Illustration: Evan Weselmann

Bad Ideas

Inside My Nightmarish Quest for Screen Time Zero

Rather than feeling zen, cutting my screen time left me frustrated, bored, and isolated

Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do, and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

WeWe all believe we spend too much time on our phones. Parents post about it on Facebook. Teens meme about it on Twitter. Tech executives tout the promises of technology while simultaneously boasting about their digital detoxes and refusing their own children screen time. These days, the biggest developments in smartphones aren’t the technology, but ways we can track and limit the use of our smartphones.

It all points to one logical endpoint: living a life free from screens. It’s something we all wish we could do, but, thanks to the now-ubiquitous nature of technology, can’t. (Unless, of course, you’re popular author Dave Eggers who does not have internet at his house.)

I spent a week cutting my screen time in half each successive day: eight hours on Monday, four hours on Tuesday, and so on until I had less than 10 minutes on Sunday. Not so much a digital detox but rather a digital taper — a way to “encourage” myself to adjust to a life without screens. I hoped to find a sort of peace. But what I found was a nightmare.

BBecause I am a smart person, I started my screen-fasting experiment on the day I drove 11 hours from my parents’ house in Hendersonville, North Carolina, back to my apartment in Philadelphia. Still, I needed to have my phone running Google Maps so I didn’t get lost in Virginia, or worse, D.C.

Does Maps count as “screen time”? Unclear, but the fact that I was negotiating with myself just what really counts as screen time on day one didn’t bode well. I compromised and locked my phone once I hit I-81, avoiding the screen for five hours of drive time. When I got home I “rewarded” myself with three hours of playing Disco Elysium, a text-heavy role-playing game, on my PC. (It’s very good, and very engrossing, which also doesn’t bode well for the rest of this week.)

I’d blown past my screen time allotment by nine hours.

Day two was a toughy: How do I cut out screen time when I need screens to make a living? The week prior I had sold a story about the remastered version of Halo: Reach. With an approaching deadline — and because I am a thorough reporter — I had no choice but to spend all my allocated screen time playing Halo… for work.

I was all out of screen time hours for the day. But weeks ago, I promised my brother that we’d play Halo over the internet together on release day. Screens aren’t just a means of employment, they’re also how we manage our closest relationships! I decided to be a Good Brother over being a Good Reporter, and spent the next seven hours playing through the entirety of the Halo: Reach campaign together. Oopsie! Since I was binging already, I spend another two hours playing Disco Elysium before I head to bed. I’d blown past my screen time allotment by nine hours for a grand total of 13 hours spent staring at a device.

The next day I woke up with a hangover of overindulgence, like I’d eaten one too many slices of pizza, or spent money I didn’t have. That’s something I’ve never felt before with technology. Sure, I’ve had days where I’ve spent too much time on Twitter, but it was odd to feel guilty about something that, outside of this experiment, I would have considered an act of self-care.

I entered day three with a renewed sense of purpose, and resolved to write my Halo story in the two hours of allocated screen time. But two hours in, I’d hardly made any progress. I had to decide between which editor to disappoint: my editor on the Halo piece, or my editor on this piece. I picked the latter, and blew through my screen time deadline again. I felt like a complete failure.

As my screen time allotment shrank over the next few days, life was agonizing. I needed to get things done (answer emails, refine pitches, sort out logistics for a bike race this weekend) and also unwind (play video games, watch streaming video) — but did not have the screen time to do either. On the fourth night, having again gone over my limit because of work obligations, I opened a notebook in frustration — something I had not done in years — and scribbled down my thoughts.

“What do I hope to gain from all of this?”

“I’m writing these dumb notes down in a notebook because of this arbitrary challenge,” I write. “If I could just type they’d flow out. Instead my hand is tired and there’s a limit on what I can even process through writing.”

“Is this ‘addiction’ or just making my life needlessly complicated,” I wrote. “What do I hope to gain from all of this?”

As a reward for putting my thoughts down in a notebook like a good boy, I spent the next two hours playing Disco Elysium.

Throughout the week I used the Screen Time feature on my Apple devices to keep me honest. By the second half of the week, I was clicking “Ignore Limit” with abandon.

By day five, I didn’t feel “free” or relieved to be away from screens. I felt isolated and anxious. I missed a message from my girlfriend, who’s in Pakistan for work, because of Screen Time. I sent her an apology and a sheepish explanation of this dumb experiment, which only made me feel silly and even more isolated. I did the same for the friends I was carpooling with for a bike race that weekend. I began to feel like my self-imposed restriction was morphing into an obnoxious burden on those around me.

Instead of rediscovering the “real world,” I was bored. Without screens, endless weeknights stretched out into the horizon. In a moment of crisis, I decided to do something I don’t normally do: listen to a podcast. Unsure of what to do with the rest of my body while I listened, inspected all the dents and scratches on my closed MacBook. Two agonizing hours later I went to bed at 9:30 p.m.

Going into this experiment I expected things to be tedious, even funny as the inconveniences started to stack up. Instead, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

By the end of the week, I’d come to realize that I am not the same person I was when I wrote a 2,000-word screed about wanting to log off a little over a year ago. At the time, the demands of a full-time job as an editor at a digital publication required, as ex-Deadspin writer David Roth put it, “wading every day into the internet’s sprawling garbage lagoons in search of eye-catching chunks of floating trash.”

Now I’m a freelance writer. Although I’ve never felt more vulnerable, beat-down, and powerless since losing my job, I’ve somehow stumbled upon a more healthy relationship with technology. Being a “full time” freelancer comes with its own unique set of frustrations and indignities, but the fact that I now have the “freedom” to work on stories I actually care about has drastically altered my relationship to technology from obligation to opportunity.

I can spend my mornings drinking coffee and reading, and no longer feel the pressure to LARP my job over Slack. There’s no boss trying to extract maximum productivity from me, so I can go for bike rides whenever I want. Sure, I don’t have health insurance, retirement savings, or any sort of idea of what my life is going to look like next month, but at least the internet isn’t driving me insane.

Reducing my screen time only made me realize how essential screens are to my life. Screens are a vital part of how I work, unwind, and connect with the people I love. Arbitrarily reducing my screen time only served to mess with the delicate, I would even say healthy, balance I had naturally developed since losing my job.

I feel like I’m more in control of how I use technology. Maybe this is what I was seeking all along: not to find a way to live without screens, but to find a way to live with them. Now if only I could afford health insurance.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him. steverousseau.org

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