Summer is upon us! For many that means no school, (family) vacations, and more free time. A recent New York Times article ominously titled “Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer” speaks of just how much of our free time we spend on our phones. The article cites research about the dangerous health effects chronic phone use has on us. Increased cortisol levels that result from using our phones (or even seeing or thinking about our phones) can overtime cause a chronic stress response that leads to very negative effects on our bodies from depression and anxiety to heart attacks and fertility problems. While this is extremely relevant and important to me as a clinical psychologist and an iPhone user (with a long public transit commute), it doesn’t quite solve the problem. Because the solution is not about needing to use our phones less, it’s about HOW.
And although this might seem like a no-brainer (duh! Turn it off), because I talk about it daily in therapy sessions, I know it’s not. Smartphone companies spend billions of dollars on keeping us on our phones and have turned our phones into multipurpose devices that we use for so many things these days. So how do we really use our devices less in our everyday lives?
1. Charge your phone outside your room while you sleep.
I know this might seem silly, but this is one of the biggest and most effective. The research show many different effects that smartphones have on us – from stress levels to performance to distractibility – just from being in our field of view. Find a spot, whether it is in an adjacent room or across the house that keeps you from checking your phone before you go to sleep, first thing when you wake up, and even during nighttime awakenings. Significant research has shown how damaging smartphones are to our sleep. A big part of that is because they ring, and beep, and light up whenever anything happens, cueing our brains to be alert and pay attention. If you need to be able to receive emergency calls in the night, charge it just outside your room where you will be able to hear if it begins to ring, but you won’t see all of the activity. Also mute your apps so the only sounds will be from calls.
2. Put away your phone when you are at events.
You don’t really need photos of everything that you do. Every ball your child catches. Every meal you have consumed. Social media makes you think you do, but you don’t. And when you are so busy looking for that best shot or checking emails and texts when you are at an event, you miss out on actually being at that event. You do not allow yourself to become fully immersed in the experience of the event itself. You do not have to respond every time someone calls you. And let me remind you that every time a child contacts their parent when they encounter a problem, that directly affects their own problem solving ability. So next time you are at the pool during the summer, set the emergency calls that you want to ring through and then put your phone on do not disturb and put it away. Then breathe in the scents. Look all around you at the sights. Feel the warm sun (or cool shade) on your skin. Listen to the sounds of people laughing and splashing. Taste the subtle flavors of the foods you consume. The memories you come away with are the most vivid pictures you can take. Parents need to model this for kids. It’s unrealistic to expect children to put devices away when parents are glued to theirs. Work, photos, emergencies (see above solve) are not excuses to only half engage.
3. Let people know your availability. And have teens do this too.
One reason people cite as a challenge with turning off or putting away phones is that someone will try to contact them and then be concerned when they are unavailable. Pick times when you (or kids) should not be on your phone and let others know these. For example, my patients know that I would not answer a call or respond to an email during a session, so I do not wonder who might be calling or emailing while I am in session. As a result, I can completely focus on the person in front of me while my phone is out of sight behind my desk. Setting times when kids can’t be on their phones like homework hours during school (a good way to help kids start HW sooner is to allow devices only after HW is complete) and after a certain time at night or before a certain time in the morning. Our smartphones slow us down considerably during the day, so setting parameters around use for ourselves and children can help with that minimized productivity. It is much easier to take breaks from phones when the other people in our lives know we will be doing so and will not expect a quick response.
4. Problem solve alternatives for things you use your phone for.
Many adults and kids use their phones for an alarm to wake up. I always hear “I can’t charge my phone outside my room, it’s my alarm.” Alarm clocks are inexpensive and come in a wide variety these days. Calendar reminders are very helpful, but writing all upcoming events on a brightly colored post-it placed in a convenient location like the fridge or steering wheel of a car are also very helpful. For teens who have school programs on their phones that they check for homework, print out assignments or use a computer that has blocks on social media sites during certain times to allow students to concentrate on working. And while this might seem ludacris in this day and age, using an actual camera to take photos is still a good option for capturing moments. And as for music, turns out your old ipods still work if you charge them.
5. Plan activities in advance.
Lots of youth plan to spend a considerable amount of time on electronics during the summer. By planning events in advance, youth do not find themselves with large swathes of time with entertainment right at their fingertips. By planning activities and events, kids are less likely to feel bored. If kids are particularly used to gaming or watching YouTube, it may take them longer to get enjoyment out of non-electronic activities that are naturally less engaging to our senses. Helping kids plan outings with friends and having everyone leave their phones behind or put them in a basket for later is a great way to help kids get on board.
Pick times for yourself or your family this summer when phones are not allowed and then have all family members follow this rule: meals, beach time, sporting events, watching movies, playing games, walking the dog, going to the pool, being at camp, or taking walks. Then enjoy the freedom of being in the moment, not feeling the effects of stress on your body from wanting to check your phone, and get that much needed rest and rejuvenation from summer.
Here’s a link to “Putting Down Your Phone May Help You Live Longer” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/well/mind/putting-down-your-phone-may-help-you-live-longer.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share