Smartphones are a fact of life, and they have certainly made many things easier. I mean, when is the last time you had to ring a business to enquire about trading hours or to ask for directions? Unfortunately, this convenience has come with a price for many of us – compulsively checking our phones. We might be checking texts, calls, or work emails. Some may be checking social media. Regardless, we as a society are spending increasing amounts of time engaged with our phones at a cost of being engaged with the world around us and the important people in our lives.
I realised my phone was a problem when I settled down to watch an episode of my favourite show at the end of the day and couldn’t help also scrolling through Facebook at the same time. That is, just sitting and watching a TV show was not stimulating enough for me, and the boredom was making me antsy. I ended up not really knowing what was going on at the end of the episode because I’d only been half paying attention, and I realised that this was likely how I was spending increasing amounts of the rest of my life – only partially engaged.
How do you know if your smartphone use is a problem? While smartphone addiction has not been formally recognised as a diagnosis, clinicians increasingly recognise that for some people, their behaviour with their phones can look compulsive and dependence-forming. Signs that your phone use may be problematic include:
- Ignoring responsibilities in order to spend time on your phone.
- Trying to reduce phone use but failing.
- Using your phone to manage difficult emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness).
- Using your phone in unsafe situations or situations in which there is the potential for very negative consequences (e.g., while driving, checking your phone during a work meeting even if it would be very embarrassing to be caught).
Fortunately, there are ways to sustainably reduce phone use without having to go cold turkey (it is 2018, after all). Reducing use starts with an honest assessment of when and how you are using your phone. Spend a few days taking note of when you use your phone most. Do you use it when bored? When trying to avoid an undesirable task? Before bed? Recognising these times will help you to gain a sense of how your phone use functions in your life and what you can do to combat it. If boredom is the issue, then you can find entertaining activities to replace it. For example, people often use their phones to entertain themselves while sitting in a waiting room or on the train. You might start by bringing a book with you to read instead. Other tips and tricks for reducing phone use include:
- Reducing push notifications so that only the most important things appear on your screen when it is locked. That way, you actually have to go into an app and actively check for messages, etc.
- Practice sitting with the boredom discomfort. I have purposely made myself leave my phone in my bag while waiting for friends at a restaurant. Sit and observe what is going on around you.
- Put your phone out of reach during the times that you want to be more present. If your phone use makes engaging with your children difficult, leave your phone in your bag or bedroom when you get home from work.
- Leave your phone on silent/no vibrating.
- Delete apps that you just can’t help checking.
- Put boundaries around phone use: Set actual times when you will check your phone and respond to messages, then do not look at your phone between these times.
If you implement the above tips and find that your phone use is still having a significant negative impact on your life, a psychologist can assist you with strategies that are more individualised to your needs.