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Problematic phone use

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Smartphones. So useful! And sometimes so detrimental to our 'in-person' social relationships.

A common complaint might be that your partner says that you are more interested in the phone than in them. So many of us have fallen into the trap of engaging with our phones for large parts of my day, often to the detriment of engaging with people, and in particular our partner, in a meaningful way. If you've heard these complaints from your partner trying to get your attention: "Turn your phone off", "Can you look at me rather than your phone when I'm talking to you", then this is post is relevant to you.

In his book "Irresistible", Adam Alter notes that most people spend on average 3 hours a day on their phone - over a lifetime that amounts to 11 years of scrolling, checking, and clicking! This can become a real problem when one of you wants to engage with the other, but your partner is distracted in a virtual world.

Now, we must acknowledge that the deck is stacked against us in many ways here. These screens and devices are built to be enticing, to draw us in with their colours, chimes, entertaining apps, games, social media images and stories, and notifications constantly alerting us to click on it. Adam Alter notes that is its not that you lack willpower, but "there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job it is to break down the self-regulation that you have".

You might be thinking that this is harmless behaviour, but consider the time investment and its cost on both yourself and your close relationships. We are living in a hyper-stimulating environment with constant information flow these days and our smartphones fuel this more - there is always something new to click on, watch, engage with, shop for 24/7, respond to via email etc. But consider, how much of this is actually meaningful, and what would happen if you did not engage? Our attention spans are shrinking in this hyper-stimulated world of technology. We are often reaching for our phones when we feel even slightly, bored, anxious or uncomfortable. We are also reaching for our phones often (40+ times a day), which furthermore interrupts our flow and concentration. There is some strong data coming forward on problematic smartphone use being linked to poor mental health outcomes (including some correlates with depression, anxiety, substance use and impulsivity).

There is a cost to your in-person social interactions when you are handling your phone while in someone's company - the interaction becomes watered down when you are not fully engaged, and sends the signal to the other person that your phone is more interesting than they are.

But when these devices are so irresistible, how do we put them down?

  • Mindfulness. The first step is become aware of your phone usage. There are a number of apps (ironically!) which can help you track your phone and app usage (e.g., Screen Time, Your Hour). There are also some apps which can help you concentrate and break habits of constantly looking at your phone (e.g., Forest: Stay focused). In the absence of phone usage you might also want to look at mindfulness more generally: When are you reaching for you phone? What's going on for you internally when you are reaching for the phone - thoughts and emotions? There are some great mindfulness/meditation apps you can look into as well to create internal calm and focus: Ten Percent Happier, Calm, Smiling Mind, The Mindfulness App.

  • Phone detox - this one is quite extreme, but can be a very useful experiment to see how you cope with nomophobia (no-mobile-phobia). You could try this one over a weekend if you want to dip your toe in. Simply turn your phone off Friday night, and then don't turn it back on until Monday morning. Having an old-school analogue phone handy for phone calls means you will still be reachable. See how it feels. Many people feel some noticeable relief from not being tethered to their phone. They can breathe a bit easier. With phone detox as with any other strategies of minimising your smartphone usage, you will want to put some other enjoyable activities in place to distract you (e.g., picnic dates, nature walks with your partner, reading books, catching up with friends etc).

  • Be deliberate with your phone use. Be really clear about what it is you are trying to a achieve before reaching for your phone, and then disconnect without getting sucked in and 'just quickly checking Facebook/Instagram'. This strategy can also be incorporated with setting clear boundaries on when you engage with your phone and social media. For example, set yourself a 20 minute time limit each day at a certain time for when check your social media, and only check it then.

  • Focus on one task at a time. As humans we are much less able to multi-task than we think. Multi-tasking diverts our already short attention spans across several things, and we often end up attending to all of it poorly. So, when you are talking to someone, only focus on talking to them. When you are watching TV, only focus on that, rather than also simultaneously scrolling through your phone. The more tasks we introduce at any one time, the lower our ability to give any of it our full attention (and the more we shrink our attention spans).

  • Empower yourself. Adam Alter recommends that you should empower yourself with statements like "I don't use Facebook" rather than "I can't use Facebook". Remember, we will be more drawn to that which we cannot have, so take back your power and control.

  • Remove temptation. We are much more tempted when our phones are constantly within reach. Charge your phone in another room at night. Put your phone away while you are meeting someone. This means physically putting it away where you cannot see it, not just turning it over so that you cannot see the screen. By having the phone visible it still introduces a barrier, because we are reminded by its presence of all the tempting things it represent.

  • Wind down without your phone. The stimulation that we get from our smartphones if we use them before going to bed, can interfere with our sleep quality - our minds are too active to shut down. This is particularly relevant if you already have trouble sleeping. Many people find it useful to not use their phone in the 1-2 hours before going to bed. You want to help your body and mind relax during this time as you ready it for sleep.

  • Tune out. Turn off your notifications in apps - you choose when you want to look at it, rather than feeling compelled because the app is telling you to. It can be helpful to completely remove your social media apps from your phone, that way making it less tempting . Put your phone on 'Do-not-disturb' when you don't want to be interrupted.

  • Connect more with your partner IRL. By putting your phone away and being deliberate about when/how you use it, it creates more opportunity to connect with you partner In Real Life. Creatively consider all the things you can do together now that you both have more free time from not being on your phones all the time ;)

  • Put your phones (and other devices) away during meals. Being distracted by your devices, takes away from your interactions. Make a rule that when eating at home or while dining out, you put your phones and other devices away and out of sight (i.e., not turned over on the table where you can see it). Make sure you also turn the notifications off or put it on Do Not Disturb. The same goes for turning off your television during meals.

Managing how you use your phone is likely to be an ongoing challenge for many people. This challenge might be something that you come back to several times. After all for many of us it is not an option to go cold turkey, as technology is so embedded in our day-to- day work and play. The technology and the people behind it, are getting smarter with engaging us in more compelling ways. Technology is not inherently bad. But, we just need to be more mindful of how we choose to use it, and continue to create some boundaries around it. And let's remember to be gentle with each other as we battle this.

If you are having challenges in your relationship, drop me a line, and let's see how we can work on this together in couples counselling.

Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as counselling/therapy advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own counsellor.

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