Create a Healthy Relationship With Your Phone

Having a healthy relationship with your phone is possible. The benefits of smartphone use far outweigh rejecting the technology. You can manage a project, a family – even a company – from a smartphone. No need to be tethered to a desk if you can accomplish all the multiple tasks you need from the palm of your hand.


But, smartphone use for some has gone beyond just improving functionality. People turn to them for comfort and distraction. In fact, smartphone addiction works in the brain just like any other addiction. However, that’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, it’s a signal that this rapid-growth tech requires user guidelines – best practices and mindful awareness to keep us dependence-free.


Can you really be addicted to smartphones?


As a society of smartphone users, we have all the markers of addiction. The only difference between smartphone addiction and substance addiction is that we have all agreed on it. We have culturally sanctioned it with our pervasive use. According to Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off, there are several ways our smartphone use has become an addictive behavior.


For one, our lives revolve around tech. Tech time is no longer relegated to work or entertainment. We use it all the time, every day. When we’re not using it, we’re about to. In fact, the average smartphone user checks their phone every five to six minutes, just under 200 times per day.


Looking around,  kids are primarily socializing through smartphones and talking about what they’re doing on them. Adults use them for entertainment and to cope with anxiety by working more when rest is needed, and staying plugged when needing to unplug.


When we cut down, we grow anxious, agitated, or depressed without it; a sign of withdrawal. This is another hallmark of addiction and may be difficult to admit. But, tune into your physical and emotional state as you resist reaching for your phone, you may notice some interesting things.


Subtle states propel us to pick up the phone: loneliness, social anxiety (even mild), depression. All of these are possible to ignore when on a smartphone. Check in with yourself. If you postpone grabbing your phone when the impulse first strikes, what happens to your pulse, your breath? What do you think about as you actively resist the urge to check your smartphone? You’ll likely find it’s impossible to think about anything else for very long. That is typical of the obsessive thinking that goes hand-in-hand with addiction.


Jane Brody of the Seattle Times cites that, “in ‘The World Unplugged Project,’ investigators at the University of Maryland reported that “a clear majority” of students in the 10 countries studied experienced distress when they tried to go without their devices for 24 hours. One in three people admitted they’d rather give up sex than their smartphones.”


Smartphone Addiction Cycle


Though it’s debatable whether smartphones are mind-altering, they are definitely mood-altering. We engage in pleasure-seeking with them. According to Susan Weinschenk Ph.D., a behavioral psychologist and author of the blog Brain Wise, “you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text, and they respond in a few seconds…It’s easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop…It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone.”


Dopamine is especially responsive to environmental cues that something pleasurable is coming. For Pavlov’s dogs, the tinkling of a bell. The ping of a tweet is enough to send the dopamine surging, compelling us to pick up the smartphone. It keeps us in constant pleasure seeking loops that we are virtually, biologically powerless to resist. And, since everyone else is doing it, we don’t have shame, the body’s natural protection against bad behavior to keep us in check.


Tolerance is another telltale sign of addiction. Like with any addiction, the more we do it, the more we need to do it to feel good. We begin to spend more and more time on smartphones, and it’s easy to justify because they are such incredibly useful tools.


Mindful Smartphone Use


Smartphones make us feel like we’re connected to friends and the world around us, but overuse actually keeps us separate. Social media can give us a great sense of what our friends are up to, but it also gives us a sense of loneliness. The real cure for depression is a heart-to-heart connection. So, pop on to see what’s up, but get off before you start comparing yourself, or counting likes. Use social media to make a plan. Use the phone to call a friend, hear her voice, make a date to get together.


Smartphones get us engaged with the world around us. We can read about things happening in our communities and far away, but then we need to put the phone down and go out and experience those things that are so compelling on the tiny screen. To flourish, we need to engage with life through our senses.


Next time you feel compelled to grab your phone, put it off an hour. Before you pick it up next time, make a plan for how long you’ll use it, and for what purpose. Stick to your plan. Schedule something nourishing for the time you save. At the end of the day, take stock of your smartphone usage and see what changes you’d like to make.
According to Colier, being constantly connected to our phones keeps us wired and tired all the time, in constant fight or flight mode. We need downtime to synthesize all the information we receive all day long. We need to reboot, too. We actually need to let our minds wander, daydream. Kids need this too. Can you imagine childhood without imagination?


Jenny Kepler, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer who has been helping families navigate parenthood for over 10 years. Her office is in downtown Portland, OR where she does in person therapy with adults, couples, and families. She also offers parent coaching over the phone for people who can’t see her in Portland.


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