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3 ways to manage smartphone use and improve quality of life

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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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