Since social distancing measures were put in place mid-March, I’ve noticed a considerable uptick in both the number of times I check my phone each day and how many hours I spend staring at that little screen — and I’m not the only one.
At first, seeing these big increases on Moment — the app I use to track my phone usage — was disheartening. I know that, under normal circumstances, I tend to feel more on edge and anxious when I spend too much time on my phone. So shouldn’t I be even more disciplined about cutting back during this especially anxiety-provoking period?
But beating ourselves up about extra screen time is of little use right now. We’re living through a global pandemic, which has brought very real fears to the forefront: concerns about our health, our loved ones’ health, our jobs, the overall economic fallout, loneliness, among others. We could be doing far worse things to cope than spending more time on our phones.
Plus, our smartphones are our main lifeline to the outside world while we’re physically isolated from many of our family and friends in quarantine.
“These handheld devices are one of our only means of social connection right now, the only way to maintain a sense of community,” Jordan Shapiro, author of The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World, told HuffPost.
So yes, we’re using our phones more but it may largely be because of all the texting, calling, FaceTiming and direct messaging we’re doing to stay in touch with loved ones we’d otherwise see in person.
Try to focus less on the number of minutes you’ve logged on your phone and more on how you’re spending that time. Larry Rosen, professor emeritus and past chair of the psychology department at California State University-Dominguez Hills, has been working on a research project looking at both millennials’ and teenagers’ screen time use before and during quarantine.
“In both cases, screen time has risen but when you look more granularly, you see that a lot of the increase, if not all, is the use of communication tools,” Rosen said. “Social media, in particular, is increasing for many teens and millennials as a way to stay in contact and connect with family and friends.”
“If we just looked at it as an increase in screen time, we would think it was a bad thing,” he added. “But in fact, it is a good thing satisfying the human need to connect.”
Clinical psychologist Aarti Gupta, founder and clinical director of TherapyNest, said the increased phone usage may be a result of our normal, healthy biological drive to connect with others when we’re lonely.
“I would actually be more concerned about a person’s psychological health if they were to turn completely inward and isolate themselves from society,” she said.
Our phones also help us stay informed about the virus and public health guidelines. They’re our “primary touchpoint for news and information,” Shapiro said.
Getting regular updates is important — we need to continue to educate ourselves. But obsessively consuming coronavirus coverage may stoke our fear and anxiety. If the constant barrage of news is affecting your mental state, try cutting back on your media exposure, both on and off your phone, and stick to trusted sources.
For Shapiro, that means limiting the time he spends on Twitter. When sheltering in place began, he found that his feed would often send him into “a dreadful spiral of apocalyptic speculation.”
“I recognized that I was looking to digital connection to help me find my footing during this destabilizing time, but some social media made me feel even more helpless and uncertain than I already did,” he said. “Alternatively, when I’m texting with friends, video chatting, or scrolling through Instagram, I find it very comforting to see that we’re all still sharing similar experiences.”
How To Use Your Phone More Mindfully
If the amount of time you’re spending on your phone doesn’t bother you, then you shouldn’t feel pressured to change your habits. However, if excessive screen time is affecting you in negative ways, these tips will help you minimize distress and utilize your devices in a more mindful manner.
When you reach for your phone, pay attention to what you’re thinking or feeling.
Then take note of which websites or apps you gravitate to and why. If you’re experiencing loneliness, then reading seven different projections about how long social distancing could last will probably make you feel worse, whereas DMing a friend might make you feel better.
“If the sites you are using are connecting you with others, that is good,” Rosen said. “If they are making you anxious, as they present somewhat scary news 24/7, perhaps that is not a good use of your time.”
Taking a beat to check in with yourself before and after you pick up your phone will help bring some awareness to what you really need in that moment. Watching a bunch of TikToks may be a great way to to decompress after a demanding day of work; other times, mindless scrolling may be a way to avoid or dull unpleasant emotions that deserve your attention.
Hide or delete addictive apps.
I regularly delete Instagram off my phone and then re-download it the next time I want to log in. It only takes an extra 30 seconds, but it’s a small hurdle that stops me from just reflexively opening the app every time I check my phone.
Alternatively, you can put tempting apps in folders so they won’t catch your eye every time you check your phone, or sign out of them after each use.
“Entering your password at each login attempt might be a reminder to be more mindful about your phone usage, rather than engaging in knee-jerk refreshing,” Gupta said. “Basically, the more hurdles, the better.”
Turn off non-essential notifications.
“Even before the pandemic, I adjusted my smartphone’s settings so that only text messages ping, vibrate or chime,” Shapiro said. “Of course, I still log in to social media and swipe to see who left comments or clicked ‘like.’ But that doesn’t show up on my lock screen, which means I do it on my schedule and on my own terms.”
Set aside time for your favorite technology-free activities.
“Make a list of all the non-digital activities that make you feel good and commit to giving them focused attention,” Shapiro said. “For me, books are one thing that’s important, so I determine how much time I want to spend reading at any given moment — how many pages or chapters. And I put my phone aside until I’m done.”
Charge your phone somewhere other than the bedroom at night.
“You might consider charging your phone in your bathroom or a separate room to create physical distance from your device,” Gupta said.
Get an alarm clock so that your phone isn’t the first thing you look at in the morning (or check in the middle of the night). Plus, having your devices in another room will help you resist the urge to check them right before bed, which can mess with your sleep.
Remember that it’s OK to take a break from your phone.
It may feel like you have to check texts and emails ASAP, but that’s just not the case most of the time. Relieve yourself of the pressure to be available 24/7.
“I promise you won’t miss out on anything if you wait an hour or two before checking your phone,” Shapiro said. “The notifications will still be there when you want them. Remember, these are tools. And tools don’t use us, we use them.”
The bottom line? Be aware of how time spent on your phone is making you feel these days without worrying so much about the duration.
“If the content you are reading or the person you are talking to brings joy to your day, then go for it — no matter how long you spend doing it,” Gupta said.
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