Take a look around. It’s a funny scene you wouldn’t have observed 10 years ago: People walk busy city streets with their eyes glued to their devices. Our phones keep us company in elevators, and entertain us while we wait for our coffee order. Yes, we’re distracted, but that’s just the start. Reaching for them 50 to 300 times a day has social, psychological, and physical side effects, ranging from “phubbing” (snubbing someone by staring at your phone) to tech neck (tension caused by constantly bending your head down) to depression, which is spiking among kids, especially teen girls. Add to that stew feeling anxious, scattered, tired, forgetful, and even less tuned in to others’ feelings.
“The vast majority of us use our devices compulsively, and it’s impacting the quality of our lives,” says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, in Farmington. He compares mobile phones to slot machines that spit out likes instead of coins. Adam Alter, the author of "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked" (Penguin Press) and an associate professor of marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, likens our phone habits to addictions such as nicotine dependency, which create chemical imbalances in the brain. In fact, a November 2017 study by Korean researchers showed that smartphone overuse can have a measurable negative neurological effect on teens.
We’re at a tipping point. Many of us—65 percent, according to a 2017 American Psychological Association report—believe that periodic unplugging would improve our mental health, but only a few (28 percent) actually follow through and do it. Since our devices are here to stay, read on for ways to establish a healthier relationship with your phone, and things will start looking up.
Track Your (True) Use
How many times a day do you check your phone? Whatever figure you came up with, double it. Research has shown that we use our devices nearly twice as much as we think we do. To know your real numbers, enlist, well, your phone. Then retool it to support positive habits instead of enabling bad ones. Usage trackers like Moment and Offtime keep tabs on your overall phone-in-hand time and minutes spent in specific apps. (The 15 minutes you thought you spent on email was actually 25 minutes on Pinterest.) You can then use them to block problem apps after a certain amount of time (so you don’t drown in an endless Facebook comment thread), or to ping you when you hit a daily total limit.
By design, phones make it easy to slide down the rabbit hole, so that checking the weather spirals into a lost half hour. Instagram, for example, reportedly withholds new likes, then delivers them in a flurry to discourage you from closing the app, according to Ramsay Brown, cofounder of Boundless Mind, a tech and neuroscience startup formerly known as Dopamine Labs. But you can outwit them if you know the right moves. First, move problem apps from your home screen to a secondary one, and keep only functional apps (map, camera) front and center. Also, try switching your display to grayscale. The Technicolor icons and red-bubble notifications lose their candylike pull in black-and-white, per tech ethicists such as Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris. The process varies by phone manufacturer, but the option usually lives in the Accessibility menu, and detailed instructions are readily available online. As a bonus, your phone’s battery will last much longer. Finally, be sure to turn off push notifications (usually found in Settings, under Notifications). That way, you won’t jump at every news alert or social post.
Follow the Out-of-Sight Rule
These devices may be tiny, but their mere presence is so distracting that they interfere with our cognition (not to mention our relationships). For an April 2017 study, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business administered a series of tests that required full concentration and told participants to silence their phones. Then they instructed one group to put their phones on the table facedown, a second group to put them in their pocket or bag, and a third to leave them in another room. Only the last group did well. The scientists speculate that having a phone within reach reduces the ability to focus because part of the brain is expending effort to not grab it, even when it’s not buzzing. In another study, researchers asked employees how they reacted when their bosses picked up their cell during a meeting. Their answers included feeling less engaged with work, and less trusting of their supervisor. When you don’t need it, don’t bring it. (Novel idea: Wear a watch to tell time!)
No Devices While Driving
Fourteen percent of fatal distracted-driving crashes in 2016 involved cell-phone use, per the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Put yours somewhere completely inaccessible, like in the glove box or trunk, when you’re behind the wheel. Or install an app like Cellcontrol, which comes with a Bluetooth device that disables apps and phone and texting functions for the driver. Phone makers are also helping out: Apple, Google, and Samsung all have do-not-disturb modes (some kick in automatically; others you need to enable) that sense when you’re in a moving car.
Schedule Phone-Free Time
And treat it like it’s sacred. Experts suggest avoiding technology for at least the first half hour you’re awake; at mealtimes (sorry, turning it screen-side-down or muting it isn’t enough; have family members check them at the door, the way President Obama had his White House staffers do, or turn off the Wi-Fi); and for the last hour before bed, since the blue light and time-suck factor can mess with your sleep. Also, make time for any activity that reminds you that fulfillment doesn’t come from digital likes, whether it’s hiking or going to a museum or a movie. Danish researchers found that people who stayed off Facebook for one week rated themselves happier at the end of the experiment. (At the very least, you could stop following the people who rile you up.) “The true antidote to tech overload, or any other addictive behavior, is real-time social relationships,” says Greenfield. Alter concurs: “Do your best to talk to friends face-to-face, exercise, get outdoors—all the enriching things we do less of because we spend so much time on screens.”
If you can’t resist the urge to check in, try these analog strategies.
Reward Yourself: Often what your brain really wants is entertainment, connection, or a break. Find it in a different way, like chatting with a coworker, going for a walk, or playing with a pet.
Make a List: On paper, that is. Write down activities you want to do more of but don’t seem to have time for. Maybe it’s cooking, knitting, or meditation. Then, instead of thumbing through Twitter, spend at least 10 minutes a day doing one of them.
Read a Book: Or a magazine. Keep one in your bag for commuting if you ride a train or bus; waiting in line or for an appointment; and other toetapping times (kids’ sports practice, hair color touch-ups).
Just Breathe: Practice “ha” breaths, which support diaphragmatic breathing, quell stress, and encourage relaxation. Inhale slowly and smoothly through your nose, then exhale completely with a whispered haaaa sound. Pause for three counts. Repeat 10 times, then let your breath return to normal.