You don’t have to do an extreme digital detox to form a healthier relationship with your phone. Here’s how to dial back.

By Charlotte Lieberman
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Gracia Lam

A few weeks ago, my sister and I went to our parents’ place for dinner. Over a glass of wine before the meal, we were immersed in a fun and lively conversation about Instagram animal influencers, and I randomly asked if anyone knew the difference between a praying mantis and a grasshopper. (Like you do.) Suddenly, the phones came out, Googling began, and there was no turning back. We were mindlessly scampering through the pixelated hills of iPhone Land, and soon enough our whole family was sitting in total silence, together but worlds apart.

Of course, this was not the first time I’d ignored fellow humans in favor of pointless phone activity. You’ve probably been there too. And if you’re like many people, you’ve just about had it with your phone interfering with your well-being.

American adults collectively check their phones 12 billion times per day, according to a 2017 Deloitte survey. That’s a staggering number, but interestingly, it seems to have plateaued since about 2015. One possible reason? Forty-seven percent of survey respondents said they were actively trying to limit phone use.

In fact, there are several new organizations and coalitions advocating for healthier uses of tech. Recently, former Facebook and Google employees and investors joined together to launch an educational campaign called Truth About Tech, a partnership between the Center for Humane Technology, a coalition of tech insiders, and the advocacy group Common Sense, which is committed to helping children and parents navigate media and technology. The campaign’s goals: raise awareness and help software creators design products in such a way that users have a healthier, less intrusive relationship with them. “Tech companies are now engaged in a full-blown arms race to capture and retain human attention,” said Common Sense senior fellow Tristan Harris when the campaign launched. “Plenty of smart engineers and designers in the industry want to create apps that provide us with the information we need to improve our lives as quickly as possible, instead of just sucking us in for as long as possible.”

What’s wrong with the way we use tech now? For one thing, it’s encroaching on time we might otherwise spend doing good things for our physical and mental health. Unsurprisingly, most of our incessant phone checking happens during leisure periods: at meals, during time with friends or family, before bed at night, and before work in the morning—times when we should be recharging our mental batteries. A Bank of America survey found that 71 percent of Americans sleep with their smartphones.

And the consequences are real. “My phone made me jumpy and distracted. I could never be fully absorbed in what I was doing or pay full attention to the people around me,” admits Monica, 40, a lawyer in Kensington, Maryland. “My husband was ready to go to counseling if we couldn’t negotiate rules about phone use in our house.”

When I asked research psychologist Larry Rosen, PhD, about why so-called smartphone addiction is so widespread, he corrected my terminology: “This is really not addiction; it’s an anxiety-based disorder,” he said. “We’re not checking in to get pleasure. We’re checking in to remove anxiety.” (For what it’s worth, this addiction point is up for debate: Many experts say the buzz-like reward we feel with every “like” and notification keeps us coming back for more, much like a caffeine or nicotine addiction.)

Similar to the way many of us may grab a drink or snack at a party to avoid feeling socially awkward, most of us gravitate toward our phones for comfort and distraction when we’re confronted with everyday uncomfortable emotions. Think: Standing in line at the grocery store (boredom). Waiting for a friend at a restaurant (impatience or social anxiety). Missing family (loneliness).

An essential step in developing a healthier relationship with our devices is relearning how to get comfortable with boredom, social anxiety, loneliness, and other unpleasant feelings. “The phone has allowed us not to tolerate boredom anymore,” says Rosen. “When the urge strikes you while you’re waiting for a movie to start, don’t grab your phone. Just let your mind wander. It is very difficult to do.” Ahead, a few ideas for making it easier.

Reconsider Your Mindset

Investigate the Impulse

According to a study by the research firm Dscout, the average smartphone user touches her phone 2,617 times every day.

When most of us act on the impulse to grab our phone to see what’s new—texts, likes, notifications—we’re rarely expecting anything pressing. What if we tried slowing down, allowing ourselves a moment to figure out what we’re really looking for with every phone check?

