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Setting boundaries with screens at Zoom University

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If you’re like me, most of your leisure activities are probably online. I’m not just talking about social media; I’m talking about “real, productive” hobbies. For example, I write short stories on my computer notepad. It’s efficient — I type faster than I write. I play online games with my high school friends because we’re scattered around the country, and online games let us connect without having to all fly back home. Heck, I’m typing up this article on Google Docs because The Daily’s submission process is online, and online submissions are fast and easy.

None of this used to be a problem. In fact, having my leisure online made sense — I am a relatively introverted person, so after a full day of lectures and one-on-one meetings, leisurely computer time was a great way to wind down. But now that physical distancing and online classes are the norm, I’m starting to realize that I need to rethink my hobbies. I used to spend at most five or six hours every day on the computer, split between homework and hobbies.

Now, though, I spend two to five hours a day just in Zoom classes. My problem set meetups, once held around a greasy table in Old Union, have migrated to Zoom; readings that I used to print out are now PDFs on Canvas. Every weekday, I log anywhere between three and eight hours of screen time doing school activities alone. Add my on-screen leisure activities, then add Facebook, Twitter and Netflix. It’s not hard to spend upwards of eight hours on my computer, and unlike before, I can just as easily get there by being productive as by binging “Community.”

Though the jury is out on exactly how harmful screen time is, I think most people intuitively feel the same way towards screen time as they do towards ice cream: Not having it at all sucks, but having too much of it also sucks. It’s physically and mentally exhausting to sit behind a screen for hours, and that exhaustion increases enormously when you video call (as with Zoom classes). But unfortunately, the physical distancing measures prompted by the pandemic have called into question the feasibility of moderating screen time.

Now that we can’t meet our friends face-to-face, we have little choice but to move our hangouts online. Now that we can’t borrow physical books from the library, we have little choice but to borrow e-books. The internet has been a blessing during this pandemic, enabling us to continue our lives with an astonishing degree of normalcy. But it’s also been a curse, because now there are infinite reasons for us to be tethered to a screen. Getting away from your computer doesn’t just mean cutting social media. It means cutting your school life, and your work life, and your friends, and your hobbies.

In the age of Zoom University, is there any way that we can set boundaries with our screens? Though the odds are against us, I think it is possible. The first step is acknowledging that Zoom University needs to change. To their credit, I think our professors realize this — faculty are getting burnt out by Zoom U as much as students are. If classes are made fully online next year, I hope our classes will be redesigned so that they’re truly optimized for online learning and demand much less screen time from both students and professors.

Until then, though, we may need to start reinventing our hobbies, whether that means moving online hobbies into the real world or finding new hobbies entirely. Personally, I don’t plan to give up the convenience of writing stories on my computer or doing Zoom calls with my friends. But I have started setting a timer on my social media use so that I can explore screen-free hobbies. (If I’ve been unresponsive on Facebook lately, now you know why.) Here’s what I’ve found so far.

  1. In the last few weeks, I’ve been learning to cook new dishes. In my opinion, cooking is the ideal hobby: It gives you something to take control over (useful in a time when it’s easy to feel helpless); it’s almost totally offline (except reading the recipe); and you can eat the results. I learned to bake pretzels this past month. I’m currently at home with my parents, and they’ve also taught me how to make green onion pancakes. This weekend, I’m going to try to expand my repertoire of desserts and learn to bake sugar cookies.
  2. Physical exercise is extraordinarily reinvigorating. Speaking for myself, even the lazy benefit from an hour spent outside. I’ve started going on daily walks, circling the neighborhood and enjoying the trees and flowers in bloom. Even when the weather isn’t optimal, getting a breath of fresh air and looking at things farther than two feet from your face will recharge you like nothing else. (Just remember to stay six feet from everyone else, and wear a mask if you can.)
  3. If you absolutely do not feel like exerting physical effort, then reading books, whether paper books or Kindle books, is a fantastic alternative to “reading” your Facebook feed. I recently finished reading two nonfiction books, and I’ve ordered four novels from my to-read list. I’ve found that while you may learn a lot from a news article, nonfiction draws you in deeper and explains things with much more nuance. Novels, meanwhile, engage the imagination much more vividly than Netflix. Besides, when you’re done, there’s no temptation to open a new tab and search up what other people think. You’re left with the space to collect your feelings.

The irony is that if you’re reading this, you are probably doing so on a screen. But I encourage you to find some time to close your computer, turn off your phone and head out into the real world. In a turbulent time when nothing seems certain anymore, engaging with the physical world keeps me sane. We may not know what it will be like at Stanford this fall, but I sure as heck know that those cookies are going to be delicious. Though that doesn’t cure my anxiety, it helps a lot.

Mail your thoughts to Tiffany Zhu’s carrier pigeon at tzhu10 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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