantly.”
This is pretty far from the general recommendation to limit screen time to less than two hours a day (outside of work time).
For me the result of too much screen time is a deeply unsatisfying kind of faux work and busyness.
But the weird thing is that when I enter into the online rabbit hole a part of me believes I’m doing serious, important work. I’ve heard other women say something similar, and it’s puzzling for them too.
Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, finally shed light on this.
Now I know that when I’m online my brain believes that my actual work in the world is to continue seeking, scrolling and clicking. The attention economy, and the way it’s been designed, has taught my brain to believe this.
Odell hints at this early in the book, when she writes about work “metastasizing throughout the rest of life”…
Every waking moment becomes the time in which we make our living, and when we submit even our leisure for numerical evaluation via likes on Facebook or Instagram, constantly checking on its performance like one checks a stock…time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive. This is a cruel confluence of time and space: just as we lose non commercial spaces, we also see all our our own time and our actions as potentially commercial.
At first glance, I didn’t think this shift in how we relate to work and leisure applied to me.
After all, I work for myself and set my own hours. Unlike so many others, my employer (me) doesn’t require me to be available 24/7 by text or email.
Not only that, but the bulk of my work is talking in real time with other women. In fact, aside from client sessions and women’s circles, my time is my own.
The actual time I absolutely must spend in front of a screen to do other work to support my business is mostly of my own choosing. As for social media, it’s a small part of my marketing efforts and I post a few times a week on Instagram and occasionally on LinkedIn.
That’s all the social media I have, personally and professionally. For years I’ve told myself I have a light footprint and don’t care much about participating in the online world.
Doesn’t it make sense that the negative effects of screen time wouldn’t apply to me?
It turns out that I couldn’t grasp the full impact screen time was having on me until I learned more about the attention economy in general and persuasive design in particular.
Persuasive design has been around a long time, since at least the 1960’s. It rests on the study of human behavior. The end game is to identify techniques that are most likely to grab your attention to get you to buy something. Or to do whatever the advertiser wants you to do.
Not surprisingly, all tech companies hire psychologists to help them develop persuasive design strategies. These strategies manipulate users to stay on the page or click or keep coming back for more. Obviously, this intensifies the negative effects of screen time.
This was the beginning of my aha moment.
I already knew a bit about persuasive design, but the book piqued my curiosity further. In researching it, Odell discovered a Stanford University study that revealed 171 persuasive design strategies used on LinkedIn.
I had to sit with that for a minute. I mean, LinkedIn? It always seemed pretty mild compared to other social media.
Odell went on to share just a few of these design strategies, and one in particular stood out for me. (Okay, if I’m being honest, it took my breath away a little bit.)
Here it is:
…the number on the notification badges feels like a to-do list and makes you want to get the number to zero. It arouses your base desire for having order instead of chaos.
My big aha…it’s all another to-do list.
Not only do screens present us with another to-do list, but they intensify the deep (and often urgent) desire to cross everything off the list and arrive at a place where order reigns over chaos.
Once I’d soaked up that nugget other things started to make sense.
First, I already knew that to-do list overwhelm is very real for many women. Second, it frequently shows up in therapy conversations and often has deep roots in family, personal and societal pressures and expectations.
It’s an ongoing theme: trying to catch up and experience a respite from the constant push to get it all done. But, we don’t often link screen time with to-do list overwhelm in our day to day life.
No doubt that’s because the dilemma of how to get it all done has been around long before we had to worry about the negative effects of screen time or the pressures of social media.
To-do list overwhelm isn’t new for women.
Feeling like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders isn’t new. Worrying about getting it all done isn’t new.
There are also significant structural inequalities in our society around women’s roles, rights and responsibilities that speak to the reality of not having enough time in the day.
Not surprisingly, during my years as a therapist and coach women have often shared…
- Stories of overwhelm and over-responsibility
- Worries about not being or doing enough
- Challenges with self-care and self-compassion
- Not knowing how to take time for themselves
- Stressors around time scarcity and emotional labor
However, it’s worse now.
The challenges seem heavier and more complicated since social media and smart phones came on the scene.
