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

Steve Rousseau
Published in
6 min readJan 15, 2020

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.)