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Four guidelines for smart use of smartphones

These days, you can’t go any­where with­out hear­ing about how tech­nol­o­gy is ruin­ing every­thing, includ­ing our hap­pi­ness. There is some truth to this, but it’s not the whole sto­ry.

Tech­nol­o­gy can be bad for us—for exam­ple, when social media gives us FOMO (fear of miss­ing out) or traps us in fil­ter bub­bles that pre­vent us from see­ing mul­ti­ple points of view on impor­tant issues. As a soci­ety, we are increas­ing­ly con­cerned that tech­nolo­gies like smart­phones and social media result in more social com­par­i­son, bul­ly­ing, and loneliness—all stum­bling blocks to hap­pi­ness. Tech­nol­o­gy seems to be bad for our hap­pi­ness when it inter­feres with the men­tal, social, emo­tion­al, and behav­ioral process­es that con­tribute to well-being.

But we often fail to real­ize (and dis­cuss) the ways that tech­nol­o­gy can also sup­port hap­pi­ness and well-being—for exam­ple, when video calls let us talk to peo­ple all over the world or when apps or online arti­cles give us a sense of pur­pose, joy, or excite­ment.

While research­ing my new book, Out­smart Your Smart­phone, I dis­cov­ered many of the ways tech­nol­o­gy can and does hurt our hap­pi­ness. But I also dis­cov­ered many ways tech­nol­o­gy can and does sup­port our hap­pi­ness … espe­cial­ly if we use it in the right man­ner.

If you’re try­ing to lim­it tech­nol­o­gy use for your­self or your kids, don’t for­get about some of its poten­tial ben­e­fits. Here are four research-based ways to spend your time on tech­nol­o­gy that can boost your health, hap­pi­ness, and well-being.

1. Learn new goals and habits

Tech­nol­o­gy has giv­en us access to lots of health and well­ness resources, mak­ing it eas­i­er than ever to build and prac­tice skills like grat­i­tude, mind­ful­ness, and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion online. You can now use apps to do every­thing from track­ing your mood to prac­tic­ing ther­a­peu­tic breath­ing to build­ing resilience.

Although not all well­ness apps are equal­ly effec­tive, research sug­gests that evi­dence-based smart­phone apps can indeed teach us the skills we need to opti­mize our well-being, help us stay moti­vat­ed to do so, and even ben­e­fit our men­tal health. For exam­ple, research is explor­ing the ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness apps, apps deliv­er­ing cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral ther­a­py tech­niques (CBT, the gold stan­dard of ther­a­py), and apps that pre­dict people’s moods and inter­vene with sup­port at just the right time.

In my research, we found that a com­put­er-based train­ing in emo­tion reg­u­la­tion improved anx­i­ety and well-being among those who had trou­ble reg­u­lat­ing their emo­tions, sug­gest­ing that skills that pro­mote hap­pi­ness can be learned online.

2. Engage in activities that promote happiness

Social media is a space where we can con­nect social­ly and engage in kind and help­ful behavior—activities that have been shown to boost health and well-being. For exam­ple, by send­ing mes­sages on social media, we can express a kind word or share our gratitude—Thanks again for lis­ten­ing when I was hav­ing a rough day last week!—anytime we want, with ease, even to peo­ple far away.

A recent study sug­gest­ed that among young peo­ple with symp­toms of depres­sion, social media was very impor­tant for help­ing them express them­selves cre­ative­ly, get inspi­ra­tion from oth­ers, and even feel less lone­ly. A whole 30 per­cent of young peo­ple with ele­vat­ed depres­sion symp­toms say using social media when they’re feel­ing depressed, stressed, or anx­ious usu­al­ly makes them feel bet­ter, while only 22 per­cent say it makes them feel worse.

One par­tic­i­pant shared, “Social media makes me laugh and keeps me dis­tract­ed so that I have time to breathe and col­lect myself.” Anoth­er shared, “It just helps me feel out­side myself for a bit and find inter­est­ing top­ics I’d like to pon­der on.”

