Every screen feels gross now. This is how quarantine has blurred the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ technology.

Increased screen time and blurred lines between work and leisure can leave us feeling exhausted.
Increased screen time and blurred lines between work and leisure can leave us feeling exhausted.


  • The classic “good screen, bad screen” meme illustrates the way that we perceive technology used for productivity versus leisure.

  • Quarantine has erased some of the markers that help us differentiate between the “good” and “bad” screens, leaving people feeling exhausted and at times reluctant to socialize online.

  • People can mitigate some of this screen exhaustion with simple strategies like taking phone calls while walking outside.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

In the two-plus months of quarantine in the United States, there’s been a classic meme at the forefront of my mind. I cannot stop thinking about the Good Screen and the Bad Screen meme, and in turn, how none of my screens feel remotely “good” anymore.

We need MORE good screen and LESS bad screen from r/memes

The premise of the meme is simple: the screens that we use for productivity — a desktop work computer in the image — are “bad.” Conversely, the screens we use for leisure — a personal laptop —  are “good.” While it’s a pretty easy-to-understand concept, there are layers of association and meaning that help us make judgments about our various screens.

The man using the “bad” screen is wearing a button-up shirt, sitting in what seems to be an ergonomic (or at least, cozy) office chair, at a full desk with multiple monitors. “Good” screen guy is hanging out at home, wearing boxers and a plain tee while presumably surfing the web from the comfort of his bed. There’s a clear division in types of technology, attire, setting, and formality, all of which help to clearly delineate where the two devices fall on the good/bad binary.

Quarantine has effectively erased all of those signifiers for people who previously did not work remotely. Many of us are wearing casual clothes both on the clock and after hours, in addition to creating impromptu work spaces at home where we may also play video games, watch television, or eat meals. For those of us regularly clocking in virtually for the first time, there is no “good” screen anymore. Everything has started to feel like the “bad” screen.

We’re constantly inundated with more ways to virtually pass the time, from the latest viral series like “Tiger King” to virtual hangouts. Our adaptation to socializing and staying connected amid a pandemic is admirable. At the same time, after several months it can start to feel incredibly exhausting. 

Our relationship with technology isn’t quite so binary, even if it makes for a funny meme

Of course, our engagement with technology, no matter whether we typically use a device for productivity or leisure activities, isn’t as simple as “good” and “bad,” even if that’s the crux of the meme’s humor.

“We do tend to create these binary realities where it’s good or bad, and this is forcing us to face the reality that few things are rarely that simplistic,” said Doreen Dodgen-Magee, the author of “Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World” and a psychologist. “I think we already lived in a time where productivity culture pushed us to be engaged in the grind, even if that’s just passing another level of a game while we’re standing in line for something.”

Constantly working and living at home, however, has blurred the lines between the times and devices that we use for productivity. Dodgen-Magee said that she’s heard from people that they’re not only multitasking with tech more than they were during the pandemic, but also that people aren’t stepping away from their screens as much while they’re not working. Rather, they’re just doing recreational activities instead. 

My own personal screen time has increased in quarantine in well, although in the past month I’ve been making an effort to cut down smartphone usage in particular. It hasn’t always worked — while I only logged 15 hours and 35 minutes of screen time on my phone the week of April 26 (a 29% decrease from the previous week), that jumped up to a whopping 35 hours and 19 minutes (approximately five hours per day) the week of May 10. That time was dominated by social platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, along with websites like Archive of Our Own (where I frequently read fan fiction) and video calling platform FaceTime, which I use to talk to my parents. Some of my heaviest use occurred on weekdays, where I’m already guaranteed to spend at least eight hours staring at a computer screen.

Screen exhaustion — and social exhaustion — are partially due to our inability to say no

Dodgen-Magee told Insider she’s noticed that people now tend to feel like they’re expected to be available for work during increased time frames compared to pre-pandemic. While that perception will vary depending on pre-quarantine work habits, clocking out can mean something different when you’re not physically leaving an office to do so.


That reluctance to say no also carries over to our social lives, which are also now almost completely online. Insider’s Rachel Hosie reported on the ways that messaging around socialization during the pandemic can create a feeling of obligation to hop on video calls with friends, even if a social call won’t feel that relaxing after a day of video conferencing. Dodgen-Magee said that people are finding it harder to say no, particularly given that typical social outs like having to run an errand or being double-booked are harder to invoke in a video call.

“I think there’s an ambient feeling of aloneness right now. People are reticent to do anything that could displease people,” Dodgen-Magee said. “We don’t have the language or vocabulary for saying, ‘I’m feeling really overwhelmed. This is not a time I can do. I’m aware that that might feel really crummy.’ We’re just not used to that kind of nuanced, vulnerable communication.”

In turn, as Dodgen-Magee wrote in a Psychology Today blog post, video calls and virtual hangouts can leave us feeling more lonely and tired than we were in the first place. There’s a particular kind of irony to the fact that the most effective way we have to communicate with others can still leave us feeling bereft.

Increased screen time can lead to eye strain, but shouldn’t have lasting effects on eye health

Dr. Sunir Garg, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and professor of ophthalmology at Willis Eye Hospital, told Insider that people don’t need to worry about long-term eye health as a result of increased screen time. That being said, changing work habits may lead to increased eye strain. Dr. Garg said that decreased blinking while staring at screens can lead to users’ eyes starting to dry out, leaving them feeling irritated and prickly. Staring in a single direction without moving your eyes around can be fatiguing as well.

“Part of the fun of being at work is that you’re interacting with colleagues or taking a coffee break,” he said. “Those kinds of physical activities break up starting at a screen. That may be different than if people are in their home office where there are fewer distractions.”


Mitigating the negative effects of screen time can be as simple as taking calls outside

Dodgen-Magee recommends that people establish different zones in their home, physically separating workspace and recreation and rest space if possible.

Furthermore, she challenges people to attempt to limit their screen time while acknowledging the fact that it’s largely what’s keeping people connected.  “I’m trying to encourage people to take stock of what they need relationally and then try to get somewhat creative about it,” she said. That could include strategies like taking video calls outside, chatting with friends and family on the phone while taking a walk, or even ramping up sensory stimuli while chatting online by engaging tactile senses with something like Play Doh or putty. 

In terms of eye strain, Dr. Garg recommends that people follow the “20-20-20” rule: every 20 seconds, shift your eyes to look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Additionally, assessing workplace set-up — such as proximity to a window that may create glare on a screen — can help to mitigate factors that may lead to eye strain. Looking towards long-term eye health, he recommends regular exercise as well a diet full of vegetables like broccoli, spinach, or kale as well as vibrant fruits like blueberries or strawberries. 

The irony of the “good screen, bad screen” meme is that it’s all still just a screen

The kind of tongue-cheek-humor that makes the “good screen, bad screen” meme funny is also what makes it deeply illustrative of how we typically perceive technology around us. While it’s all still a screen in the end, situational nuance defines how we interact with different devices and digitally based tasks. In quarantine, those associations are being eroded. 


That being said, ensuring that we’re taking care of ourselves — whether it’s via exercise, outdoor jaunts, or phone calls without the added video pressure — is paramount. And in the end, it can help all of our screens feel a little less “bad.”

Read the original article on Insider