The Healthy Approach to Smartphone Use

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Why We Love Our Smartphones

Not long ago our digital world consisted of multiple devices: a cell phone; camera; the iPod for music; a desktop or laptop for email, organizing calendars, and searching the web. Then the smartphone arrived. It combined all of these tech elements into one small device, thus providing an ultra convenient way in which to manage our daily lives. This pocketsize device streamlined our social and business interactions, providing apps for just about everything: from health and fitness trackers, calendars, maps with GPS, Internet searching, streaming music, photo filters, to social media platforms for instant sharing and connecting. In many ways, our smartphones make us more efficient, productive, and connected than ever before—all great things that we don’t want to change. However, smartphones also come with some trade-offs.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Despite the benefits of the smartphone, there are many complex reasons for why we’re so attached to our phones and why it’s so difficult to put them away. 

The main reason is based on intermittent variable rewards. It’s how slot machines get people to repeatedly pull the lever for a reward that may or may not occur. Because our brains are wired to release dopamine when we’re about to experience something pleasurable, this dopamine-activity helps us recognize a rewarding experience and motivates us to repeat the action, again and again, in hopes of getting that reward. In a nutshell, this is the essence of the smartphone—miniature slot machines we carry with us all the time. In fact, many tech insiders refer to the smartphone as a “pocket slot machine.” When the reward varies, the more addictive it becomes to continually pull the lever or as with smartphones, check email, text, the Internet, notifications from apps, etc. On average, most people spend 2–4 hours on their phones daily and may check their phones 80–150 times a day. With every click, type, swipe, or tap, the reward pattern keeps us engaged and coming back for more. 

Secondly, there is our human need to connect with others, to have a sense of belonging, and also our fear of missing out—areas that social media and text messaging apps on our phones tap into quite well. A study shared by Harvard University explored the triggers and rewards of disclosing personal information with others and how doing so affects our brain chemistry: When we share information about ourselves, the neural regions of our brain associated with dopamine and the reward process are activated. There is intrinsic value in sharing our personal experiences with others, which may explain why we readily post our thoughts and feelings on social media and when texting. Again, all great things when balanced appropriately.

Lastly, other findings show that when we encounter rewarding social stimuli (e.g. “likes,” positive messages), this too is associated with the dopamine reward pathways that motivate us to repeat a behavior, similar to the experience of using alcohol or nicotine. With every click, type, swipe, or tap, there is potential for rewarding social interactions on our phones. After all, they do provide endless social stimuli and cues like waiting messages, vibrations, and pings. Whether a compulsion, a habit, or a cure for boredom, it’s no wonder we’re so attached to our smartphones.

Recognizing the Cell Phone Addiction

You may have already questioned whether you spend too much time on your phone, which is great. You’re being mindful about your health and well-being. Here are some unhealthy behaviors that may suggest it’s time to disengage from your phone:

•  A sense of anxiety when you don’t have your phone with you

• Feeling isolated or depressed when spending more time on your phone

• Frequently checking your phone in a short period of time 

• Checking your phone in the middle of the night 

• Spending more time on your phone than with friends and family

• Phone use while doing important tasks like driving 

• Looking at your phone repeatedly when interacting with others 

• Sleeping with the phone under your pillow

• A strained neck (“text neck”) from looking down while texting

WFP’s Take-Home Advice

The most important take-away is to set boundaries with your phone because the ultimate goal, really, is to spend a reasonable amount of time on your phone so that you balance being productive and efficient along with having meaningful, real-life experiences that are free of tech distractions. Here are some tips to help you better balance your time with your smartphone as well as some healthy smartphone tips for young family members: 

  1. Turn Off (Almost All) Notifications: For an Apple, go to Settings > Notifications and turn off notifications for all non-essential apps. Some essentials ones to keep on are: Calendar, Phone, Maps and Google Maps, delivery apps, and ride sharing. 
  2. Phone Email: Set your phone email to refresh manually and not automatically. 
  3. Social Media Apps: Move social media apps into one folder on the second screen so that you don’t see them on the first screen when you unlock your phone. Log out of accounts when finished so that you’re not tempted to check them repeatedly. The goal is to decrease time spent on social media.
  4. Do Not Disturb: Even silencing your phone for a short period of time is beneficial. If your phone is on Do Not Disturb, you can still enable the Allow Calls from Favorites feature so that you don’t miss an emergency call from someone in your Favorites list. You can even schedule Do Not Disturb at bedtime or anytime during the day. With Do Not Disturb, calls and notifications will be silenced.
  5. Put Your Phone Away at Night: Turn your phone off at night or put it in Airplane mode (your alarm will still work when in Airplane mode). At the very least, move your phone away from your bed so that it isn’t near you. 
  6. Screen Time (a recent feature from Apple): Go to Settings > Screen Time to get a real-time report of how much time you spend daily and weekly on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad; on apps you use; and websites you visit. You can even set time limit restrictions for Most Used apps. This is helpful not only for you but also for younger family members with phones. 
  7. Delay the Smartphone for Children: Because of the addictive nature of smartphones and the inherent tech distractions that prevent children from being present at home and in the classroom, consider the Wait Until 8th Pledge which supports parents in their choice to delay giving their child a smartphone until he or she is at least age 14 (8thgrade). For more information on this national movement, visit waituntil8th.org.
  8. Designate A No-Phone Rule: When you’re with friends or family or at any social event, put your phone away so that it’s out of sight. Even placing it facedown on a table still tempts you to reach for it. If you must check your phone, put it away when finished so that you don’t feel compelled to pick it up again. It needs to be out of sight. 

When you try one or more of these strategies, you’ll gain control of your smartphone rather than it controlling you and you’ll also have more time to be present and focused on the things that matter most in life.   

Sources and References:

Harris, T. (2016, May 19). tristanharris.com. How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds—from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist. Retrieved January 23, 2019 from http://www.tristanharris.com/essays/.

Haynes, T. (2018, May 01). sitn.hmu.harvard.edu. Dopamine, Smartphones, & You: A battle for your time.  Retrieved January 10, 2019 from http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/

Tamir, DI, Mitchell JP. (2012) pnas.org.Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Retrieved January 10, 2019 from https://www.pnas.org/content/109/21/8038.

Winnick, M. (2016, June 16). blog.dscout.com. Putting a Finger on Our Phone Obsession. Retrieved January 10, 2019 from https://blog.dscout.com/mobile-touches.

Krach, S, et al. (2010, May 28). ncbi.nim.nih.gov.The rewarding nature of social interaction.  Retrieved January 10, 2019 from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2889690/

Coach Tony. (2018, October 15). betterhumans.coach.me.  How to Configure Your IPhone to Work for You, Not Against You.  Retrieved January 10, 2019 from https://betterhumans.coach.me/how-to-set-up-your-iphone-for-productivity-focus-and-your-own-longevity-bb27a68cc3d8