Madeleine Holden has tried nearly every technique in the book to reduce her screen time. She rates them all for IRL.
Like pretty much everyone I know, I would like to use my phone less. Over the years, I’ve made pretty good progress on this front: in my early 20s I was the kind of tedious bore who’d keep whipping out my phone mid-brunch to check Twitter or Whatsapp; a decade later, I’m only moderately hooked. I still quote memes too much irl, but I can frequently be found touching grass and sustaining whole conversations uninterrupted.
It’s taken a little more than sheer willpower. Tips and tricks for reducing screen time proliferate on the internet, and I’ve given most of them a hoon, with varying levels of success. Here are all of my faves, plus the duds that were no help at all, rated out of 10.
What it involves: What it says on the box, really. You can disable and tweak your app notifications in the “Settings” section of your cursed phone.
Pros: A banger technique with few downsides. Be absolutely brutal: I decided there was no need for push or banner notifications of any kind, a decision I’ve never regretted, and I only left badge notifications on apps where I’m in frequent communication with people I care about (Whatsapp, Messenger, texts). I’m not convinced you need to hear from news, music, podcast, gaming or meditation apps at all.
Cons: Nary one I can think of. You might hear about a new episode of your favourite podcast dropping three days late, but truly, who cares?
What it involves: This Apple-centric feature provides reports on how much time you spend on various apps, with an option to set yourself time limits.
Pros: About the only good thing about this feature is the hard data. Seeing how many hours you’re wasting away on social media forces an existential reckoning and the problem becomes undeniable.
Cons: Screen Time sucks. When you’re coming up to your self-imposed time limit, a notification asks if you’d like to continue for another 15 minutes, and there’s no limit to how many times you can abuse this option. After easily circumventing your own limits, Screen Time bombards you with constant notifications and annoying reports about how much you’re letting yourself down. Feelings of guilt and self-loathing go through the roof, as do the hours spent online.
Of course, Apple doesn’t care whatsoever if you’re addicted to their products, which I guess is why their “fix” is so weak.
Perpetual silent mode
What it involves: Silent mode, all day every day (or at least, as a default unless you know an important call is incoming).
Pros: This is probably my most controversial technique, because while it’s great for me – I don’t have to hear my phone’s annoying pinging sounds, ever – it’s annoying for people who need to get hold of me unexpectedly. It’s not unusual for me to miss courier deliveries or see six missed calls from my boyfriend an hour ago, when he was at the supermarket wondering if we needed milk. So frustrating for him! So relaxing for me!
Cons: It’s theoretically possible I could miss a crucial call this way. I haven’t, though, in all the years I’ve been on silent-as-default, and I guess if my sister went into labour or my grandad was rushed to hospital, I would realise… the next time I checked my phone? So like, an hour or two later? It’s a gamble that won’t suit everyone, but it works just fine for me.
Do Not Disturb
What it involves: Calls and texts are silenced while you’ve got this mode activated.
Pros: This option technically holds all the advantages of my silent-as-default technique, without the risk of missing a crucial call: there’s an option to auto-bypass if the same person calls you twice within three minutes, and you can carve out exceptions for certain individuals or lists of people.
Cons: Bo-ring! Live on the silent-mode edge! Also, it’s too much admin setting up the exceptions and remembering to turn it on and off.
Put your phone in a basket or jail
What it involves: A bit of a cutesy, Live, Laugh, Love option, the idea here is that you cordon off your phone into a designated “DO NOT USE” area and then leave it alone while you do other stuff.
Pros: This is generally touted as a social option: everyone puts their phone in the basket so you’re all forced to ~be present~ with each other. This kind of bossy peer pressure might work for you?
Cons: Honestly, this option is a dud. Telling your loved ones to lock their phones in a box gives strong wowser vibes, and if you’re doing it solo, there’s no reason this would work better than willpower alone. You also sometimes want your phone for the useful things it provides (a timer when you’re cooking, background music from your Spotify app) without the distraction of social media and messaging apps. There’s no middle ground here.
Have a friend lock you out of social media
What it involves: You entrust a loved one with the password to whichever social media platform is causing you the most angst, they go in, change your password, then log you out, rendering you unable to access your own account. I covered this extensively here.
Pros: It’s more realistic than self-regulation, and can encourage camaraderie among the terminally online. The shame of having to beg to be logged back in means you’ll need a really good excuse, too.
Cons: You need someone in your life you trust with your accounts and news of your feeble self-control, and you have to stomach the indignity of pleading to be logged back in, as you inevitably will do on occasion.
Delete the most addictive apps
What it involves: Have apps like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook deleted off your phone as a default, and if you really need to use them, manually download, log in, do your thing, then delete again once you’re done.
Pros: Often you only open an app because it’s there – this avoids that automatic, mindless checking. Plus sheer human laziness means you’ll usually find the download-and-login faff more trouble than it’s worth, which is perfect.
Cons: This one relies on you having the willpower to delete as soon as you’re done, though the process does become oddly satisfying, so it’s not as big a barrier as you’d think.
What it involves: Drain the colour (and joy) from your phone’s display so that you’d prefer to look at almost anything else.
Cons: It makes reading your weather app and maps quite difficult and taking a photo a little harder, but they’re small tradeoffs for a less addictive phone.
Use a dumb phone
What it involves: Dig out an old Nokia or flip phone and bask in its lack of features.
Pros: Your phone isn’t addictive, because it does nothing fun! (Snake game aside.)
Cons: I used a Nokia brick for an entire summer recently, and while it made me feel like a maverick, it was also a huge pain in the arse. You have to press the jelly buttons up to four times for each letter of each text message. You can’t look up anything. The whole exercise makes you feel like smartphones are modern miracles, which is bad when the point is to loosen their grip on you.
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