Digital wellbeing

Gareth Hughes

Gareth Hughes is the Clinical Lead for Student Space and is a psychotherapist, researcher and writer on student wellbeing, including the book Be Well, Learn Well

Because of coronavirus, most of us are spending far more time online and on screens. It’s important to think about how we use that time, and the potential impact on our wellbeing.

Being online isn’t necessarily bad for you – in fact it can have a positive impact on your wellbeing. How you engage with it, and what you use it for, will define whether it boosts or erodes your wellbeing.

The online world can help us to feel more connected to others, more productive, and more engaged. It can also provide us with entertainment, intellectual stimulation and fun.

But being online can also make us feel disconnected, tired or irritable. It can enable us to procrastinate and watch time slipping by. This might mean we feel lethargic and drained, and can contribute to spikes in anxiety and low mood. This is partly because screens keep us from other activities that are good for our wellbeing, such as spending time in nature, exercising and sleeping.

The key is to try to find as much balance as possible between time on and off screens and to be mindful of how you are spending your time.

This means controlling distractions and using screen time positively to do things that are actively helpful – such as participating in class, working on assessments, talking to friends or arranging social meet ups in the real world. It also means actively planning for time off screen and how you will use that.

Michael shares what he's learned about managing screen time as a student.

Five steps to healthy digital habits

1. Take breaks

It seems obvious, but time away from a screen can help you to refocus and boost your energy. It can be tempting to use your breaks to slip from one on screen activity (working) to another (Netflix or social media). Try to be aware of this impulse and make active decisions, mixing up your screen time with time away from screens.

2. Switch off distractions

Having your notifications turned on reduces your ability to concentrate. Give yourself the space to focus on the task at hand by switching off notifications and logging out of social media. This will make your work better and it will feel more satisfying and enjoyable.

3. Turn off all screens an hour before bedtime

All screens emit light that can disrupt your sleep. Take a screen break before bedtime and switch your phone off, so you won’t be woken by messages. Let your friends know that this is what you do, so they won’t be surprised when they don’t get a reply until morning.

4. Be mindful

Be aware of how much screen facing you are doing and what you are spending time on. To help you take control, you may want to use apps that help you track your screen usage.

5. Monitor the impact of activities on your mood

Early research into the impact of Covid-19 showed that those who spent a lot of time engaging with news online were experiencing a bigger decrease in their wellbeing. Pay attention to how you are feeling when you engage with news and social media. If some activities pull your mood down, scale them back and replace them with activities that help to pick you up.