“There are discoveries latent with such potent power, either for the blessing or the destruction of human beings, as to make man’s responsibility in controlling them the most gigantic ever placed in human hands…This age is fraught with limitless perils, as well as untold possibilities.”
-David O. McKay, October 1966 General Conference
Do you understand the latent power of the bright and flashing screen in your home? What about the shiny objects in your hands and at your fingertips? Do you use them for good or ill?
In a CES Fireside address called Things As They Really Are, David A. Bednar spoke of the possible pitfalls of internet use. Four years later at BYU in a talk entitled To Sweep the Earth as With a Flood, Elder Bednar expounded on the positive potential of the same exact tool.
Be brave and honest; screen your use of screens by asking yourself these two questions from Elder Bednar:
- Does the use of various technologies and media invite or impede the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost in your life?
- Does the time you spend using various technologies and media enlarge or restrict your capacity to live, to love, and to serve in meaningful ways?
If this part of your life could use a makeover, I’m here to help. I’ve been reforming my screen time for over six and a half years. I’ll be honest: it isn’t easy. Is it worth it? Completely.
Whether you need to change the time you spend on your smartphone, playing video or computer games, surfing the net, on social media, or watching TV and movies, below are some ideas to help you draft a personal plan of action.
Feed Real Relationships
What makes screen time addictive?
There are so many answers to that question, but here’s one: it addresses the universal need for social connectivity.
Social media apps and video games with chat features enable us to communicate without all the vulnerabilities and inconveniences of face-to-face social interaction. Even movies and TV Shows can demonstrate relationships that you wish you had in real life.
Psychology researchers have recently discovered a surprising truth: the antidote for addiction is connection. Real connection. With all its dangers and inconveniences, there is simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction.
When you find yourself escaping, don’t be too hard on yourself. That will only plunge you into unproductive shame.
Instead, you can simply see it as an indication of a need—a need for real interaction. Then turn your problem into an opportunity. What can you do to make new friends? How can you form deeper relationships with old friends and family? Who in your life can you serve?
The most important relationships you can forge are with your Heavenly Father, your elder brother, Jesus Christ, and with your best friend, the Holy Spirit. There is an even deeper reality to those relationships, a reality stronger than sight, that can fill the heart-holes left by mortal man.
Virtual reactions are like candy, while real-life interactions are like a good meal, but Jesus Christ is the bread of life.
Establish a Meaningful Routine
Addiction is a pretty pervasive weed. It takes time and care to root it out. However, there is nothing more depressing than a bare spot of ground. Take some time to plant some flowers.
What are the flowers? They are the positive, meaningful activities of daily life.
Here are some questions to ponder when you consider reforming your routine:
- What activities do you find both challenging and engaging? Sports? Playing an instrument? Reading? Art projects? Organizing? How can you incorporate these more regularly into your life?
- Do you enjoy your job or schoolwork? If not, what can you do to change that?
- Do you take the time to study your scriptures at the same time every day? Does it bring you spiritual nourishment? If not, what adjustments can you make to better enjoy your study?
- Do you pray every morning and night? Do you feel connected to God when you do?
- Do you have an established exercise routine? If not, how can you more regularly incorporate that into your life?
Remember, start small. The best changes are the ones that last, and the ones that typically last are what seem realistic to you now.
Set Well-Defined Limits
The most addictive forms of tech are often those that do not have pre-defined ends.
A movie from Redbox, for example, has a clearly defined end. You have to leave your house to go back for more. You also have to pay each time. Streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube, tools like phone apps or social media, and many virtual games offer seemingly unlimited amounts of entertainment for little to no money.
If you choose to use any form of tech that doesn’t have a pre-defined end, it’s important to set time limits for you and your family. Anye Kamenetz, the author of The Art of Screen Time, recommends one hour a day.
Of course, it can be difficult to stick to these limits. You may want to publish your goal on Facebook or report to a caring friend or family member regularly. Social accountability can go a long way toward checking behavior.
Try Internet Filtering
Internet filtering is not just for porn addicts or parents and children. It’s for anyone who struggles with monitoring their screen time and productivity on the web.
Here are some services I have used and recommend:
Open DNS is a free internet filtering software. It is customizable and allows the user to not only select a filtering level but to block access to specific domains, like Netflix.com or YouTube.com. It can be a valuable resource, but it does have certain limitations.
You may want to ask a trusted family member or roommate to be the admin of the account. They can set the username and password, and you are not able to access the dashboard.
If you have a little more faith in your self-control, you may find that the simple annoyance of changing those filtering settings is the only reminder you need to deter you from those time-wasting websites.
Take Time to Unplug
Just two and a half weeks ago in General Conference, Elder Ballard lovingly warned us, “If we do not find time to unplug, we may miss opportunities to hear the voice of Him who said, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.'”
Here are some things you can do to get away from your screens for a while:
- Go for a walk in the park.
- Plan a day hike in a remote area.
- Try a social media fast or a break from your phone one day a week or month.
- Make a pact with friends to put your phones away when you go out to lunch together.
- On your commute to work, turn off the music and talk to God instead.
- Open up your paper scriptures and paper notebook and study them.
- Try meditation or yoga.
Allow Yourself to Feel Pain
A few weeks ago, I was driving in my car listening to a song by Rob Gardner. This triggered a sudden, inexplicable surge of sadness. I instinctively picked up my phone to escape the pain. Then I changed my mind, left my phone alone, and just wept. I allowed myself for once to be alone with my feelings, to be overwhelmed by them, to really experience them. And in that process, I discovered, in a manner that is becoming increasingly foreign and rare to our world, the relief of crawling out of the hole of misery by myself.