I think I can safely say this because I’ve got a long view, having worked with women for more than two decades.
And I remember when things started to change, when women’s positive stories about screen time began turning into stories of the negative effects of screen time, particularly around FaceBook.
A few years ago I wrote about FaceBook’s negative impact on my clients.
But at the time I had no clue our troubles with the pressures of social media and too much screen time were coming from a part of our brains telling us: Get to work. And don’t stop until you’ve satisfied my base desire for order over chaos.
Unfortunately, many women don’t get enough of that longed for state of order over chaos.
Clearly, screen time makes it even harder. We’ll always come up short meeting our base desire for order when we’re online because there is no real way to satisfy the need that our poor manipulated brains have for getting to the end of the list.
The negative effects of screen time are 24/7.
Turn on the screen and the potential negative effects are right there.
There’s the red dot under the black heart telling me I have a new list to get through. I don’t even need to see the list to know it’s there. And by the way, that red color is another form of persuasive design: it makes my brain believe it’s urgent that I click that heart ASAP.
There’s probably an email or article waiting for me that’s going to be like a gateway drug, getting me to click on more links that set me up for another unplanned and unrecognized to-do list.
Finally, there’s the sense of creeping information overload that only seems to intensify the scrolling and clicking and to-doing.
In the end, this repeating loop aggravates the challenges women already experience with a host of related issues around anxiety, overwhelm, self-care and time scarcity.
To repeat: when you’re online, your brain may think it’s another to-do list.
But you probably don’t even know it. The intent is to get you to stay online and keep faux working (or buying or getting agitated).
No wonder clicking and scrolling feel like serious work to me and perhaps you too. It doesn’t help that I have a sometimes too curious brain, often clicking the next link even though I’ve already got the information I’m seeking.
But now I know that’s about more than just the dopamine seeking reward loop.
It’s also about the manipulated discomfort I feel because I haven’t completed the never ending to-do list that’s been put in front of me without my permission.
Now I see the negative effects of screen time (and the to-do list) everywhere.
They exist far beyond the confines of social media. These days even the newsletters I sign up for encourage me to click on outside links.
I was baffled when this started a few years ago, because I’d been taught that the priority is to keep subscriber’s eyes on your content. And before I read the book I didn’t fully understand why I hesitated to embrace this current newsletter practice myself.
It finally makes sense now. I didn’t want to give my readers another to-do list. And more to the point, I didn’t want to give myself another to-do list, to have to scroll and click to find those links and then set them up in my newsletter.
It’s a wake-up call, personally and professionally.
I see that those of us in business may unknowingly wind up not just as targets of the attention economy and persuasive design, but purveyors of it as well.
We see others doing it so we think it’s a new thing we should try. We get used to it and are probably unaware that there’s a rather manipulative intent underneath it.
Then, without being conscious of it, we ourselves have become responsible for some of the negative effects of screen time, adding to someone else’s to-do list overwhelm.
Some people believe we’re powerless to push back.
They believe the attention economy and persuasive design are ruthlessly gamed against us.
Jenny Odell is a bit more hopeful. And by the way, her book isn’t really about doing nothing. She doesn’t suggest you totally step away from screens and social media either, an almost impossible task in the 21st Century.
What she does suggest is that we create our own personal boundaries and space around what it means to refuse to participate in the attention economy as it stands today. She also provides some helpful guidelines to do that, which I’ll write about in my next post.
In the meantime, I want to return to the idea I started with.
It’s the idea that the combined negative effects of screen time, persuasive design and the attention economy put us at risk of losing the thread of meaning in our lives and the experience of time abundance.
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.
-Seneca, The Shortness of Life
So next time you find yourself too engrossed in a screen, try this.
Take a breath, pull back and ask yourself these questions:
- Is this my real work in the world? (Or a slyly designed to-do list?)
- Am I spending my time making my life shorter than it needs to be, robbing me of real meaning?
- Does this feel like a good experience, deep in my bones?
And if you can, find time soon to journal with these questions. Putting pen to paper is one of the best antidotes I know to the negative effects of screen time.