How to improve your relationship with your phone

Gone are the days when phones were strictly used for voice communication. Your phone allows you to take photos, read the news, listen to music, track your exercise routine, follow your friend’s whereabouts, keep up with the life of celebrities, collect art, and buy virtually anything you can — or even cannot — afford. Today, phones have turned into a collective gateway to the world, and your relationship with your phone has a massive impact on what you consume and what you create.

A phone can be a tool to feed your curiosity and connect with people, or a time-wasting source of anxiety. In addition, phone addiction can be detrimental to your mental health. The good news is: there are simple ways you can better control your relationship with your phone.

The impact of an unhealthy relationship with your phone

First, it is important to note that there is no objective amount of time spent on your phone that is considered “too much”. What matters is your actual relationship with your phone: how you feel about the amount of time you spend using it and when you use it, and how the impact using your phone or not having immediate access to it has on your psychological well-being.

For instance, researchers conducted a study with 199 iPhone and 46 Android phone users, where they measured both the objective time spent using their phone, and how problematic the participants perceived their smartphone usage to be. The results showed that the participant’s worries about their phone usage were a better predictor of anxiety, depression, and stress symptoms than the objective amount of time they spent on their phone.

Imagine these two scenarios: one person spends two hours reading interesting articles on their phone while commuting to work, while another person spends two hours scrolling on social media while laying down on their sofa. The objective amount of time spent on their phone is the same, but the way they feel about that time spent is likely to be different, and so is the impact on their respective mental health.

Rather than focusing on the objective amount of time spent on your phone, a better question would be: is the activity currently performed on my phone the best use of my time?

An unhealthy relationship with our phones has been linked to stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression. Some people tend to grab their phone whenever they feel bored. Others feel anxious when their phone is out of your range, or find themselves unable to cut back on phone usage. It’s also common for many people to stay on their phone late at night at the expense of their sleep.

Conduct a phone relationship audit

Understanding your relationship with your phone is the first step to improve it. Start by answering the following questions:

  1. How much time do I spend on my phone every day on average? For iPhone users, go to Settings > Screen Time and tap “See All Activity” under the graph. For Android users, go to Settings > Digital Wellbeing > Data, then click on the graph to check your screen time for the past week.
  2. When is the first time I use my phone on an average day? Is it as soon as you open your eyes in the morning, or maybe after you have taken a shower?
  3. When is the last time I use my phone on an average day? Is it before dinner, before going to bed, or maybe right before closing your eyes to go to sleep?
  4. What are the 3-5 most common activities I perform on my phone? Think of all of the activities we now tend to do on our phones, such as browsing social media, chatting with friends, reading the news, replying to emails, watching videos, listening to podcasts, making calls, and shopping online.
  5. How do I feel about the time spent performing these activities on my phone? Is it too much, is it just right? Would you like to reduce the time spent on some of these activities?

You could find that you are happy about the way you spend your time on your phone — in that case, kudos! Not everyone struggles with the relationship with their phone. If, however, you found that you would like to build a healthier relationship with your phone, don’t worry: there are simple strategies you can apply.

Improving your relationship with your phone

Once you have identified the areas where you feel like the amount of time spent on certain activities is unhealthy, you can use three shortcuts to create boundaries:

  • Escape. Create artificial friction to reduce time spent on specific activities. For example, you can uninstall apps you use too often, such as social media apps. Most web versions are slower and clunkier than their mobile app counterparts. If you decide to keep these apps on your phone, another option is to at least turn off the notifications so you’re not as tempted to open these apps several times a day. You can also make these applications less engaging by turning on the grayscale mode on your phone.
  • Shift. For the activities where the time spent feels right, could some of them be performed another way? For example, you could create boundaries by only replying to emails on your laptop, only reading the news on your Kindle, or only shopping on your tablet.
  • Control. Reduce the overall time spent on your phone by creating strict limits as to where and when you allow yourself to use it. The simplest way to apply this shortcut is to stop bringing your phone into your bedroom. Invest into an analogue alarm clock, and get either an e-ink reading tablet or some good old fashioned books. It will feel strange at first, but you will sleep better and feel more rested, and it will prevent you from using your phone first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening.

There are many different ways you can escape, shift, and control some aspects of your relationship with your phone. Remember that the objective amount of time you spend on your phone is not in and of itself a good measure of the impact your phone usage has on your mental health. Instead of quantity, focus on the quality of the time spent on your phone, and try to focus on activities that nourish the mind and nurture your psychological well-being.  

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