Lesson 1: I spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of time on my phone.

By Locke Hughes
December 06, 2018
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Photo: Courtesy of Locke Hughes

Like most people with social media accounts, I'll confess that I spend way too much time staring at a small illuminated screen in my hand. Over the years, my social media usage has crept up-and up, and up-to a point where my iPhone battery usage estimated I spent seven to eight hours on my phone as a daily average. Yikes. What did I do with all that extra time I used to have?!

Since it's clear that Instagram and Twitter (my main time sucks) aren't going away-or becoming any less addictive-any time soon, I decided it was time to take a stand against the apps.

New Healthy Screen-Time Tech

Turns out, the folks at Apple and Google had a similar train of thought. Earlier this year, the two tech giants announced new tools to help limit smartphone overuse. In iOS 12, Apple released Screen Time, which tracks how much time you spend using your phone, on certain apps, and in categories such as social networking, entertainment, and productivity. You can set time limits in your app categories, such as one hour on social networking. However, these self-imposed limits are pretty easy to override-simply tap "Remind me in 15 minutes," and your Instagram feed will return in all its colorful glory.

Google seems to take a stronger stand. Like Screen Time, Google's Digital Wellbeing shows time spent on the device and certain apps, but when you surpass your designated Time Limit, that app's icon is grayed out for the rest of the day. The only way to regain access is to go into the Wellbeing dashboard and manually remove the limit.

As an iPhone user, I was excited to have a clearer picture of how much time I was spending (er, wasting) on social media. But first of all, I wondered: How much time was "too much" to spend on social media, exactly? To learn more, I went to the experts-and learned there wasn't a one-size-fits-all answer.

"One of the key factors in determining whether you're spending too much time online is checking to see if your behavior interferes with other areas of your life," says Jeff Nalin, Psy.D., Ph.D., psychologist, addiction specialist, and founder of Paradigm Treatment Centers.

In other words, if your social media habits are affecting time with family or friends, or if you're choosing your phone over other recreational activities, then your screen time has become problematic. (Spending too much time on social media can also affect your body image.)

I don't think I'd go as far as to say I have a "disorder" when it comes to social media, but I'll admit it: I've found myself reaching for my phone when I should be focusing on work. I've been called out by friends and family to stop looking at Instagram during dinner, and I hate being that person.

So, I decided to put these new tools to the test and set a one hour limit on social media on my iPhone to conduct a personal one-month experiment. Here's how it went.

The Initial Shock

Quickly, my excitement about this experiment turned to horror. I learned that one hour was a surprisingly short amount of time to spend on social media. The first day, I was shocked when I hit my hour limit by the time I was eating breakfast, thanks to my early-morning scroll sessions in bed.

That definitely served as a wake-up call. Was it really helpful or productive to spend time watching Instagram stories of strangers before I've even gotten out of bed? Not at all. In fact, it was probably doing far more damage to my mental health-and productivity-than I realized. (Related: How to Be As Happy IRL As You Look On Instagram)

When I asked the experts for advice on how to cut back, there wasn't a clear answer. Nalin recommended scheduling 15- to 20-minute sessions at specific times during the day as a baby step.

Similarly, you can block out certain times of day to be "social media–friendly," suggests Jessica Abo, journalist and author of Unfiltered: How to Be As Happy As You Look On Social Media. Maybe you want to dedicate the 30 minutes you spend on the bus going to work, 10 minutes you know you'll spend in line waiting for your coffee, or five minutes during your lunch break to checking your apps, she says.

One caveat: "Do what feels comfortable to you at first, because if you impose too many rules too quickly, you may be less motivated to stick with your goal." I probably should have started with a longer time limit at first, but I honestly thought one hour would be doable. It's pretty shocking when you start to realize how much of a time-suck your phone really is.

Making Progress

As I got a grip on the time I spent on my phone in the morning, I found it more manageable to stay within the hour limit. I started to reach the hour limit closer to 4 or 5 p.m., although there were certainly some days when I hit it by noon. (That was pretty startling too-especially on days when I got up at 8 a.m. That meant I'd already spent at least one-fourth of my day staring at that little screen.)

To be fair, some of my work revolves around social media, so it wasn't all mindless scrolling. I run a professional account where I share my writing and wellness tips, and I also run a blog and social media account for a client. Looking back, I should have included perhaps an extra 30 minutes to allow for time spent "working" on social media.

Still, even on weekends (when I was probably not doing actual work), I had no trouble hitting the hour limit by 5 p.m. And I'll be honest: Every single day of this monthlong experiment, I clicked "Remind me in 15 minutes"...um, multiple times. It probably added up to about an additional hour spent on social media per day, if not more.

I asked the experts what I could do to combat that unhealthy tendency moving forward. (Related: I Spent a Month Aggressively Unfollowing People On Social Media)

"Stop and ask yourself out loud, 'Why do I need more time on here?'" Abo told me. "You may discover you're just trying to cure your boredom, and you don't actually need to spend more time on your phone. If you can, try to give yourself only one extension during the day, so you keep better tabs on how often you try to ignore that warning."

I've tried that, and it actually helps. I've caught myself saying out loud, "What am I doing on here?" and then throwing my phone across the table (gently!). Hey, whatever works, right?!

Nalin says that distracting yourself can help, too. Take a walk (sans phone!), practice a five-minute mindfulness meditation, call a friend, or spend a few minutes with a pet, he suggests. "These types of distractions will help to wean us from giving into temptations."

The Final Word

After this experiment, I've definitely become more aware of my social media habits-and how much time they take away from more productive work, as well as quality time with family and friends. While I don't think I have a "problem," I would like to cut down on my automatic tendencies to look at social media.

So what's the verdict on these smartphone tools? Nalin expresses caution. "It's unlikely that a simple application will motivate heavy phone users or social media addicts to reduce their usage," he says.

Still, these tools can help you become more aware of your usage, and at least encourage you to start changing your habits in a more permanent way. "Like a New Year's resolution, you may be initially motivated to use the tool as a way to alter an addictive habit. But other, more effective strategies can be implemented to help you better manage your social media time," says Nalin. "A time-limiting app may help you set some limits, but you shouldn't expect a magic cure." (Maybe try these tips for how to do a digital detox without FOMO.)