Online vs. IRL: Striking the Balance Between Digital and Real Life

It was 6 p.m.

I had had a busy day: the morning was spent working on my laptop; the afternoon was spent catching up with friends on Messenger. I was exhausted, and it was FINALLY time to unwind. 

I pulled out my phone and scrolled through Instagram and TikTok for a solid 30 minutes. I then made the switch to Netflix and binged a few episodes of Gilmore Girls before jumping into bed and watching YouTube videos until it was time to fall asleep.

It wasn’t until I turned off my phone and closed my eyes that I realized: I hadn’t left my house (or my screens) all day.

When I told my partner, he shrugged and said:


“What do you expect? It’s 2022. Everything is online.”

When you think about it, he’s absolutely right.

We live in a time where we spend more hours online than offline—a time where metaverses, virtual reality, and Zoom calls are part of our daily reality. We hop from screen to screen as we move from work to leisure to entertainment. Then we repeat the cycle all over again.

COVID only made it worse. In some countries, screen time increased by as much as 70%. At its peak, adults were spending a massive 19 hours on screens every single day.

You read that right: 19 hours

You don’t have to be a scientist to conclude that this amount of screen time can’t be healthy. But these days, it’s hard to get away from it (at least, it is for me). 

Screens are literally everywhere, and it seems impossible to get anything done without them.

So, how damaging is our relationship with our screens? I spent plenty of time researching (online, of course)—and unfortunately, the results aren’t looking good for our digital devices.


How bad is screen time?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the effects of screen time are probably worse than you think.

I, for one, was surprised to learn that on top of causing eye strain and mental health issues, excessive screen time can also hamper creativity and brain development.

Before I go into some of the problems, I have to preface this by saying: this isn’t a post designed to fearmonger you into ditching the screen altogether. But I always believe in being fully informed and aware of anything you choose to do. I think many of us don’t realize just how much damage we do when we spend all day on our laptops or phones.


It can have a negative effect on your mental wellbeing

It probably comes as no surprise, but spending too much time on screens can significantly affect your mental health.

Us humans are inherently social creatures. Most of us need some level of regular social interaction (and that means social interaction IRL) to feel our best. However, although screens allow us to stay connected with people irrespective of place, excessive use can actually make us feel more disconnected rather than connected.


Because, quite simply, screens can’t replicate the same feeling of being with someone in person. 

Loneliness has to do with more connected intimate relationships that feel real and close, and screens don’t really provide that… and yet people are replacing time invested in real relationships with screen time.

Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical College

What’s more, research has found that people who spend excessive time on screens are also more likely to experience moderate to severe depression. 

Keep in mind though that screen time is only one piece of the puzzle, not the ONLY piece. For example, excessive screen time could also be accompanied by lower activity levels and fewer social interactions, which are also linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety.


You may experience eye strain 

Have you ever spent a day in front of the computer, only to finish the day with a massive headache?

Then you, like me and millions of other people around the world, have experienced screen-related eye strain.

This is perhaps the most obvious issue of too much screen time: it wears out your eyes.

Staring at a screen for hours on end causes eye fatigue and discomfort. There are several reasons for this: the glare on the screen and the brightness of the display can damage cells in our retina, and we blink less when concentrating on screens—leading to dry and irritated eyes. 

While these effects do go away, prolonged screen time over months or years can cause a host of eye problems, including near-sightedness and a decline in retina health.


Poor posture and stiffness

Ever heard of “text neck”?

Even if you haven’t, I know you can relate to this:


Text neck describes the position your neck is in when you’re looking down at a screen. Over time, text neck can lead to a stiff neck, upper back, or shoulders—which, in turn, can limit your range of motion and lead to headaches.

The reason for this is simple: The average human head weighs between 11 and 14 pounds. As you tilt your head forward, your body needs to work harder to keep your head up. This puts excessive pressure on your neck muscles and, left unchecked, can result in chronic pain over time.


Too much screen time affects the way the brain functions

Perhaps the most surprising discovery for me was that too much screen can affect the very way our brains are wired.

