by Patrick Glass

The Fix:

A few days ago, I tried something new – something I never thought would seem like a good idea: I left my phone in the car during work hours.

For me, as I imagine it is for many people these days, this choice represented a truly radical departure from my usual habits. Although I was a somewhat late adopter of the smartphone lifestyle, for the better part of the past two years my phone has been perpetually by my side.

Like for most Millennials, my phone is my primary source of information and social contact. Whether it’s receiving texts from friends and family, Googling for answers to my fleeting whims and uncertainties, or simply navigating to an unfamiliar address, my phone is in constant use.

In an eerie, sci-fi sort of way, I sometimes sense that my phone has become a proto-sentient adjunct to my own mind – it’s criticality to my thought patterns growing with each successive flurry of keystrokes. With all of the marketable data generated by my phone usage (searches, locations, purchases, contacts) it makes me wonder: at what point is my phone no longer working for me? At what point am I working for it?

In response to this growing feeling, I decided it was time for a break. Eight hours without a phone couldn’t be that hard. I’d gone camping for days at a time without a phone. This should be easy, right?

… Wrong.

Initially, everything was cool. I logged on, checked my email, made myself some tea. Anyone who needs to contact me can email or call my office phone, it’s all good. But then I started to wonder: What if a co-worker texted me to grab lunch? What if a friend wants to meet up after work? Won’t my lack of response cause them some sort of stress?

I didn’t crave my phone because it gives me psychological pleasure. I craved it because it was comforting to know that I could respond immediately to those around me, and thus check that “chore” off of my to-do list.

During lunch, I slunk out to the parking lot and retrieved my phone. Only one person had texted me during the morning. So why was it stressful to be away from my phone for a few hours? I hadn’t missed out on anything…

The Facts:

Screen and phone addiction is becoming a significant concern for many healthcare providers – especially for young people who spend up to 10 hours a day on their devices. A 2013 Baylor University study found that 60% of college students self-reported that they were addicted to their phones.

Smartphone addiction has been significantly associated with a variety of negative mental and behavioral health outcomes, including depression and loneliness. People who are addicted to their phones get poorer sleep, and using your phone during meaningful conversations with others leads to poorer interpersonal relationships.

Yet, some studies indicate that not all uses of mobile technology are bad for mental health. It largely depends on the duration and specifics of your usage.

The Help:

If you feel that your phone use has crossed the threshold from healthy to unhealthy, here are some ways to help develop a healthier relationship with your phone:

  1. Keep it out of reach: By putting extra distance or barriers between yourself and your device, you disrupt your habits.
  2. Choose no-phone times or activities: One of the main drivers of phone addiction is their portability. An easy way to get around this is to leave your phone behind for certain times or events. For instance: always go for walks without your phone.
  3. Have a no-phone morning routine: Sometimes the first thing we do in the mornings is check our phones. Break this cycle by planning out a morning routine – light exercise, meditation, breakfast, etc. – that doesn’t require using your phone.
  4. Use a phone limiting app: Some apps limit what time-wasting activities you can do with your phone, others give you an addictedness score. Either way, apps can be an effective intervention for phone addiction.