No one will be shocked to hear that research shows that we are spending more and more of our time on our digital devices. Studies have shown that the average daily use for adults could be as high as a third of our waking hours (1). The chances are that if you are reading this, you have already considered reducing your own screen time. So as a CBT therapist, I’d encourage you to reflect on how your own screen time has an impact on your every-day connections to people, places, and moments, and here is why.
Written by Sophie Hobson, a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist.
Have you ever been so consumed with your phone that you missed what someone said to you? Or sat down on the train and realised you were already at your destination? Or even reached to send a message, but got sidetracked by other notifications? In a world where everything and everyone is available to us from that device in our pocket, these are pretty common scenarios.
Anyone who has misplaced or broken their phone recently will be all too aware of how precious that device is. When we purposefully reach for our phones with a specific task in mind, they can be invaluable in assisting us to get things done. But we also might notice that we fall into patterns of using them just to kill time or relax; but is there any harm in that?
We know that often when we feel low, anxious, or stressed, our minds are drifting into the future or pulling us back to the past, and we aren’t focused on the here and now. Feeling a sense of connection can ground us in the present, and can therefore help us to alleviate symptoms of low mood, worry, and stress and help us to feel truly relaxed. This is something that is often reflected on in therapy and can include many types of connection, including:
So, how might our screen time be related to our sense of connection?
Whilst we will all have our own theories of the impact of smartphones on wellbeing, one topic commonly debated is that of screen time impacting social isolation. Studies have found that time spent on smartphones impacts relationships for various reasons, including having less meaningful conversations with an established partner (2) and smiling less around other people when on a phone (3), all of which impact our ability to connect with those around us.
Think about this for yourself: have you ever said, ‘just give me one second’ to the person in the room with you so you can type a quick whatsapp reply, or even nodded along to a conversation when your mind is really focussed on your phone? We all do that from time-to-time. But if we are spending increasing amounts of time on digital devices, are we able to dedicate enough quality time and attention to interactions and relationships in person? This seems a particularly poignant point of reflection at a time when social isolation is on the rise. Americans have reported (4) having fewer friendships than ever before, and this finding has been replicated in various studies across the globe. In a world where it is easier than ever to keep in touch digitally, it seems that it could be harder than ever to forge and maintain meaningful relationships.
Arguably, digital devices can help us stay connected in many ways: social media, dating apps, and video calls are all tools that have the potential to support positive relationships, both personally and professionally. But if we are spending the amount of time absorbed in our screens as is being reported, how many missed opportunities have there been to build meaningful connections with those in the room with us?
Meaningful social connectivity has been shown to have a significant effect on not just our mental wellbeing but also our physical health. One study even suggests that the impact of social isolation and loneliness causes a comparable detriment to our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day (5).
Connecting to others is paramount to our health. How could reducing screen time potentially improve yours?
As humans, we are predisposed to need to spend time in nature. There is increasing evidence to suggest that being in nature helps to reduce symptoms of low mood and even to reduce blood pressure (6). So much so that in some countries, ‘social prescriptions’ supporting people to spend more time in nature are being issued by health care professionals because of the potential to improve health and wellbeing. Sadly, smart phone use can prohibit us from engaging with beneficial levels of nature connectedness (7) that are vital for our wellbeing.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that parents are right to encourage children to spend time outdoors rather than on screens (8) but the same can also be said for adults. Of course, it is about balance and that will be personal to us all. So think about this for yourself: when was the last time that you truly disconnected from your small screen?
Connecting to nature aids our wellbeing. How could reducing screen time potentially improve yours?
We know that if we are focussed on digital devices, we can’t take everything in that is going on around us (9). We simply aren’t built to multitask to that extent, even if we might think we are. This might not matter in insignificant, mundane situations, but it can have a surprising impact on how we feel.
In some treatments of depression, individuals might be supported to practise paying attention to feelings of pleasure or achievement. That might sound like a strange thing to practise, we might assume that this is automatic, but with busy everyday lives, this isn’t a given. Sometimes we might find that we go through the motions of doing tasks without taking something from them, just like we do if we are distracted by something. Have you ever seen bands voice their frustration at the crowds of people watching gigs through their phones to capture it all rather than simply watching, listening, and feeling the experience itself?
If we don’t pay attention to moments, they’re not going to be enriching experiences; they’re not going to impact us. Being truly focussed on the moment can help us to feel better, relax, and increase the enjoyment that we take from experiences, whether life changing moments or everyday tasks.
Connecting to the present moment fuels contentment. How could reducing screen time potentially improve yours?
As with everything, the key is balance, and if you are struggling to achieve that balance, why not try using Zario as a tool to help with this. If you’re unsure about what that balance is, set yourself an experiment: reduce your screen time consistently for a set period and see what happens. Pay attention to the impact on your connections. If, at the end of that period, you dislike having that new-found extra time, then perhaps you have already achieved the right balance for you. If, however, you’ve benefited from your new-found time, then continue to set your own goals and enjoy the benefits!
Sophie Hobson is a Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist who studied at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. Sophie’s previous experience of delivering evidence-based CBT is in the National Health Service (NHS) as part of Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) but she is now based in Zurich. Her passion lies in equipping people with the tools needed to break out of cycles of depression and anxiety, to not just feel better in the here and now but to empower people to feel better for life.