Our brain is constantly building neural connections for common tasks while pruning away the connections that are less frequently used. As we spend time online scrolling through social media or playing video games, we get a hit of dopamine, which is the brain’s feel-good hormone. Unsurprisingly, the more we get, the more our brain starts to crave this hit—and we might find ourselves becoming more addicted to screens as a result.


It’s not all bad though

Just to be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t throw out our devices altogether.

Technology has done A LOT for us. It has connected us to people we would have otherwise lost touch with; enabled us to learn and work from anywhere; and provided plenty of avenues for storytelling and entertainment.

More importantly, our lives revolve around digital devices. 

In 2022, it’s not realistic to ditch the screen—but it is realistic to learn how to merge online reality and physical reality in a way that’s beneficial rather than detrimental.


Striking the balance between online and IRL

When it comes to screen time, I’m not a pessimist or an optimist. I’m a realist. I’ve read articles before recommending digital detoxes and lock times for screens. And while that might be a good way to reset an addiction to being online, it’s definitely not a long-term solution.

What IS a long-term solution is learning to strike a healthy balance between the time you spend online versus the time you spend IRL.


Track your screen time

One of the most valuable things I did was track my screen time to see just how much time I was spending on digital devices.

Turns out I wasn’t too bad with my phone: I only spent two hours on my phone on any given day. However, I spent a whopping eight hours in front of my computer, and another three in front of the TV.

I’m not going to lie to you: the results were uncomfortable. But more importantly, seeing my screen time quantified like that made it clear that I was spending way too much time binging Netflix every night (oops).

Before you jump into adjusting your behavior, spend a week observing just how much time you spend online:

  • Check out the screen time report on your phone. 
  • Keep note of how many episodes of any given show you watch every evening. 
  • Look at when you log on to your computer and when you log off. 

Don’t change anything. Just go about your normal day, track your results, and note down any patterns that you see. You might find that you’re good at regulating screen time on the weekends but less so during the week, or vice versa. 

As you start to become more aware of your habits, you might find ways to tweak them—for example, I ditched scrolling time during my daily commute to listen to a podcast instead, which cut my screen time down by nearly an hour every day.


Get comfortable being away from your devices

If your phone feels like another limb, you’re not alone. 

For the longest time, I felt like my digital devices had to be with me everywhere I went. Not having my phone nearby would be an instant cause for panic. When I went on holiday, I brought my laptop and my iPad just in case I needed to work or in case I got bored and wanted entertainment.

One day, I accidentally left my phone at home. After panicking for a solid thirty minutes, I just left it go…and spent the entire day without it. 

Believe it or not, I survived. 

This little experience was actually beneficial because it showed me that I really didn’t need to have my phone with me at all times.

It might feel scary, but it’s completely okay not to have digital devices on you around the clock. This means different things for different people, but you could experiment with:

  • Going for a walk without your phone
  • Keeping all digital devices out of the bedroom
  • Having one digital-free day a week 
  • Removing the TV from your home altogether

Start small and work your way towards entire periods without your device. Trust me when I say: it gets easier over time.


Hang out with friends in person (and ditch the screens)

If you hung out with friends and didn’t take a photo, did it even happen?

The answer is yes, it did—and you probably had a more meaningful social interaction as a result of it.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve hung out with a friend and we’ve both had our phones on the table. Unsurprisingly, no matter what we talked about, we’d end up looking at a screen together. Every. Single. Time.

Sure, it’s fun to look at cat videos (or copy the latest TikTok dance). But it’s also enjoyable just to spend time with one another doing something that doesn’t involve screens.

Next time you hang out with friends, try to plan an activity together that doesn’t involve being online (and resist the urge to snap and share). Even if you only do it every once in a while, it’s a nice way to connect and spend quality time together IRL.


Experiment, adjust, repeat

A healthy balance means different things for different people. The key is to be aware of how much time you spend online, then play with the balance of time spent online versus offline to see what’s best for you.