Balancing your time online
- Being online can feel addictive – it can make your brain release dopamine, a chemical that’s known as the ‘feel-good’ hormone.
- Being aware of how often you are online and how it makes you feel can help you find a healthy and happy balance with time offline.
Why should I balance my time online?
Friend or foe? Assistant or enabler? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what role the internet plays in our lives.
In simple terms, being online should enhance our lives, not dominate them. If you feel the need to constantly refresh your apps or check your notifications, or if you find you’re defining yourself by your ‘extremely online’ humour, it’s probably time to take a break. Why? Because too much time online can make study, work and relationships more difficult and even drag down your physical and mental health.
Habits can be hard to break – but like muscles, our brains can be retrained. Sometimes, just being aware of the possible impacts can help us realise when it’s time to ease back and make some changes. So it’s important to watch for signs that things might be getting out of balance.
These are some of the ways too much time online can impact your life.
1. Too much time online can affect your brain chemistry and mood
It tends to be the case that the more we tap on notifications, or the more likes we get for a post, or the more levels we go up in a game, the happier we feel. This is the brain’s way of ‘rewarding’ us for continuing attention – with a rush of dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel good. Apps are often designed to do exactly this, so we’ll keep using them.
It’s important to remember that we can come to crave the feeling that notifications, likes and good scores create (sometimes called 'digital dopamine'). That makes us want to spend even more time online.
2. Too much time online can affect IRL moments and relationships
If you think you’re spending too much time on your phone when you’re out with your friends, you’d be part of a growing number of people who feel similarly. Phone snubbing, sometimes called ‘phubbing’, refers to people using their phones when out with others, rather than actively engaging with them and fully experiencing the moment.
It’s important to remember that if you’re constantly taking photos, checking for notifications or chatting online, it can be hard to keep track of what’s going on right where you are. This might have a serious impact on your connections with the people around you, even if you didn’t intend to be anti-social or make them feel like you’re not interested in them.
3. Too much time online can affect your body image
Websites and social feeds provide endless tutorials on building muscle, applying makeup and dressing fashionably. That can make you feel you don’t look good enough as you are, and constant exposure to the unrealistic standards may damage your self-image and mental health.
It’s important to remember that beauty, health and lifestyle influencers can use apps like FaceTune, good lighting, selective angles and expensive photoshoots to present their best selves in a post. In reality, they suffer with bad skin days, lumpy bits and unruly hair – just like most of us.
4. Too much time online can affect your view of the world
Have you ever found yourself constantly clicking on bad news, hurtful content or posts that make you envious of others, then feeling sad, stressed or depressed because of it? That’s called ‘doomscrolling’. Psychologists say it starts as a coping mechanism – when we’re worried, we tend to gather information to feel like we’re in control.
It’s important to remember that staying informed can be healthy but becoming obsessed is not so good. Spending a lot of time focusing on negative things online can dull experiences we normally enjoy, and even damage our mental and physical health.
How do I break my online 'addiction'?
Consider which online activities can be done offline
If you feel like you’re spending too much time online, it’s worth taking a careful look at what positive online activities could be turned into positive offline activities. For example, an online gaming session could become in-person with a friend or family member instead. Balance is key – not everything has to be offline or online all the time.
Spend time device-free
It might sound boring, but spending time by yourself can help you find pleasure in the ordinary things again. Start by spending 30 minutes by yourself or with a friend, without any devices, and build up to longer periods. Leave your devices where you can’t see them, to reduce the temptation to go online.
Set boundaries with friends
If your friend calls you in the middle of the night, or messages you during class or work, it may be time to have a conversation about boundaries. Tell them when you will and won’t be checking your phone. You could also turn on ‘Do not disturb’ or ‘Aeroplane Mode’ so you don’t see their messages until you’re back online. If you feel like you have to be there for your friend because you’re concerned about them, remember that you need to look after your own health first – you might like to get advice about the best way to help them from a confidential counselling and support service.
Take regular breaks from the sites, apps and games you use most
Identify the websites, apps or games you use most. You don’t need to ditch them entirely, just try turning off notifications, blocking them during study or work hours, or setting time limits for each session. This is especially important if you feel like your self-esteem is strongly linked to getting likes or comments on your social posts.
Make your phone less interesting
If your phone is proving too tempting, you could consider setting it to greyscale, so your brain is less stimulated by the colourful screen and images. This will make it less enticing to play with and help you focus on its main purpose – as a tool and not a distraction.
Talk with someone about it
Talking about how you feel with a good friend, a family member or someone else you trust may help you work out a plan for breaking old habits. They can also encourage you to stick to the plan. If you’re struggling with your self-esteem, a counsellor may help you develop a more compassionate understanding of who you are and what you have to offer outside online spaces like social media. You can seek help from Kids Helpline (for 5 to 25 year-olds) or another confidential counselling and support service.
Something has happened
Put limits on your phone. Limit notifications or turn on ‘Do not disturb’ or ‘Aeroplane mode’ so you don’t see notifications or messages through the night – you don’t have to respond straight away. You can also put your phone on greyscale.
Communicate your boundaries. Let your friends know when you are and aren’t available to be reached.
Put your phone out of reach when going to bed. Having your phone out of reach can stop the habit of checking for messages or notifications and being disturbed by it lighting up. Without the endless stimulation, your brain will begin to settle. In time, you could even begin to feel ‘freer’ and less reliant on your phone.
Consider whether they have a point. If someone has expressed their concern for you, this might be a sign that things need to change. It’s worth asking them to explain their concern – they may be worried about the information you’re consuming or opinions you’re sharing. Or it may simply be a sign they want to spend more time with you. Ask yourself if you truly could benefit from some time offline.
Set yourself screen-free time. Try setting yourself a goal for spending a specific length of time phone-free and offline each day. This could give you the chance to reconnect with old hobbies, or to spend more time with your friends or family.
Updated October 2022