Canadians shouldn't 'be too hard on themselves' about rising screen time, experts say

As many people work from home while trying to keep up with the news and practise physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's expected screen time on their devices will increase. Experts weigh in with their advice if you're feeling overwhelmed.

Take breaks if you're feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19 news, experts advise

Ottawa Public Health is very close to launching an application that would help contact tracers reconstruct when and who COVID-19 positive cases came in contact with others. (Jenny Kane/The Associated Press)

As millions of Canadians adapt to working from home, keeping up with the news and physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic — it's expected screen time on all their devices will increase.

Ramona Pringle, a technology columnist and an associate professor at Ryerson University, suggests if you see a jump in your smartphone usage, try not to worry about it so much.

"I don't think people should be too hard on themselves because these are not normal times," she told CBC News. 

"We have be kind to ourselves and patient with ourselves in terms of not being too strict or too judgmental."

Pringle says if you're trying to cut back, try tuning into how you're feeling after consuming various things online.

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Ryerson University and director of The Creative Innovation Studio. (David Leyes © 2018)

"I think the exercise to go through is, 'How do I feel after this particular experience?'" she said.

"How do I feel after an amount of time on social media scrolling through news versus how do I feel if I go to Youtube and find a tutorial for a craft activity, or a Facetime call with family?" Pringle continued.

At a time when there's a lot of information to take in, Pringle suggests being realistic and attempting to take short breaks from your screen.

"Maybe not having the expectation that you're going to make it through an entire day without any digital distractions but breaking up the day and getting things done and accomplished."

But with new physical activities, creative endeavours and educational resources for kids popping up online, she suggests that not all screen time is created equal, especially while people are self isolating.

"I think so much of what people are doing online right now is to be able to satisfy that need for human contact. People are doing really, really creative things."

Evaluating your digital diet

One of the creative online initiatives social worker Sue Hutton is offering includes weekly mindfulness sessions for free.

"With COVID-19, we know right now stress levels, anxiety levels are very high," Hutton said.

"A lot of people I'm speaking with are finding there's multiple stresses already in their lives and then with COVID-19, this explodes everything into a high-stress situation," she added.

Social worker Sue Hutton says people can choose to go on camera or remain anonymous for her online mindfulness sessions, which will run Friday evenings. (Submitted)

The mother of one started the mindfulness sessions with CAMH's Azrieli Neurodevelopmental Centre for caregivers of adults living with autism, part of Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

But she is expanding the sessions to include everyone during this stressful time.

"We're hoping to provide people with some concrete tools to reduce anxiety in the moment and to let people know they're not alone and come together as a community and meditate."

At her own home, where Netflix is currently down, she says her son has been keeping busy by playing music and turning their kitchen table into a makeshift ping pong table.

"At first, we thought, 'What are we going to do?' but we realized we didn't really need the extra screen time."

Take care of yourself 

Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at CAMH, says the uptick in screen time, especially if you're in self isolation, could contribute to heightened anxiety if you have a history of mental illness.

"Between following world events and possibly working from home and connecting with friends and families, I think many of us are going to be doing more screen time than we normally would," he said.

He says his advice is simple: remember to take care of yourself.

"If you're finding following world events is very stressful, spend less time following world events," he said.

"Taking time for regular exercise, a balanced diet and avoiding caffeine, all these things are helpful."

Dr. David Gratzer is a psychiatrist at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

Gratzer reminds people that CAMH's emergency department remains open and to check up on people who have a history of anxiety and depression. CAMH has a page online dedicated to mental health and COVID-19.

"I think all of us are feeling stressed, and to be blunt, it's ok to feel stressed."

As for Pringle, she says while you adjust to physical distancing and self-isolation, forgive yourself for the extra time on screens.

"I think if people were to step away from screens entirely right now, they might feel more isolated than ever."


Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.


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