Smartphones and social connection

How to break the cycle of constantly checking your phone

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You’re waiting for the bus. You show up to class a few minutes early. You’re standing in a long checkout line.

In each of these scenarios, you and the people around you are likely focused on your smartphones. Instead of connecting with the people around you, you’re furiously attempting to catch a Pokemon, plugging into a text conversation, or clicking through a never-ending series of Buzzfeed quizzes.

There are benefits to having this technology constantly in your pocket. Using phones for navigation, keeping track of busy schedules, reading e-books, and sending necessary texts is incredibly helpful. However, the vast majority of our phone usage is compulsive and impedes overall productivity. Additionally, many people, especially teenagers, consistently use phones in lieu of face-to-face communication.

A recent UW study, “Modeling the Engagement-Disengagement Cycle of Compulsive Cell Phone Use,” sought to understand why people reach for their phones and the triggers that cause them to disconnect. The study surveyed high schoolers, college students, and college graduates. Researchers found that the top reasons for cell phone use were to fill moments of downtime, avoid difficult or boring tasks, avoid social awkwardness, or when anticipating a notification.

The main reasons people disconnect from their screens are realizing they have used their phones for half an hour, competing demands, such as driving or an in-person social interaction, or viewing content they have already seen on social media.

The study team hopes that, by understanding the triggers of cellphone use, they can help participants reduce the unproductive time spent on their phones.

A caveat of this study? Participants stated that lock-out mechanisms, such as those that block apps for certain periods of time, are seldom efficient in the long-term to decrease their phone use. Instead, these mechanisms can lead to additional frustration and even more screen time binges once the lock-out time is up.

Katherine Yang, a UW student and researcher in this study, noted how she doesn’t believe smartphone usage is always detrimental; phone use can help facilitate social interaction. She stated that the study found that the core issue is when phone use turns from productive and helpful to a waste of time.

What, then, are the solutions to smartphone addiction?

Danny Arguetty, mindfulness manager at the IMA, described why mindfulness is essential to combat excessive smartphone use. “Mindfulness creates the ability to have more [mental] space so we are less reactive and more responsive to situations,” Arguetty said in an email.

He described how introspection can combat the root cause of reliance on smartphones to fill every moment of downtime. “By building more awareness around the why of phone usage we can better take inventory and then ask, ‘is this really what will serve me best at the moment, what will give me the most energy, the most fulfillment?’” Arguetty said.

Quick mindfulness techniques that can be incorporated into busy student lives include 5 to 10 minutes of meditation, journaling, yoga and breathing exercises, and spending time simply sorting through thoughts, according to Arguetty.

“If you feel like you spend a ton of time on your phone I would focus more on adding [analog] things in instead of focusing on reducing time,” Arguetty said.

To manage her own phone use, Yang uses an app to record how much time she spends on each app so that she can have a full understanding of the breakdown of her screen time. Apps that monitor phone use include Moment, BreakFree, and RealizD. These apps help people visualize the time they spend on their phone and set goals to reduce their screen time.

Lean into the initial discomfort of not checking your phone every moment of downtime. You’re not being a Luddite; you’re becoming more aware of the people around you and connecting to the immediate environment. Mindfulness, or realizing when and why you are most prone to using your phone, is critical.

Ask yourself if you are using your phone for necessary communication, or to pass time and avoid interactions with others. When you resume your video, continue reading that article, or swipe through social media, ask yourself if this is necessary and productive, or if you would gain more from turning off the technology even if it just means taking a few minutes to let your brain relax.

As a self-proclaimed smartphone addict, I wondered if I could spend more of my day analog. I began recording mental notes of the times when I was most prone to open my phone. Similar to the UW study, it was during moments of downtime, which included waiting for events to start, on public transportation, and when I should be doing difficult tasks. I also began observing instances of phone use interfering with social interactions. I discovered that, when I actively restrained myself from checking my phone, I filled the time I normally would have spent on Buzzfeed by engaging in conversations with friends. While going cold turkey on phone use isn’t a practical option for me, I’ve decided that there are times when I’m happier without this device in my hand.

Jonathan Kanter, a research associate professor and director of the UW Center for the Science of Social Connection, described just why in-person communication, non-hindered by screens, is critical.

All sorts of important stuff happens in face-to-face interactions, which doesn't happen, or happens to a lesser extent, in text/phone/social media interactions,” Kanter said in an email. “We are more likely to be our best selves and engage in the world in ways that are most meaningful to us if we feel that we are socially connected and have social support. We live better and longer when we have real social connections.”

Reach contributing writer Isobel Williamson at Twitter: @IsobelW64729824

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