As psychologist Chris Willard often says, our phones can be our greatest enemy or greatest friend. While they can save us time and energy, educate and entertain us, and keep us safe in emergencies, they can also distract us from the things we need in life to stay happy and healthy.
And that distraction is often more than a casual annoyance. That’s because everything from our newsfeeds to our cell phone’s notification style follows proven algorithms that aim to keep us attached. As with slot machines, our phones train us to crave the next exciting, momentary distraction, and get sucked into checking every moment we are bored. Quite literally, phones are designed to fix our attention on the screen, not to promote healthy behavior.
Healthy living today requires defining the time and place for technology. It’s an exercise in self-awareness, because while we have the tools and knowledge to live well, we often get caught up in reactivity and habit. Living with intention, we can pause, observe with clarity the impact of technology, and make intentional choices that guide us towards better health and more happiness.
Here are some ways to manage the problematic side of cell phones and use them to promote the exact health behaviors they often undermine.
Sleep and exercise
Our bodies require sleep and exercise to function effectively, but our phone use may be detracting from both. Phones disrupt sleep, not only because of their light that stimulates our brains to stay awake, but because we get wrapped up in using them to watch shows, text, and otherwise remain plugged in past our ideal bedtime. There is a reason that shows and videos auto-play the next item: to keep you hooked.
Screen time also pushes us towards a passive lifestyle, replacing more physical and mentally engaging activities that are important for our well-being. For example, both children and adults who spend more time in front of screens have an increased risk of obesity.
What can be done? You can take a moment to plan how much sleep you require daily and then protect that time, keeping phones out of the bedroom entirely. An old-fashioned alarm clock is less distracting because it won’t entice you to stay up at night—nor to check social media before you are even out of bed the next morning. If you really need a phone alarm, stop using your phone at a specific time each night and enable the Do Not Disturb function during sleep hours (which can still allow selected phone numbers to get through if needed).
When it comes to exercise, try using your devices skillfully to enhance rather than replace exercise. You can select apps that track your activity (if you find that practical), give you reminders to work out, or even lead you through workouts at home. Otherwise, put away technology when it’s time to hit the gym or take a walk. One recent study found that children who sleep and exercise more and spend less time on screens have better cognitive functioning—which almost certainly holds true for adults, too.
Consistent relationships are core to resilience, but mindlessly using social media is problematic; it can diminish our self-esteem, increase our anxiety and depression, and, paradoxically, make us feel more socially isolated. Constant notifications of everything everyone is doing—often in the form of highly polished images of their seemingly amazing lives—make us feel inferior in comparison and can wreak havoc on our well-being and sense of belonging.
But social media can play a positive role in our social lives. They can allow family members and friends who are far apart—like military personnel or college students—to connect, keeping relationships close. To protect your relationships, it’s a good idea to shut off all notifications except those coming from real people. You can check social media and email at dedicated times that you decide on in advance, leaving them alone otherwise. Also, deleting unneeded apps from your phone may help you control overuse.
“Phones are designed to fix our attention on the screen, not to promote healthy behavior”
Most people find it better for their relationships if friends are able to commit to more in-person time together. Then, you can put away your phones, since having one visible makes people have shorter conversations and feel less emotionally connected. Since starting a new habit requires strict consistency, consider setting a rule for yourself: Avoid your phone when other people are nearby. Creating a culture among your peers of dedicated time together, with technology firmly in its place, can help keep your relationships strong and safe from the harmful effects of “phubbing” (snubbing people in favor of your phone).
Attention and productivity
As one Harvard study found, giving full attention to whatever we’re doing makes us happier. It’s common sense, but how often do we remember to take that focused, uninterrupted time in our busy lives?
Smartphones can disrupt us at any time and interfere with productivity at home, school, and work. The average person checks their phone dozens of times a day, also receives dozens of push notifications, and must manage email and other communications online. But multitasking is neurologically impossible; what we think of as multitasking is more like mental pinball and leads to increased inefficiency and errors (oops, didn’t mean to send that email). That’s why some businesses recommend disconnecting periodically during the workday.
As with much of healthy living, we can catch ourselves and aim for intentional choices around our smartphone use that protect our attention. That might require shutting off all unneeded notifications, taking screen breaks during work, or using programs that protect work time. You could also choose to seek out productivity software that improves your efficiency and planning while actively avoiding whatever else you find distracting on your device.
Smartphones and computers are tools that can be used well or poorly. The choice is yours. Paying attention, noting your habits, and planning accordingly can allow you to control technology in ways that bring you enjoyable convenience and better support your health and happiness. Instead of relying on default settings provided by an industry that makes money off of your time and attention, make clear decisions for yourself and your family.