Screen Time

7 Ways to Improve Your Relationship With Your Smartphone (and Family)

Limiting your problematic smartphone use doesn't have to be hard work. It can literally be play.

Originally Published: 

Unhealthy parental smartphones use can trigger behavioral problems in kids and intimacy issues between partners while also limiting sleep and paving the way for addiction. The research is clear: Smartphones cause dumb behavior when they aren’t used smartly. But how to get out of bad habits when you can’t — for professional or personal reasons — put down the phone. How to slip the digital tether?

“We have a finite amount of willpower — every second your phone is in the corner of your eye, blinking, it’s chipping away at that resource,” explains Abby Thompson, a psychotherapist who treats tech addiction. “As you try to white-knuckle your way through avoiding it, you’re actually investing more energy in it and adding to that pressure.”

Dana Corriel, a family physician, confirms this assessment. “This is the same reason I ask patients to throw out all cigarette packets from their home before their quit date. You can’t always trust the ‘pull’ of the addictive substance.”

Fortunately, you probably don’t have to accept you’re powerless over your smartphone in order to trick your brain into having a healthier relationship. The solutions for non-physical addiction are subtle. Both Thompson and Corriel say that certain behaviors can help engender a better relationship. These are their recommendations.

Have No Phone Zones

Stop charging your phone in your bedroom, because that’s where you recharge yourself. More importantly, it’s where you have sex, Thompson notes. The kitchen table is another popular no-phone zone, particularly for parents who want their kids to reap the research-backed benefits of family dinners, for one. They might also learn an important lesson about not touching their gross phones before shoving chicken fingers into their face. “I recommend prioritizing places you want to be relaxed or present,” Thompson says.

Institute No Phone Times, Too

Just like there are places to set limits on smartphone use, they should be avoided during playtime and bedtime, Thompson recommends. Once you’re home from work and have your family in one space, there’s really no need for it after you’re off the clock. Everything from your sleep, to your marriage, to your work-life balance, to your kid will benefit from unplugging as much as possible anytime you don’t have to be, which is often evening hours.

Go on a Social Media Cleanse

After completing her own, Corriel became a huge advocate of social media cleanses — finite breaks from social media. Although there’s no one “right” way to do this, Corriel suggests a week or so to see how difficult it may be to quit. To prepare, she recommends alerting people of your temporary virtual absence, which may mean posting one of those statuses that you’ve rolled your eyes at before. Rest assured, you don’t have to be as self-congratulating about it as your brother-in-law was.

For the Love of God, Turn off Your Notifications

“With the exception of children, most of us don’t let people in our lives who bother us at all hours with unimportant nonsense or thoughts,” Thompson says. Notifications are the digital version of that person always bothering you and unlike a human being, you don’t have to feel any remorse for telling those nerds to take a hike. More importantly, Corriel says that notifications are uniquely invasive and can actually fuel potential symptoms of addiction.

“Notifications can cause a person’s heart rate to increase and anxiety to heighten, as excitement builds waiting to see just what the message actually says,” she warns. “Not tending to this immediately can physically affect us, as we yearn to see what we’re missing out on. It is truly like an addiction.” The goal is to be able to get the information you need from your phone on your own terms, not the other way around.

Don’t Rely on Apps to Fix the Problem

As the body of research grows regarding the risks of problematic smartphone overuse, so has a niche industry of apps geared towards helping people track and limit this. While this may be helpful in the short term to help recognize the problem and specific triggers “I wouldn’t expect them to be great long-term solutions,” Thompson. Looking to your phone to curb a problem with your phone is a little too ironic to work.

Try to Make More Time for Friends

It’s challenging to maintain friendships now that you have kids, but failing to have quality relationships outside of your family might be part of the problem. “Parenting can be so frustrating and isolating, so it’s normal to want to have your phone close by,” Thompson says. Sure, you need your phone to call your buddy up and make plans, but that’s far more productive then liking their statuses to let them know you’re still alive. Make plans, try to keep them, then put the digital middle-man away — only to be answered in case of emergencies.

Make More Time for Your Family too

It’s rarely healthy to use your kids as the solution to your personal problems, but in the case of smartphone overuse, they’ll actually benefit from it. This solution is simple. Anytime you want to look at your phone and don’t have to, look at your kid and/or partner instead.

“Quality time can make all the difference in the world, when it comes to the time spent with the spouse or the kids,” Corriel says. “This is especially important to men in relationships, and in families.” Unlike the emails in your inbox, you can’t get that back.

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