Setting boundaries for screen time and instant messaging invites deeper presence 

Instant messaging has added enormous pressure to our relationships. We no longer wonder whether our friends will have time for a phone call. Instead, we wonder how long it will take them to respond to our messages. 

These expectations have led to relational obligations, like feeling pressured to answer every message in order to keep friendships afloat. On top of daily in-person responsibilities, there are now virtual conversations begging for our limited time and energy. 

This is why multitasking has (had to) become second-nature for most of us. It seems anytime I’ve tried to spend an hour of quality time with a friend, our conversation has been interrupted by one of us receiving a text and needing to respond. The convenience of having communication at our fingertips has taken priority over committing time to the people in the same room as us. 

Recently, a friend texted me one evening. Her message required my time and emotion. It was late and I was mentally depleted, but because I value her friendship I wanted to respond in a way that showed I cared. I began typing, scouring my brain for the right words, but as I did, my stomach began to tighten and I suddenly felt faint. 

When stress pushes us too far, our bodies react with a warning. Adrenaline hit me when I felt I needed to quickly accomplish a task I didn’t have the mental strength to achieve. Cortisol hit me with the physical symptoms to slow me down and warn me that pursuing this action would result in further harm. And oxytocin told me to look for a place of safety so that the anxiety symptoms would stop.

So, I set down my phone and left the room. And soon after, the anxiety symptoms stopped. 

We need to be willing to resist the guilt or pressure to respond instantly and be attuned to what each moment asks of us. That can mean being attentive to the friend across from us; it can mean listening to our bodies on those tough nights when we just need to put down our phones and rest. It can mean waiting for the energy and attention needed to type messages on our little glowing screens to friends who aren’t present.

In her podcast, Onwards and Upwards, Hope Watson suggests communicating boundaries with those you connect with and asking for their support in keeping these boundaries. 

To become more present and committed to my relationships and care for my mental health, I’ve made significant changes to how I keep in touch with people.  

A close friend suggested that I try setting one day aside each week to respond to instant messages, which seemed like a good place to start. 

I have since discontinued instant messaging completely, and told family and friends that I would spend time with them in person or through phone calls, with video as much as possible. As a millennial, this was a serious boundary that I needed help with setting! Thankfully, most of my friends have respected this decision.

It has been just over one month. And in that time I’ve been able to focus on my present tasks and self care without my mind wandering. And best of all: the headaches and what I now know are symptoms of anxiety have decreased so that I rarely notice them. I have come to appreciate tangible pieces of relationships like hugs and smiles in real time. 

Imagine being in the garden of Eden, a place where we know the intimacy of God’s presence. Now imagine that we also had our cell phones. How often would we look away from Him? 

Consider how Jesus modelled attentive presence. He had twelve close friends with whom he spent his time. They experienced relational reinforcement together through commitment, witnessing each other’s emotions, facial expressions, and tangible contact. They would have also known relational friction, like seeing hurt flash across one another’s faces, and been able to address it together.

Rather than being constantly distracted by our notifications, what if we trusted Him to help us set healthy boundaries? What if we focused our attention on God and set aside only a few minutes a day for phone messages? This intentional time could then allow us to be present in our instant messages, as well as present with the rest of our time. 

In this age of distraction and multitasking, it is worth being committed and attentive to ourselves and others—even if that means setting boundaries.

J.M. Bergman is an author and poet living in Morden, Man. Read more from the “Body and soul” column.