Yael Shy, a mindfulness meditation teacher and the author of What Now? Meditation for Your Twenties and Beyond, advises: “Before you reach, take a deep breath. How do you feel? What is leading you to reach for the phone? Is it just habit? Loneliness? A desire to escape a particular feeling?” Taking that pause offers a sense of freedom and empowerment, so we can be more intentional about checking our phones when we actually do have something to attend to.

Meet Jealousy With Gratitude

Ever felt jealous while scoping your coworker’s beach-vacation pics on Facebook or your yoga teacher’s Instagram story about her dreamy morning meditation routine? In the (presumably) many moments you find yourself comparing yourself with others on social media—whether because of their flawless skin, cute baby, creamy matcha latte, new job, or whatever else—first just notice it’s happening. "See if you can take a few breaths and name the things that are going OK in your life," advises Shy. "It can remind us that, often, more is going right in our life than wrong." What do you have to be grateful for?

Let Yourself Feel Whatever Comes Up

As Shy suggests, being glued to our phones serves as a convenient way to avoid uncomfortable feelings. So taking a step back from our phones means more discomfort is bound to come up. But learning to sit with that discomfort—and recognizing that it isn’t harming you—can be powerful. “When uncomfortable feelings arise, acknowledge the emotion but accept it as normal and healthy,” suggests psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley, MD, author of Reset Your Child’s Brain. “You should feel good about the fact that you’re letting your brain stretch, rest, solve a problem, or work through an emotion every time you resist using your phone.”

Experiment With New Tech Habits

Try a “ Tech Break”

Set your phone’s timer for 15 minutes, turn the phone facedown, and don’t touch it until the alarm goes off. When it does, check whatever you want for one minute, then repeat. This teaches your brain that you can be near your phone without being on it and you won’t miss out on anything, explains Rosen. When 15 minutes starts to feel too short, try 20, then 30.

Focus on One Screen at a Time

Ever watched TV while scrolling on your phone? Me too. This is a phenomenon experts call “second screening,” and it sets off our stress response even more than looking at a single screen. Don’t worry; no one is telling you not to watch TV. But “practice just watching TV. Practice just playing Words with Friends. Practice just doing one thing,” says Rosen. It’s harder than it sounds. I got through it by noticing how anxious I felt while second screening. The sense of relaxation I got from focusing only on the TV made it all worth it.

Prioritize Your Notifications

One reason unplugging entirely from tech isn’t realistic: Our phones have become essential for emergencies, communicating with our partners, and being reachable to our kids. So limit phone use with a more balanced approach. “Turn off notifications for everything but phone calls and text messages. That way you won’t miss a text or call from your kids or their school,” advises Caroline Knorr, senior parenting editor at Common Sense Media. And when all your loved ones are together, agree to try putting your phones on silent or in airplane mode to keep distractions to a minimum.

Streamline Your News Consumption

Relying on social media for news means you see only headlines (often alarming ones) and everyone’s emotional reactions to them. Instead, use one central app or podcast for news. The New York Times app, for example, provides morning and evening briefings with bullet points and links to the full stories if you’d like to learn more.

Stay on Track

Reach Out for Some Real Talk

“Ask your family members or friends how they feel about your technology use—and really listen without getting defensive,” suggests Dunckley. You may find out they feel ignored or frustrated by your lack of presence. “Though this may be a painful conversation, it can be the kick in the pants needed to make a shift,” she says.

Create a Penalty

Team up with loved ones to stick to tech resolutions, and consider making it interesting. “Implement a “tech tax,” similar to a swear jar,” says Dunckley. “Whenever someone breaks a rule, she must put money in a jar that goes toward an activity you can all do together.”

Establish Specific “No-Phone” Times or Spaces

A nonnegotiable rule for Jessica, 28, a stay-at-home mom in Calabash, North Carolina, is no phones in the bedroom or at the dinner table. “I charge my phone in my laundry room. It stays there 90 percent of the time,” she says. There are plenty of other times when you can have more distance from your phone—before you fall asleep (buy an alarm clock!), during meetings, and on afternoons when you’re with your family and don’t have to worry about being out of reach.

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