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How to limit screen time during the coronavirus pandemic

person playing video games during coronavirus quarantine

Coronavirus lockdowns have us isolating in our homes and racking up screen time. Hours we usually spend in cars, shopping malls or with friends are now spent indoors — in front of our TVs, computers and smartphones.

Sheltering in place can easily turn into binge-watching in place. Checking out a quick YouTube video with your morning coffee can lead to another video and then another. Before you know it, the sun is setting and you’ve hardly left the couch.

That's not good for your eyes.

Children, too, are spending far more time in front of screens now. Classrooms have been replaced by online learning. Time on the playground is now spent playing video games and watching videos.

All that screen time is not good for young eyes.

As Vision Impact Institute notes, today's new normal can shape a child's tomorrow. The institute's parental tips for healthy vision include ensuring your child maintains an appropriate distance from digital devices and designating a "sleep time" for screens.

Dialing down your screen time can help reduce symptoms of digital eye strain, which include headaches, tired eyes and blurry vision. Less screen time can help now and in the months and years ahead.

8 ways to reduce screen time

While you're practicing social distancing, here are eight ways you can incorporate some digital distancing in your day to reduce your digital eye strain:

1. Limit screen time on your phone

Modern smartphone software makes it easy to monitor and limit how much you use your phone. On iOS devices, this is called “Screen Usage”; Android calls it “Digital Wellbeing.”

When activated, these free, built-in features will monitor how much time you’re spending on your device. This includes overall usage and time spent within individual apps.

You can go a step further and set time limits for different apps. If you’re spending two hours a day on one app, try limiting it to an hour and a half to start, inching your way down over the coming days and weeks.

How much time you spend on your phone every day might be a shock at first. But you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much time you have for other activities once you limit screen usage.

TIP FOR PARENTS: These same tools will enable you to track and limit your child's screen time on his or her phone. You can even lock your child's phone or set it to power down when a preset screen time limit has been reached.

2. Take breaks from your mobile devices

The simple solution is to monitor total screen time and slowly cut it down as much as possible. But during a period of isolation or quarantine, that’s easier said than done.

If you aren’t ready to cut down on overall screen usage, try slicing up longer periods of screen time with short breaks.

Every half-hour to an hour, take a quick breather. Step outside if possible, or jog around the room (or in place) for a few minutes. Start a big puzzle and vow to take a break to place at least five pieces every time you catch yourself overusing the screen.

Short breaks can lead to greater focus overall. They can also be addictive; stepping away from the TV for five minutes often turns into 10 or 15 minutes. And just like that, you’ve given your eyes and your mind a well-deserved break.

TIP FOR PARENTS: Encourage your children to give their digital devices a rest too. Send them outside to play in the backyard — to chase a ball, not Pokemon figures. Research suggests that sunshine helps reduce the risk that your child will develop myopia (nearsightedness). If you are worried your child might be myopic, find an eye doctor near you and schedule an eye exam.

3. Bring back the phone call

The phone call is becoming a lost art. Many of us even ignore incoming calls, opting to respond by text or email instead. Text-based responses can make us feel more in control of our message and give us the freedom to respond at our leisure.

But there’s a psychological benefit to direct voice communication that’s hard to match with letters on a screen. According to Psychology Today, replacing texting with talking can even save relationships.

These mental benefits are even more important during times of social isolation.

Call up a family member or friend, then see how you feel after you hang up. Chances are, you’ll both feel a closer personal connection than you could have achieved with 100 text messages.

TIP FOR PARENTS: Have your kids call their grandparents. Whether they live hours away or just around the corner, this is a great way to reconnect when you can't physically be together. Hearing each other's voices will make everyone's day brighter.

4. Enjoy your meals screen-free

Emphasis on “enjoy.” Eating meals in front of a TV, computer or cellphone not only means more screen time, it can also result in a distracted mind that has a hard time truly savoring each bite.

If you live with someone, meals can also be a great time for a little social interaction. Next time you sit down for a meal, try turning off the TV and placing your phone out of sight. Try to pay close attention as you eat: Are there any new flavors or textures in your food that you haven’t noticed before?

TIP FOR PARENTS: Make meal time family time. Tell your children to leave their phones in the living room or their bedroom. Set the example: Let your phone ring, bark or buzz in the other room. With the digital devices away from the table, you and your children can talk and (hopefully) savor your time together.

5. Trade TV time for a podcast

The modern world of podcasts is immense. There’s a podcast for almost every interest, hobby and movement out there.

Trading an hour-long TV show for a one-hour episode of a new podcast can feel more relaxing and rewarding. It also allows you to be more productive in terms of tasks you can accomplish at the same time.

It’s tough to get much done while your attention is fixed on a TV. Engaging in a podcast leaves your eyes free to walk the dog or prepare a new dinner recipe at the same time.

TIP FOR PARENTS: Podcasts for children entertain and inform. Common Sense Media's list of the 25 best podcasts for kids includes Ear Snacks for learning, Story Time for bedtime and The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian for road trips.

6. Read one chapter of a book

“Just one chapter?” The idea of reading an entire book can be daunting, especially if you haven’t read one in a while. Reading the first chapter requires a minimal time investment and gives the story a chance to reel you in. If it isn’t holding your interest after a chapter or two, don’t be afraid to swap that book out for a new one.

Many local libraries offer free audiobook (and ebook) rentals through services like Hoopla and Overdrive. An audiobook, much like a podcast, can entertain your mind while freeing up your eyes for other activities.

And yes, an audiobook counts as a book!

TIP FOR PARENTS: Read a bedtime story to your son or daughter. Or maybe your child could read to you on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Or you could take turns reading a few pages (with youngsters) or a chapter (with slightly older children). Quarantine time can be quality time.

7. Pick up a new hobby

Ah, the wonderfully vague “new hobby” suggestion. It’s wide open to interpretation.

Have you always wanted to learn how to play piano or sketch a nature scene? Wish you could figure out how to organize your cluttered cabinets? Do you envy people who can juggle or finish a Rubik’s Cube in 10 seconds?

Almost everyone can name at least one thing they’d like to learn. For many, isolation can be just the opening they need to get started.

Try devoting five or 10 minutes to a new hobby. Read a manual or watch a tutorial video and practice your craft. It might just catch on.

TIP FOR PARENTS: Puzzles can be a great way to create something with your son or daughter. Bonus: Putting a puzzle together requires visual skills to match shapes and colors and put the pieces in the right places. If you aren't a fan of puzzles, go bird-watching with your little one.

8. Do nothing at all

Isolation can’t be all self-improvement all the time, so don’t feel guilty about the occasional screen usage slip-up.

And don’t be afraid to take a moment to smell the proverbial roses. Observe the shapes of passing clouds, take in the smell of freshly mowed grass, or simply close your eyes and relax.

Practices like mindfulness and meditation may sound like “doing nothing” since they don’t require physical activity, but they can take your mental well-being to a new level. They might even give you a new perspective on the way you process your thoughts.

Research at Harvard showed that eight weeks of regular meditation practice can physically reduce activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain strongly associated with fear and negative emotions. 

That’s right, doing nothing can be productive after all.

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