Hamad’s screen addiction started when his school switched to e-learning last year Image Credit: Supplied

I knew I wasn’t myself when mother wanted me to calculate the grocery bill and I struggled. Doing the simple maths felt like walking through treacle. I had always been good at mental maths but in that instant, my brain just felt rusted and jammed up. My mind felt fried.

This small incident tipped me off to other signs of my mental health degrading during the lockdown: my mood was often dull, I never felt like talking to anyone, I was silent and listless during mealtime conversations. Each day felt like an endless loop of the same – wake up, sit with my laptop in bed, where I would easily remain immobile for the next 11 hours.

And that was the root cause of my lethargy and anxiety – my excess screen time.

My screen addiction started when my school (Indian School Al Ain) switched to e-learning in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. I’d spend around 7-8 hours for studies, but my usage of electronic devices didn’t stop there. Limited to my house with no access to outdoor entertainment, I’d go down a social media and YouTube rabbit hole for the next 5-6 hours, browsing endlessly. Entire days would begin and end glued to a screen, which isn’t a healthy lifestyle for anyone, let alone a 19-year-old student.

But as most of us do, I chalked up my mental sluggishness, oversleeping (up to 12 hours a day) and disinterest in hobbies to ‘laziness’. Once an avid cook, even the pandemic’s viral baking and cooking trends couldn’t tempt me out of my room and into the kitchen. My physical health took a hit too – a brisk walk around the neighbourhood would leave me winded, whereas, pre-pandemic I’d run 3kms effortlessly and train at the gym daily. It didn’t occur to me that screen time was the culprit until I met friends in person in July.

They drew my attention to the weight I’d put on from being a couch potato. Backsliding into being overweight – which got me bullied in school – shocked me into action and I utilised the summer break to regain my fitness. While workouts reduced the weight, my screen time piled up – I was prepping online ahead of my BBA course at Abu Dhabi University without trimming away the hours scrolling through Instagram and Netflix.

University kicked off in November and I was robbed of the campus life that my seniors and pop-culture had glorified. By then, eight months of remote learning had leeched away my ability to focus; I would zone out during lectures. I couldn’t retain information and had to re-read sentences multiple times to comprehend. To top all of that, studying in isolation devoid of real-time interaction with peers made me anxious. I’d second guess myself while working on projects, and even after logging off, I’d worry if I had finished all my assignments because e-learning meant school was always just a click away, so I could never truly relax.

Things came to a head in January when relentless headaches plagued me, my eyesight deteriorated and my back always hurt. The calculation snafu was the final nail in the coffin of my digital burnout.

I then made a conscious decision to monitor my screen time and limit it to studies. And what a life-changing decision it has been! I can think clearer, the headaches have vanished, I enjoying studying again and I’m happier. Moreover, I have an additional five hours every day to pursue passions such as cooking and fitness.

My 2021 summer vacation will be a continuation of this digital detox. It’s not easy but practice helps overcome the FOMO that makes us crave being logged onto digital platforms constantly and instead live in the moment. I intend to only spend two hours on my phone, using the rest of my summer to be outdoors in nature, explore new places and meet friends (while maintaining social distance).

I feel like I’m piecing myself back together, to who I used to be before screens consumed me.