Be Smart About How You Use Your Smartphone: Your Mental Health Is On The Line


Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party popper of our lives. It interrupts our story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to our office on the cellphone. – Steven Spielberg

My daughter in college, like most of her generation, seems addicted to her smartphone.  She pulls it out of her back pocket like a gunslinger from the wild west.

Not necessarily talking on it, but texting.  All the time. Every day. Like all her friends. When not pecking away, they’re on their laptops watching YouTube videos (no T.V., please!) or surfing the web on their mental boogie boards.

I like to think that I am not addicted to my phone.  And I guess, by comparison, to my 19-year old daughter, I’m am not.  I am on it about 2-hours per day. The average teenager spends about 9 hours a day consuming social media and music on their phones – often while doing other activities like studying for school.  And anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing since the introduction of smartphones.

What About Adults?

The New York Times reports, “Most people now check their smartphones 150 times per day or every six minutes.” Furthermore, “46 percent of users now say that their devices are something they “couldn’t live without.”

I have have a love/hate relationship with my phone and laptop.  They go everywhere with me. It makes my life more convenient and better in many ways.  But it’s also true that it can hurt my physical and mental health.  And likely yours.

With depressed or anxious (or bored), I spend a lot of time hopping around the web for something to distract me. This can be a distraction from the pain.  What’s wrong with that?  Living with depression can be a lonely road to walk.  What I need most are other people. Not mental health apps.

Psychologist Chris Willard writes, “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.

“Building resilience skills in the contemporary work context doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” says Willard. “It’s important to understand and manage some of the factors that cause us to feel so overwhelmed and stressed at work.  According to a study by IBM that surveyed over 5,000 business executives, the scope, scale, and speed of their businesses were increasing at an accelerated rate, especially as the competitive landscape becomes increasingly disrupted by technology and radically different business models. The result is at times a frenetic way of working. Being hyperconnected, whether by smartphones or screen time on our computers and responsive to work anytime, anywhere, can be extremely taxing to our physical and psychological health.”

A Lot Like Junk Food

Of course, internet access is not limited to Smartphones.  Spending too much time on the web is just as a big a problem with computers – and just as addicting. Adrian Ward, Ph.D., a researcher at the University at Austin, Texas, has found that in many ways the internet is a lot like junk food.

“Just as fast food snacks play on a deep biological need for sugar and fat, which tricks us into overeating these unhealthy foods, the internet messes with our cognitive function to increase our dependence on it, says Ward in the The Wall Street Journal. “McDonald’s hooks us by appealing for certain flavors; Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter hook us by delivering what psychologists call ‘variable rewards.’ Messages, photos, and ‘likes’ appear on no set schedule, so we check them compulsively never sure when we’ll receive that dopamine-activating prize. Delivering rewards at random has been provided to quickly and strongly reinforce the behavior.  Checking that Facebook request will take only a few seconds, we reason, though research shows that when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task.”

Separation Anxiety

I am trying spend less time on my phone.  The other night, my wife and I went out to a snazzy place for dinner.  My wife took her phone; I did not.  About 15 minutes later, I felt a bit anxious.  It was a vague feeling, but clearly related to not being connected to my phone.  After all, I wouldn’t be able to check my e-mails or CNN during the two minutes goes to the ladies room.


By the feeling passes as the evening progress.  And I am a bit proud of myself that I toughed it out.  I’ve begun looking for other situations where I just as easily can take my phone, as not. Or turn it off. For example, while driving to and from work.

Kevin Roose, writes in “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain,” in The New York Times writes that some people are going to great lengths to get away from their phones.  “[Some] focus on cutting out screens entirely for weeks on end.  You can now buy $299 ‘digital detox’ packages at luxury hotels or join the ‘digital sabbath’ movement, who adherents vow to spend one day a week using no technology at all.”

Getting Smart About Smartphones

How do you handle your smartphone and internet use?

The good news is you can learn to work with technology to support rather than deplete your well-being and have a wiser and more constructive relationship with their smartphones and computers.

Some examples include:

  1. Learning to recognize how much digital use is really needed, say, for work or navigation or letting family members know you are okay, and what is merely a habit of responding, posting and self-distraction.
  2. Making little changes. Refrain from using your device while eating or spending time with friends, and add one thing a day that’s done without the phone.
  3. Delete apps you don’t use or need.
  4. Becoming very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you, and devote more time and attention to it rather than using screen time to alleviate boredom or anxiety. It provides a quick fix but is ultimately not the healthiest use of our precious time.
  5. Check out the app “Light Phone,” a device with an extremely limited feature set that is meant to wean users off time-sucking apps.

By Daniel T. Lukasik, Esq.

Further Reading:

“Outsmart Your Cellphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL” by Tchiki Davis

“The Phone Addiction Workbook: How to Identify Smartphone Dependency, Stop Compulsive Behavior, and Develop a Healthy Relationship With Your Devices” by Hilda Burke

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