If you had asked me last month if I spent too much time in front of screens, I would have said, “No way.” Sure, I’m in front of a computer for roughly eight hours a day for work. And looking at my smartphone screen before, during, and after. And in the evening, my TV is playing Netflix or HBO Go until I head to bed. But that seemed normal.
I was forced to re-evaluate that sentiment on a Friday in late October. As I started to sit up from bed, someone tipped the world sideways. I pushed myself to my feet and hobbled to the bathroom. It felt like I was on a Tilt-A-Whirl mounted atop another Tilt-A-Whirl. I sat down, and, slowly, the dizziness subsided, replaced with a deepening nausea and a headache. What the hell was going on? I wasn’t hungover. My resting heart rate, measured before I lifted my head from my pillow, was normal, so I wasn’t sick. Had I developed vertigo?
And then a memory emerged from my brain fog: Two days before, about to slice a cake at a friend’s house, I lifted my head abruptly, ramming my noggin into the corner of the kitchen cabinet overhead with the brute force of someone who did not remember there was a cabinet overhead. I saw stars and choked down the urge to vomit from the intensity of the pain. I held it together, laughed it off, and propped an ice pack against my head until I headed home. But now I wondered: Was this a concussion?
It appeared so. I did some quick Googling and got in touch with my cycling coach. “That sounds like the delayed onset symptoms of a concussion,” she confirmed. Apparently, delayed onset symptoms are not uncommon. My coach advised staying away from screens and heading back to bed.
As an elite cyclist, I’d always taken care to protect my front wheel during high-speed criterium races (often to the detriment of my own race results), checked both ways before proceeding through intersections on the road, and always, always worn a helmet. I’d taken so much care on the bike, I never expected to get my first concussion from trying to slice a piece of birthday cake in a kitchen.
Yet there I was. I returned to bed and slept for five more hours, then laid in bed some more. Staying away from screens was easy that first day: I had no desire to check what was happening on social media or even watch TV. I wanted to lie still and think of nothing. That wasn’t the case 48 hours later, when the inside of my eyelids had lost their charm, and I was itching to see what was happening on Instagram.
Those next few days were thought-provoking, though, from my standpoint as a technology journalist. Looking at a screen is an inherent part of my job. It’s also what I use for entertainment, and for communication. While I’ve never felt that I was addicted to my phone—I’m a firm believer in disconnecting on a regular basis—it’s different when you’re forced to disconnect, rather than expressly choosing not to obsess over your screen on a given day. My head injury was thankfully on the mild end of the spectrum, and I felt increasingly better. But the bright, imperceptibly flickering light of an LCD or television drove me to headache and nausea, and I could only stand a minute or two at a time. It felt so strange, and I realized how integral screens had become in so many aspects of my life.
For example, my fiancé and I normally spend evenings together in front of the TV. As my brain recovered, we still spent time together in the living room, but bothered by the glow, I sat behind the couch just listening to the TV, stretching or playing with the cat. In one respect, it was isolating, but in another, it felt peaceful. Without the blue glow of a screen awakening my senses, it was easier to head to bed early. Another night, we listened to some records—after I reminded my partner that, yes, Pandora on the Apple TV would still bother me because the TV screen is on.
When Monday rolled around, my brain still felt fuzzy and sluggish, but I was able to do a little work—with some modifications. Staring at my computer was problematic, so I typed with my eyes mostly averted from the screen. I’d also use voice dictation to minimize how long I looked at the display, and I wrote parts of stories on paper for the first time in years. As the week wore on and my symptoms subsided, I was able to work more normally again, but lingering issues would remind me I was still healing—like when I was forced to don sunglasses in the car at night because of the glare from oncoming headlights. I was grateful to have discovered this as the passenger, not the driver.
And the funny thing about social media: When you’ve stayed away from it for a few days, you realize you don’t really miss it. Since hitting my head, I probably spend one-third of the time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat that I used to—if that.
Before this experience, I knew that excessive screen and computer use can lead to sight problems such as eye strain, especially if you’ve got an existing condition such as myopia or astigmatism. But it really pushed to the forefront how much time I actually spend in front of screens each day, and the toll that must be taking on my eyes, my brain, and my body. I’ve since been trying to minimize screen time—or at least take more frequent breaks to look out the window or walk around, letting my eyes and mind relax. My phone doesn’t sit next to my hand so often, and if it does, it lays screen down. A brain injury is just that—an injury—and having spent even such a brief time without its full power, I have more respect for all the work my mind does each day.
Going forward, I plan to continue spending less time with my nose glued to a bright, flickering screen to help ensure I’m not overloading my eyes, brain, or my stress levels. I give my legs rest periods during workouts. If I’m working my mind all day long, it deserves that same respect.