Screen time is rising and it's ruining us: 11 ways to cut back

Here's how I did it. (And you can, too.)

Sharon Profis Vice President of Content, CNET Studios
As the Vice President of CNET Studios, Sharon leads the video, social, editorial design, and branded content teams. Before this role, Sharon led content development and launched new verticals for CNET, including Wellness, Money, and How To. A tech expert herself, she's reviewed and covered countless products, hosted hundreds of videos, and appeared on shows like Good Morning America, CBS Mornings, and the Today Show. An industry expert, Sharon is a recurring Best of Beauty Awards judge for Allure. Sharon is an avid chef and hosts the cooking segment 'Farm to Fork' on PBS nationwide. She's developed and published hundreds of recipes.
  • Webby Award ("How To, Explainer, and DIY Video"); Folio Changemaker Award, 2020
Sharon Profis
6 min read
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I grasped the handle on my luggage and braced to lift it, but couldn't. After six hours of torture in the form of nonstop phone usage, my hands were begging for a break. If the epitome of a millennial wake-up call existed, this was it. 

I have long known that I (and many people) spend too much time on the phone -- and probably for no good reason. Somehow, checking my inbox or swiping through Instagram for a few minutes is never enough. "Just checking something real quick" often turns into a 30-minute dopamine-fest of pretty photos, double-taps and swipes that somehow make me feel productive, when I'm not.

A 2018 Nielsen study found that US adults spend about two hours and 22 minutes per day consuming media on their devices, up from the previous study. That number doesn't seem to include time spent messaging or, you know, randomly unlocking your phone because, who knows. For me, that all-inclusive number was starting to hover around four hours per day -- until I did something about it.

And, wow, do I feel better. 

Read more: No more than one hour of screen time for kids under 5, says WHO | Your 'screenome' might be much more important than screen time

Why couldn't I put down my phone?

Researchers don't definitively know why smartphones are so addictive, but they have some ideas. It could be the phone itself, like the satisfying sensation of unlocking or tapping the screen. It could also be the feedback loops created by apps like Facebook and Instagram. (Something tells me it's mostly the latter, but after using the techniques below, I think it's both.)

Almost all of the biggest tech giants have railed against the evils of too much screen time in recent years, and most have started introducing features or tools to track or limit screen time. But they have financial incentives to not go too far in this direction. We've seen that angle touched on in a New York Times report of Apple cracking down on third-party iPhone apps designed to limit phone addiction. 

A former Google product manager called the smartphone a slot machine that exploits the way all our brains work: We crave dopamine (the happiness molecule), and our phones provide it. Product designers, he said in a 60 Minutes interview, design products that take advantage of this vulnerability and get us hooked.

It's really this simple: We're all Pavlov's dogs. 

What's wrong with smartphone addiction?

Besides the repetitive strain injury I experienced in my hand, the effects of phone addiction are mostly psychological. 

Anxiety and phone usage continue to correlate in studies, which find that those who spend a lot of time on their phones also tend to be anxious, depressed or have low self-esteem. But just like we don't know if it's the phone itself or the apps that are so addictive, we don't know if people who are already anxious spend excessive time on their phones, or vice versa.

Phone (and app) addiction is so problematic that a bunch of unfortunate but justified terminology has been created to describe some of its symptoms:

  • Nomophobia. Yep, "No-Mobile-Phobia." That is, the fear of being without your device. 
  • FOMO. The fear of missing out. 
  • Ringxiety. Imagined rings or vibrations that result in checking your phone often. 
  • Textiety. Anxiety associated with feeling like you have to respond to a text message ASAP.

How I cut my screen time down to one hour a day

If I can do it, so can you. After implementing these techniques, I cut more than three hours of phone screen time per day. It was extremely hard and I sometimes exceed an hour, but I feel so much better. 

Generally, I feel less anxious, but I also feel really good about giving nonphone tasks (like talking to other humans) my undivided attention (which is hard to do when you're always reaching for your phone). Here's what I did. 

Make your phone go grayscale

Without all those colors, apps like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and even news apps, are much less interesting. This is a fantastic little mind trick that worked wonders for me. On an iPhone , go to Settings > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters. Turn this setting on. 

Then, go to Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut and select Color Filters. Now, for those rare times you need to see your screen in color, you can triple click your phone's side button. To go back to grayscale, triple-click again. 

Disable 'raise to wake'

All it takes is a little nudge and your phone's screen will light up. In the car or at my desk, I noticed these wake-ups would launch me into long, unplanned phone sessions. Disabling the feature means your phone will beckon you much less. 

To disable raise to wake on the iPhone, go to Settings > Display & Brightness. Toggle Raise to Wake to the off position.

Turn off almost all notifications

This trick is amazing. At first, you'll instinctively unlock your phone to see if you missed any notifications. Then, as days pass, your unlocks will becomes less frequent as you discover there is absolutely nothing waiting there for you. 

I disabled notifications for emails (except from key people, like my direct peers and manager), messages and Google Calendar . That's it. 

Delete social media apps

No, I am not kidding. Yes, I am serious. No, you will not die without Facebook.

I deleted Facebook a couple of years ago and never looked back. I almost instantly felt better, and I think you will, too. 

Admittedly, I haven't deleted Instagram. Instead, I use the iPhone's Screen Time feature to limit the amount of time per day I can spend in social media apps, including Instagram. 

Stop pooping with your phone

Humankind survived millennia without a bathroom companion, and I believe you'll live, too. Taking your phone with you to go number two is not only gross, it's also a lame excuse to spend more time checking scores, swiping through social media or playing games. 

Depending on how long you, ahem, spend in the bathroom, this could significantly cut back on your screen time.

Discipline your (and your friends') Googling habits

My friends seriously hate me for this, but also love me for it (I think). The next time you're debating a factoid over dinner with friends, stop yourself and everyone else from grabbing a phone to google it.

If you never do find out what the state bird of Nebraska is, who cares? In exchange, the lively conversation continued and wasn't halted by a definitive fact no one is going to remember anyway

Stop taking so many photos

Just like over-googling prevents your brain from retaining information, photo-taking prevents your brain from forming actual memories. In three studies, people who didn't take photos during an experience had significantly more detailed memories than those who did. 

If that's not enough of a reason to leave your phone in your pocket, I don't know what is. 

Leave your phone behind

On the weekends, it takes me a long time -- sometimes hours -- to respond to messages. That's because my phone is rarely with me. At lunch or on a hike, I leave my phone behind and spend more time "living in the moment" and away from my screen.

Don't use your phone as your alarm clock

One minute you're setting the morning's alarm and the next 30 minutes, you're in other apps. Keeping your phone outside the bedroom helps reduce screen time, but might also reduce some anxiety. A recent survey found that those who slept near their phones were twice as likely to report nomophobia, too. 

Make use of a smartwatch or tracker

My biggest phone addiction challenge was what I call the "rabbit hole." I would get a notification -- even just a text message -- and suddenly I'm in the rabbit hole, checking other apps and spending many minutes on my phone.

In some cases, adding another piece of tech into the mix could prevent this. By using a smartwatch or fitness tracker with notification features, you can check the time and receive important messages without falling into the rabbit hole. 

The major asterisk here is that smartwatch notifications can easily get out of hand, so you'll have to be very disciplined about capping the type of notifications you receive on your wrist. 

Let your friends and family know

As with any goal, letting your friends and family know you're on a journey to reduce screen time will keep you honest. 

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

Originally published April 25, 6 a.m. PT.
Update, April 27: Adds mention of New York Times report on Apple and apps designed to limit phone addiction.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.