Screen-Time Advice From the Before Times No Longer Applies

Photo: tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus

In December 2019—or as we now refer to it, the Before Time — the online magazine Man Repeller predicted that 2020 would be “the year of being not extremely online, not extremely offline, but rather medium online.”

An oversaturated 2019 left many of us reflecting on how we could have a more wholesome, balanced relationship with social media and our rate of online consumption in the upcoming year. “Medium online” offered a moderated approach to technology, using it for only practical and purposeful tasks and rejecting the rest. As Edith Young wrote in her December 2019 piece, “In the age of feeling at once tightly wound and burned out, I’d like to imagine the near future will bring about some element of hive mind, where a collective intolerance for tech’s ubiquity and our desire to be constantly connected lands us somewhere in between the two.”

If only we knew just how burned out and reliant on technology we would become, merely months later.

This is not to say the concept of medium online wasn’t a hopeful response to improve our mental health. But 2020 had other plans.

Suddenly, we were using technology for everything. Work, play, family, friends, dating, and leisure. Before we even hit April, it was clear that 2020 would be the year of extremely online. As we were questioning how to navigate our new online lives, then came the biggest civil rights movement of our time. Signing off is a privilege when we are all being asked to show up.

So, of all the screen-time advice from the Before Time, what holds up?

Moderation

There’s a happy middle ground for those of us who are torn between the opposite demands of either extremely online or extremely offline. As with our diets, we know moderation should be the goal. However, no one knows what that truly entails.

In the Before Time, we limited our screen time as a signal of productivity. We were overwhelmed with new apps, most of us didn’t even know what TikTok was, and we maintained crisp digital versions of our personal brands.

What does a moderate online presence even look like now? It was easy to preach: Choose offline experiences for better connections and mental health, unplug from your digital life, and prioritize your in-person connections. But for the foreseeable future, those offline moments live entirely online. There’s not much we can do about it.

Most of us will be able to stay medium online by making small, daily decisions that edge us toward content and platforms that make us feel better when we are online.

Let go of the pressure to unplug, and reject the judgment surrounding your digital habits. Only you know what moderation means to you, if you’re even seeking it in the first place.

Technology isn’t inherently bad

Imagine telling your screen-time-obsessed 2019 self that every workday in 2020, you would wake up, take eight hours of Zoom meetings, doom-scroll social media, read the news online, and communicate with your friends only on FaceTime. Imagine imposing limits for technology use on your children. As NPR education reporter and author Anya Kamenetz wrote in the New York Times, “An immediate consequence of the pandemic is that strict screen-time limits — which were always largely the province of more privileged families, like mine — went out the door, everywhere.”

Screen time means nothing now.

Ask yourself: Do you really need to be on every single social platform?

Ten hours of screen time a day sounds less horrifying if five of those hours were spent reading on the Kindle app or listening to podcasts. We bought into the shame surrounding the time we spend on our phones without analyzing what we’re actually doing with that time.

The last thing we need is a form of calorie counting for our digital lives. Because for a lot of us, digital lives are all we have right now.

Everywhere, but nowhere

Ask yourself: Do you really need to be on every single social platform? I like securing the same username across various social media apps even if I rarely access them. But for many of us, unless our careers dictate it, we don’t need a half-baked existence across a dozen platforms.

I recently culled my Facebook friends list down to under 200 people. (In the past it had neared 800.) My Facebook wall is now happily a cemetery of “happy birthday” messages and the occasional photo uploaded to appease family members. It has slightly eased my anxiety knowing that among the creeping targeted ads, I now have 600 fewer acquaintances to keep up with.

A stricter strategy is one in, one out. Each time you wish to follow either a brand, friend, or celebrity, you must unfollow an existing account. Easy to remember, probably harder to maintain.

Keeping the personal private

Our lives are vast and nuanced, and we manage family, friends, work, and love in myriad ever-changing ways. As much as it relates to safety, we may also want our family time to remain sacred, and offline.

That was before we started getting married on Zoom.

We’ve been forced to cancel big in-person celebrations and memorials, so how do we share these moments? If we use Zoom, do we share the event broadly or through an invite-only link? We still have decisions to make on how our intimate lives are shared publicly.

Prioritizing our personal values and boundaries has never been more important. Conducting our work lives via Zoom has presented a strange dynamic where our co-workers are casually inside our home, sometimes even our bedrooms.

We quickly realized that when we truly managed our social lives through screens, even social gatherings became a burden.

All this doesn’t negate our ability to mostly keep our personal lives personal on social media. We can still create rich and interesting outward-facing digital lives that revolve only around our work or hobbies. For some, doing so is an act of self-preservation.

Fashion influencer and artist Amanda Shadforth shared her thoughts on the fine line between privacy and motherhood in the May 2019 issue of Vogue Australia. Shadforth’s online presence is largely dominated by her art and fashion photography, with a signature pose that obscures her face. “I had two parts of me at once: There was the person having the baby, which was a very personal experience, and then my public persona — my work life,” Shadforth told Vogue. She detailed the criticism she received from others for not sharing her personal life and family, even meeting people for the first time who mentioned that by keeping her private life hidden, she seemed “snobbish.” Shadforth reasoned that revealing her life as a mother would simply invite questions about her breasts, and birth — questions from strangers she didn’t feel comfortable answering. While she recognized that revealing very personal details can help others navigate their own difficulties, that kind of online sharing wasn’t for her. She was also keenly aware that if she shared everything online, she would quickly become like everyone else who held nothing back online. “It’s a paradox to me,” Shadford writes. “Why would I follow a formula if it’s the same formula everyone else is using.”

You are editor-in-chief of your newsfeed

There is still a plethora of positive digital content available to everyone on the platforms we already use. You have the choice to unfollow every influencer or celebrity who adversely affects your online experience, and therefore your mood. Even by following more accounts that post art and design imagery changes the way you are interacting with social media. By consciously choosing to consume better content, you are improving your visual diet.

Mimi Gray, formerly the head of visual content at M&C Saatchi London, describes how before 9 a.m. she has already consumed more than 500 images without even trying. Writing in Campaign, Gray describes the mental health disorders that social media has caused from constant comparison and living through false online identities. “As creative people, feast your eyes on more of the good stuff,” Gray writes. “Keep following Kimye if you must, but look to seek out positive, feel-good imagery and art to balance your visual diet. These are our visual greens; noodle soup for the soul.”

We are not passive consumers. While it’s true we exist in an echo chamber of our own opinions, designed by algorithms based on what you feed them, we have the ability to seek out new opinions and content.

It was once easy to suggest not reading the news if it made you depressed. Then came 2020 and the reliance on news to navigate our daily lives and keep up with the dramatic ways our existence was changing. However, we should stop doom scrolling. It’s eroding our ability to cope.

Know thyself

It’s true that for some, switching off completely is the only option. Some of us can’t even use the Alarm app, since it means having a smartphone within arm’s reach in the bedroom. The temptation to scroll remains too high. However, it has become a form of digital elitism to boast about your offline habits, the ways in which you switch off completely and drastically from the internet.

Whether it be deleting social media entirely or turning off all notifications — drastic boundaries are necessary only if you are truly devoid of willpower.

Our online habits don’t need to be carefully planned into moderation. We can easily curate a presence that accurately reflects our personality and reality but still protects our sanity and privacy. And if you need a day of doom scrolling, allow it. If you need a day unplugged, allow it. It’s 2020, after all—nothing is precedented.

writer, marketer, founder. jessthoms.com/newsletter

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