While social media does seem to be ben­e­fi­cial for some, it may not be the best strat­e­gy for over­com­ing men­tal health chal­lenges, giv­en cer­tain prob­lem­at­ic habits it might encourage—like com­par­ing our­selves to the seem­ing­ly per­fect lives of our friends and peo­ple we fol­low. But when we use it in con­junc­tion with face-to-face social inter­ac­tions, it does indeed appear to be a use­ful tool for self-expres­sion and social con­nec­tion.

3. Actively engage with your community

It’s true that peo­ple who engage in more pas­sive Face­book use (e.g., scrolling with­out inter­act­ing with oth­ers) tend to be more depressed, one study found. The authors sug­gest that pas­sive­ly using social media might stim­u­late those “upward social com­par­i­son behav­iors,” which can leave peo­ple feel­ing infe­ri­or (I suck!), envi­ous (it’s not fair!), or both.

But peo­ple who use Face­book more active­ly (e.g., lik­ing, com­ment­ing, and post­ing) tend to have low­er lev­els of depres­sion. Over time, they say that they get more pos­i­tive feed­back, likes, and social sup­port from oth­ers, which may con­tribute to their low­er depres­sive symp­toms.

This sug­gests that cer­tain ways of engag­ing with oth­ers online may be good for us, per­haps because they involve social con­nec­tion rather than social com­par­i­son. By reach­ing out to oth­ers, engag­ing in mean­ing­ful social inter­ac­tions, and strength­en­ing our social bonds, we can like­ly improve our well-being online.

4. Find health-related information and stories

As we all strive to take care of our minds and bod­ies, a full 80 per­cent of young adults have gone online for health infor­ma­tion. Indeed, we may use the Inter­net to learn about health and well­ness chal­lenges, read oth­ers’ health-relat­ed sto­ries, or seek out a well­ness prac­ti­tion­er. Research sug­gests that, by doing so, we may be able to feel more con­fi­dent in our deci­sions and improve our com­mu­ni­ca­tion with health providers.

Using the Inter­net in these ways may be impor­tant for those strug­gling with men­tal health issues like depres­sion. For exam­ple, one par­tic­i­pant says, “I have watched sev­er­al peo­ple detail their fit­ness rou­tines and how they used it to beat men­tal health dis­or­ders such as body dys­mor­phia and those affect­ed by obe­si­ty and food addic­tion.”

In fact, 90 per­cent of young peo­ple with depres­sion have gone online seek­ing infor­ma­tion about men­tal health issues. Although we need more research to under­stand how they use this infor­ma­tion, it does seem that the Inter­net is one more avenue where peo­ple in need seek out sup­port. By giv­ing us access to infor­ma­tion about health, men­tal health, and well-being, tech­nol­o­gy enables us all to more eas­i­ly seek out and dis­cov­er the well­ness strate­gies we need.

How­ev­er, for the Inter­net to be a use­ful tool to find health infor­ma­tion, it’s impor­tant to also increase our health literacy—namely, by ensur­ing peo­ple know which web­sites to trust, how to iden­ti­fy their health chal­lenges accu­rate­ly, and how to apply the infor­ma­tion they dis­cov­er.

Technology—the Inter­net, smart­phones, and social media—can hurt our hap­pi­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly if we let it inter­fere with or pull us away from face-to-face inter­ac­tions.

But, if we’re thought­ful about how we use tech­nol­o­gy, it also has the poten­tial to make us hap­pi­er. So we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need to get rid of our phones and com­put­ers or go on a full dig­i­tal detox. Devel­op­ers just need to be thought­ful about build­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and we need to be thought­ful about using it, in ways that pro­mote hap­pi­ness.

– This essay is adapt­ed from Out­smart Your Smart­phone: Con­scious Tech Habits for Find­ing Hap­pi­ness, Bal­ance, and Con­nec­tion IRL (New Har­bin­ger, 2019, 200 pages) by Tchi­ki Davis, MA, PhD, a well-being-tech­nol­o­gy expert and con­trib­u­tor to the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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

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About SharpBrains

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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