What Quarantine Screen Time Is Doing to Your Brain

You’re not alone if you’re feeling more distracted

Photo: Frank Alarcon/Unsplash

I read 83 books last year. Several of them, including Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, I read for the second time. They’re spectacular and now count among my favorites, but when my husband, who’s currently making his way through Crooked Kingdom, asked what I thought of a major plot detail, I had no idea. I couldn’t remember.

In January 2020, I wrote about how social media is messing with our memories. This is partially because when you spend time recording your daily life in an app, you’re transferring the responsibility of saving memories onto, for lack of a better word, an external hard drive, rather than the internal hard drive of your brain. You’re also supplanting sensory-rich, real-life experiences, which gives the brain a lot of information to latch onto, with sensory-deprived experiences that you’ve mediated or fully experienced in a digital format.

Now, of course, many of us are forced to live much of our lives through screens due to the Covid-19 shutdown. There is significantly less “real life” to document on social media. I’m talking to fewer people, doing fewer things, engaging my senses in less dynamic ways.

Instead, I’ll read a page of my book before migrating over to Instagram, losing myself in its emptiness for half an hour before I even realize what I’m doing. During work, I’ll write two sentences of a draft, then click new tab and type in “Twitter.com.” Others spend hours with their eyes glazed over as they flick through TikTok, disappear down YouTube rabbit holes, or sit down at their computers, only to blink and realize they’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla for five hours straight. Even Zoom is a bummer.

These habits, sustaining though they may be without any other viable options for entertainment or travel, can become unhealthy. You may find yourself unable to read a full page of a book without checking Instagram twice (me), losing yourself in hours of brainless Netflix bingeing, or feeling the compulsion to game even when you’re cooking dinner with your spouse.

These bad habits will continue once life returns to “normal” — or something more closely resembling it, anyway. This means carrying on with even worse compulsive and stressful news and social media checking that distracts you both from your work and your leisure time, making it harder to connect with the people, books, and real-life activities that sustain us. With a little time and effort, though, we should be able to wrench our relationships with technology back to a less dependent state.

“Phones are these really powerful ultimate escape machines because you can just leave the present moment and go into another world — whether it’s a game or a rabbit hole of doomscrolling,” says Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD, a psychology professor at Hunter College in New York. But it can become a habit, she says, if you’re saying to yourself, “‘I’m uncomfortable right now, I’m feeling a little worried or anxious, and I don’t know why but I’m just going to go escape for a moment from that distress.’”

“When I do reengage with the people I’m with in my home, I have to remind myself to make eye contact.”

This cycle, in which you tell yourself the screen is going to help you escape and forget what’s going on around you, can become an emotional crutch — feel something bad, chase the thought away by filling it with a tweet or Instagram post or 35-minute sitcom rerun.

To be clear, it isn’t that tweets, Instagram posts, or 35-minute sitcom reruns are inherently bad (depending on the source, I guess). It’s that when you feel compelled to check your devices or social media or whatever — even when you’re engaged in other activities — to chase out the clatter of anxiety currently echoing in your head, you’re gently anesthetizing that negative feeling by drowning it out. “It becomes this habit-forming loop,” says Dennis-Tiwary. “You escaped from the negative feeling and you feel better. So you keep on wanting to go back and escape from it, and it can become this sort of cycle that becomes harder to break.”

Though I personally have been experiencing these feelings for years, they’ve become much more pronounced over the course of the pandemic because there is so much to worry about and few real-life activities I can focus on instead. Anxious thoughts will infringe even upon my reading time; flipping through Instagram, with its rapid carousel of images, keeps those thoughts from sticking even better than many books can.

I’m certainly not alone. Streaming services saw exponential increases in sign-ups last year. Instagram users spent 13.8% more time on the app in 2020 than they did in 2019. According to eMarketer, over 25% of YouTube users had significantly increased their time spent on the platform by May 2020. NPD reports that 35% of gamers say they spend significantly more time gaming because of the impact of Covid-19 on their lives.

This increased screen time, which is replacing that crucial face-to-face time that is essential to a healthy human life, is going to make it harder to return to the “real” world once we’re finally allowed to.

“I’m finding that I’m on screens so much, whether it’s work Zooms, or reading news or doing whatever, that when I do reengage with the people I’m with in my home, I have to remind myself to make eye contact,” says Dennis-Tiwary. The screen provides a buffer during communication, which is why people with social anxiety, like me, like it so much: I can spend more time putting together a response in a text message than I have when I’m talking to someone in person, or I can simply choose to say nothing, which would be odd if I were sitting across a restaurant table from someone.

“The mass changes we have seen in our work and home environments in the last year have definitely impacted our attention capacity.”

It’s also much easier to multitask in a digital environment than a physical one, according to Jeremy Birnholtz, PhD, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University in Illinois. He says that, in his own experience, people are multitasking way more than they used to, because the social forces that previously limited it — it’s really rude to “phub,” as I’ve written before — are now diminished. Think about how easy it is to scroll Twitter during a Zoom call, side-Slack during a PowerPoint presentation, or shoot off a text when you’re supposed to be working on a project. But researchers link multitasking to poorer memory and attention spans, and workplace interruptions are notoriously frustrating, stressful, and time-consuming.

“The mass changes we have seen in our work and home environments in the last year have definitely impacted our attention capacity,” says Laura Bright, PhD, an associate professor of media analytics at the University of Texas, Austin whose research focuses on consumer behavior in new media environments, such as social media. “Anecdotally speaking, the constant screen time coupled with the never-ending news cycle has made it harder to concentrate,” and can produce anxiety, she says.

In a piece for Elemental, psychiatrist Jud Brewer, PhD, says even checking the news can become habit-forming. When you check the news and see a big story splayed across the front page of the website, you get a little “dopamine spritz,” which feels good. This can also be said for checking your phone for text messages, looking to see whether someone posted an exciting Instagram story, or switching over to twitter.com to check for any notifications. That tiny jolt you get when you see someone sent you a DM? That’s dopamine.

Eventually, your brain begins to associate that surge of dopamine with the checking behavior. “This is exactly why slot machines are so addictive. We’re inadvertently setting ourselves up to get addicted to checking the news through what is called intermittent reinforcement — a fancy term for getting random rewards,” Brewer writes.

Everyone’s media-checking behaviors have skyrocketed, their focus has flagged, and their once-natural ability to talk normally to people face-to-face has become a struggle. This is unlikely to be permanent, says Birnholtz. “Probably some of this is going to normalize out, and maybe we’ll see a little more [multitasking].” But, he adds, “maybe it’ll be a little bit hard” to work on getting your brain back on track.

If you’re lucky enough to be someone whose life has remained more or less stable given the circumstances, you won’t be a multitasking anxious wreck forever if you’re willing (and able) to put in the work.

My therapist has given me a bunch of homework on how I can begin to get my attention and memory back from the mean and dirty grips of the internet because I desperately miss the days when I wouldn’t have to read a sentence in a novel three times in a row before I finally understood it. I’m journaling my daily activities every night before I go to sleep, to encourage mindfulness and discourage dissociation during the day. She wants me to put my phone on the other side of the room when I’m reading, so I’m less inclined to mindlessly pick it up. And she says I should walk my dog without my phone, so I’m not drowning out the buzz of my brain with a podcast or an audiobook (as much as I love them).

The pandemic has given us a million reasons to want to stifle our internal chatter, and taken away many of the healthiest modes of doing so — namely, being with other people. We’re alone, instead, and many of us have little to do but click around on our computers. But with a little bit of effort, we can start to shift our mental capacity and anxiety levels back to a manageable state. I simply have too many books to read to afford to be distracted.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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