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3 ways to manage smartphone use and improve quality of life


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.

1. Protect 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.

2. Nurture Relationships

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.

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).

3. Minimize Multitasking

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.

Dr. Mark Bertin is a devel­op­men­tal pedi­a­tri­cian and author of How Chil­dren Thrive, Mind­ful Par­ent­ing for ADHD, and The Fam­i­ly ADHD Solu­tion. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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