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Screening Myself

February 15, 2009

I’ve been getting headaches a lot lately. Growing up, I’d get migraines from time to time, but they went away for the most part. Now I seem to be getting throbbing headaches at least once a month, including several the past week.

Usually my headaches are attributable to something specific, like if I didn’t get enough sleep or didn’t eat the right food at the right time, or if I stared directly at the sun for too long. I had a cold last week and therefore assumed my headaches were due to increase sinus pressure; for the most part, they probably were. But I also realized yesterday that the headaches seemed to worsen the more time I spent in front of a backlit screen–either my computer or my television.

I thought about this…and I’ll be frank, I spent a lot of time in front of a screen. I spend between 6 and 7 hours at work in front of a computer screen, then I come home and plop down in front of my home computer for a while before watching TV while I eat dinner, after which I sit at my computer until it’s time to read and go to bed. I’d say I spent about 12 hours a day in front of a screen. I’m still fortunate to have 20/20 vision, but what is the backlight doing to my rods and cones? If you assume that I sleep for 8 hours a day, that means that I spent 3 times as much of my time staring at pixels than I do starting at real stuff around me. That must affect my eyes and brain somehow.

So yesterday at 9:15 pm, I turned off my screens and swore not to turn them back on for 24 hours. I wanted to enter backlit screen detox. This is what I learned.

  1. Life is simpler when you don’t have screens. Without screens, you don’t have e-mail or internet or television or movies. There’s no constant stream of input and entertainment. This was very difficult for me to adjust to, especially the lack of e-mails. I was so used to thinking of something to communicate to someone via e-mail and then realizing, hey, that’ll just have to wait. And you know what? It was okay for those things to wait. Plus, I forgot half of them.
  2. Writing is different without a keyboard. This may seem obvious, but it’s interesting to me that there is no alternative to a computer screen if you want to type something instead of write by hand. There’s no other option. Well, actually, you can use a typewriter, but I just can’t fathom choosing to type words but not be able to edit them. I might as well just write by hand then. And are typewriters even sold anywhere anymore? I wanted to write today, so I spent several hours with a pen and paper. In the end, I had to stop, because the pen-sized dent in my ring finger was hitting bone.
  3. My brain missed not being used. I spent a lot of time reading during my screen-less time (thank you, Kindle, for not having a backlight!). I spend a fair amount of time reading on any normal day, but this was different because I didn’t have television breaks during which I wasn’t using my brain. I fully realized how little I use my brain while watching TV versus how much I’m forced to use it when I read. Nothing against TV–seriously–but the detox was worth it just for that realization.
  4. I couldn’t make it 24 hours. This is just sad. Or maybe not. 24 hours was an arbitrary amount of time anyway. After reading through breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I just just wanted to veg out for a little while. You can’t veg out while reading or writing, so I compromised my goal and quit after 22 hours for some Tivo-ed SNL. I felt…relieved. 

So that’s it. 22 hours without backlit screens. The headache is pretty much gone. Will this little experiment prompt me to make any permanent changes? Maybe. I really like the concept of taking a break from screens every once in a while. 24 hours seemed like a long time, but 20 is doable. Maybe next week.

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