Writer Andrew Sullivan of New York Magazine described a similar experience at his first meditation retreat. Participants surrendered their devices on the first day and lived the rest of their time mostly in silence. On the third day, he was walking through a forest when he suddenly felt overwhelmed. Painful memories from childhood resurfaced like old wounds torn afresh.
“I decided I would get some distance by trying to describe what I was feeling,” he said. “The two words “extreme suffering” won the naming contest in my head. And when I had my 15-minute counseling session with my assigned counselor a day later, the words just kept tumbling out. After my panicked, anguished confession, he looked at me, one eyebrow raised, with a beatific half-smile. ‘Oh, that’s perfectly normal,’ he deadpanned warmly. ‘Don’t worry. Be patient. It will resolve itself.’ And in time, it did. Over the next day, the feelings began to ebb, my meditation improved, the sadness shifted into a kind of calm and rest. I felt other things from my childhood — the beauty of the forests, the joy of friends, the support of my sister, the love of my maternal grandmother. Yes, I prayed and prayed for relief. But this lifting did not feel like divine intervention, let alone a result of effort, but more like a natural process of revisiting and healing and recovering. It felt like an ancient, long-buried gift.”
Make Entertainment a Social Event
After years of being addicted to screens, I spent my last semester at college limiting my computer use to school labs and libraries and watching only one movie a week. These once-a-week movies became social events with friends and roommates, which helped me to choose good quality entertainment and check my limits.
Anye Kamenetz is the Michael Pollan of Screen Time. Kamenetz’s thesis for her book The Art of Screen Time is “Enjoy screens, not too much, mostly together.”
Kamenetz reports that Skyping, for example, can be a great way for babies and toddlers to interact with loved ones who live afar. They develop language skills and relationships.
Kamenetz also recommends that schools and homework involving computers be a social activity. Research denotes that 2-4 children to a computer can result in greater productivity, learning, and teamwork.
Education Over Entertainment
Both children and adults can learn quite a bit through educational technology.
Fred Rogers was an avid proponent of educative television, and you know what? He was right. Shows like Mr. Roger’s Neighboorhood and Sesame Street can teach children numbers, letters, and even social skills.
You’ll also notice that these shows do not typically promote patterns of compulsive use. How many people do you know that wake up in the middle of the night to watch documentaries or that want to watch PBS all day long?
Take a Long Break
If you’ve spent years up to your neck in Netflix, social media and video games, it might be time for some more extreme measures for a time. Take as long as you need. My break lasted three years. But how can you do that and survive in this technology-driven world? Here are some ideas:
- Ask a roommate or family member to change the internet password so that you no longer have access at home. You can use the internet at the library, work, school or local cafe instead.
- Throw away, destroy, sell or donate your video game console or TV.
- Exchange your smartphone for a flip phone.
- Take an extended backpacking trip.
- Go on a long meditation retreat.
These ideas may seem intimidating. Putting them into action myself was like gouging out my right eye to save my entire body. Is it difficult? O yes. Is it worth it? By far.
Share the Good News
What better way to plant flowers in your metaphorical mind-garden than to use technology to strengthen your relationship with God and serve Him? Here are some ideas:
- Listen to a General Conference talk on your daily commute
- Share scriptures, articles, and uplifting messages via social media
- Participate in social media movements such as #ShareGoodness, #BecauseofHim, and #LiveLikeJesus
- Create a profile on Mormon.org to share your testimony with the world
- Study the scriptures and take notes on your computer
- Reach out to a disheartened friend via email, phone, text or Facebook
Create a Plan
Now that you’ve read (or skimmed) through all of these ideas, I hope that you now have a better idea of what you want to do to get a handle on your relationship with your devices. It’s time to take those ideas and turn them into a clear action plan. If your vision includes your whole family, it’s time for a family council.
Here are some questions to answer in your plan:
- What is your main motivation for change?
- What ideas do you want to implement?
- How can you turn these ideas into goals that will work for you? (Remember to be S.M.A.R.T. You may also want to incorporate your goals gradually, so you don’t get overwhelmed).
- What will you do when you feel tempted to spend too much time on your device?
- If and when you mess up, what is your plan for getting back into a healthy routine?
Helping Others to Change
When you start to implement your plan, you’ll start to see your life transform. You’ll be more productive, your connection with friends and family will increase, and your relationship with God will be strengthened.
But you’ll still go to the local cafe and see people on their laptops and iPads. You’ll see people on the street with their headphones in. You’ll have friends that check their phones constantly or spend most of their free time playing video games or watching TV. You’ll still see family members wasting their time on the computer.
This can be frustrating. For one thing, it might trigger your own desire to plug in. For another thing, you may want to liberate them from the time warp of technology.
You may want to tell people to take out their headphones and just talk to you. Or you may want to encourage them to change.
There is a time and place for this, certainly. I hope that this article is one of them. Word to the wise, though? Proceed with caution. Before you open your mouth, ask yourself questions like:
- “Am I certain that this person really needs to change what they are doing?”
- “What has this person been through? Are they ready to change?”
- “Am I speaking from a place of love?”
If the answers to any of these questions is a definite no, it’s probably better to stay silent and abstain from judgment.
So you’re going to try it? That’s amazing! Congratulations for having the courage to change. Tell us all about it in the comments.