Mobile phone ownership continues to expand across the globe and our lives are increasingly intertwined with and influenced by these digital devices. Unfortunately, excessive screen time is associated with a range of poor outcomes such as impaired academic performance1, worse face-to-face conversations2, reduced cognitive capacity3, higher physiological stress4, and an array of mental health issues5. In response to mounting evidence about the dark side of digital involvement, “digital detox” movements urging people to put their devices down and engage in the non-digital world around them are growing in popularity.
However, smartphones also provide a multitude of possibilities to augment well-being. There are many smartphone applications available for health and wellbeing, some of which have been shown to help positively shape health behaviors6, reduce symptoms of generalized anxiety7, and increase happiness8. New apps are constantly being developed that tap into the seemingly limitless potential of our phones, by taking advantage of the technological affordances to tackle a host of mental and physical health issues.
This diverging evidence about the pros and cons of mobile phone interaction presents an interesting paradox for us to consider. If you use your phone too often, your well-being will likely suffer. But if you don’t use your phone often enough, you may be missing out on innumerable opportunities for positive functionality. So how does one reconcile these discrepancies and strike a balance between reaping the benefits of technology while not becoming a smartphone zombie? Should you be a digital detox warrior and return to a state of luddite simplicity? Or should you fully embrace the onslaught of technological integration and dive headfirst into the virtual world? The answer is far from simple, and likely lies somewhere in between these extremes. The accumulated evidence from my research suggests that HOW you use your phone is what really matters for its effect on well-being. Below, I have outlined a few tips informed by this research which may help you strike this critical balance and use your phone to maximize well-being.
1) Use it for enhancement, not escape
Phones should be used in ways that make whatever you are doing in the real world better. The activities you engage in on your phone should not replace other activities, but rather should supplement whatever you are doing. If you are trying to calm down after a stressful day of work, using a mindfulness app for guidance could be helpful. Strengthening family bonds by letting your daughter FaceTime with your parents across the country for a quick hello can put a smile on everybody’s face and has few drawbacks if not taking away from face-to-face communication. Conversely, people benefit very little from using their phones to idle away the hours and escape the boredom of their environment. Passively scrolling through your Facebook feed9 or playing Angry Birds may provide a bit of temporary enjoyment, but the time sacrifices you make in the real world are not worth this type of escapism activity. The line between escape and enhancement can be sometimes be blurry, so when deciding whether a certain type of activity is more of an enhancement or escape just ask yourself the question, “am I just avoiding boredom, or doing something with a purpose?”
2) Context matters
When and where you use your phone is important. If you are having a potentially positive face-to-face conversation with someone, it’s best to keep your phone out of sight. In fact, studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone decreases the quality of conversations10 and dampens the expression of positive emotion11. But sometimes the contextual circumstances call for you to pull out the phone. Targeted uses with a purpose, such as logging into an app that allows you to share a group video with friends or helps you curb the urge to smoke a cigarette, are appropriate and beneficial instances. You must be the judge of the right time and place to use your phone, but be aware of your contextual surroundings and make sure your use is appropriate and specific.
3) Track your screen time
Become more aware of how you use your phone and adjust accordingly. Monitoring your own digital behavior is a great way to ensure that your phone is having a net positive impact on your well-being. Use screen time tracker apps like Moment or iOS Screen Time to get insight into your daily habits and then make some informed decisions about how you can use your phone to enhance rather than escape.
Smartphones are potentially one of the most positive transformational technological advancements ever, but the way in which we use them will determine whether their positive potential is realized or whether our obsessive involvement leads to negative consequences for ourselves and others. I urge you to use your phone your often, just do so wisely!
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10. Misra S, Cheng L, Genevie J, Yuan M. The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices. Environ Behav. 2014. doi:10.1177/0013916514539755.11. Kushlev K, Hunter JF, Proulx J, Pressman SD, Dunn E. Smartphones reduce smiles between strangers. Comput Human Behav. 2019. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2018.09.023.