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When Apple rolled out its screen time report feature, I was simultaneously excited and wary. I'm endlessly interested in habit formation and habit change, and I knew a feature that could tell me how much time I was actually spending on my phone each week could be a catalyst for helping me create some real change.
For the most part, it has been. I've gotten better at leaving my phone in a drawer while I work, and choosing a book over scrolling before bed. But when COVID-19 and the era of social distancing hit, all efforts to control how much time I spent on my phone flew out the window—and suddenly I was getting notifications that my screen time use was up by embarrassing percentages.
I know I'm not alone in this, and I also know that smartphone use is complicated. Smartphones can be a way to stay connected when you're not seeing friends and family, and as of the last week, a way to stay informed about important events like protests, or a place to find resources you need to donate and get involved with important causes.
At the same time, studies show that smartphone use is correlated with depression and loneliness and can interfere with concentration. So in such a strange time in history, where do we draw the line? Is it possible to disconnect when technology is the only thing keeping us connected?
I asked a psychologist. Here's what you should know.
Decide on Times and Places You Won't Use Your Device
While this piece of advice is more complicated when you're not going far from home, there are ways to apply this rule to life right now. "Examples can include device-free dinners, taking a walk, getting ready in the morning, or while watching TV," says Nicole Beurkens, a clinical psychologist and brand ambassador to Qustido.
Meet the Expert
Nicole Beurkens, PhD is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Board Certified Nutritionist specializing in evaluation and treatment of children with serious developmental and mental health conditions.
By designating device-free times, you'll have built in periods of your day when you're not on your phone at all and able to be a little more present.
Beurkens adds that creating some distance from your phone is a no-brainer at bedtime especially. "It’s always a good idea to leave the phone out of the bedroom at night, or at least put it on 'do not disturb' when you get into bed," she explains. "This avoids the sleep disruption that comes from device use at night, and also cuts down on the amount of mindless scrolling when you should be relaxing for sleep."
If you're still having trouble controlling your screen time use even with certain rules in place, try taking advantage of app limits on your phone — especially when it comes to the apps you know get you into trouble, like Instagram.
Note Negative Ways Screen Time Is Impacting Your Life
In addition to feeling like I'm wasting my time when I'm on my phone too much, I've also noticed that it makes it harder for me to concentrate on things I actually want to spend my time doing, like reading a book or even watching a TV show. I'll find myself reading a few pages, then wondering what's going on in the world of my phone, even if it's out of sight. Unsurprisingly, this doesn't happen nearly as often when my phone feels like part of my life and not my whole life.
"You’re noticing something really important, and that research has repeatedly demonstrated: The more we use devices the more likely we are to experience brain-based issues like shorter attention span, poorer concentration, worse memory, and brain fog," says Beurkens. "When you become aware of these symptoms, it is beneficial to put a plan in place to reduce device use."
She suggests replacing screen time with activities like physical movement, connecting with people in real life (or as much as you can right now!), engaging in activities that require thinking and concentration, like puzzles and games, and getting quality sleep.
Forgive Yourself and Acknowledge the Good
Of course, we're living in unprecedented times—so if you can't seem to kick your smartphone habit, don't be too hard on yourself. And don't forget to acknowledge features of your phone that drive up screen time use but are truly helping you feel more connected, like FaceTime or even texting.
"Using devices more to stay connected to the people we care about is common and appropriate," Beurkens says. "We need to be concerned about the quality of our device use, and not just the quantity. Device use that fosters relationships and connection, especially during what is a very isolating time for many, is healthy."
Now that you've been given the green light, go ahead and FaceTime your best friend for the third time today. It's good for you!