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How to Reduce Screen Time and Create a Smarter Relationship with Technology

It’s possible to detach without disconnecting completely.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

It can be fun to scroll through the latest celebrity gossip on Twitter, until you realize that an hour has passed while your eyes were glued to the screen. The call to reduce our smartphone use is finally widespread, fueled by countless studies suggesting that screen time can increase stress and cause health problems, not to mention prevent us from being present.

However, technology also connects us to the people we love. It’s neither realistic — nor, in many cases, even possible — to give it up entirely. So how do you responsibly cut down on screen time?

Alexis Hiniker, Ph.D., a researcher and assistant professor at the University of Washington, and her students explored this question in a new study of high school, college, and adult smartphone users.

“For a couple of years I’ve been looking at people’s experiences with smartphones and listening to them talk about their frustration with the way they engage with their phones. But on the flip side, when we ask people what they find meaningful about their phone use, nobody says, ‘Oh, nothing.’ Everyone can point to experiences with their phone that have personal and persistent meaning,” Hiniker says. “The solution is not to get rid of this technology; it provides enormous value. So the question is: How do we support that value without bringing along all the baggage?”

To find out, Hiniker and her students interviewed the participants on their smartphone habits. They discovered that some types of usage, like communicating with a family member or friend via smartphone, created experiences that were meaningful beyond the moment of use, while other types of usage — playing games or scrolling through social media, for example — promoted compulsive use and diminished the time spent on meaningful activities.

While staying connected can be an important part of maintaining healthy relationships with family, friends, and the rest of the world, the study shows that there’s a difference between meaningful behaviors (smartphone usage we might not want to give up), and “compulsive” behaviors that leave us feeling unfulfilled and scrambling for time.

Follow these tips to cut down on your smartphone use — without eliminating its benefits.

Identify what brings you joy on your phone, and what doesn’t

“First, understand what is a meaningful experience,” Jonathan Tran, lead researcher on the study and user experience design student at the University of Washington, tells Thrive.

While the study generally differentiates between “meaningful experiences” (usage that “transcends the specific moment of use”) and “compulsive behaviors” (time-suck activities like social media and game apps), “each of us will have our own criteria on what makes an experience meaningful,” Tran says. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all guide for what you should be doing with your smartphone; healthy use for you probably doesn’t look the same as healthy use for someone else.

To make the most of your screen time, Tran suggests reflecting on what is important and meaningful to you, then focusing on the types of smartphone usage or apps that provide those experiences. For example, if feeling closer to far-away family members brings you joy, you might spend more time on messaging services like WhatsApp, or sharing photos on Facebook. Conversely, if you’re trying to boost your mental well-being, you might invest more time in mindfulness apps.

Be mindful about your phone usage

“Ask yourself if being on your phone is what you really want to be doing at that moment,” Nina Schroder, MSW, LCSW, a mental health therapist at Virginia Commonwealth University, writes for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “By using mindfulness, you can identify if you’re trying to avoid negative feelings or a necessary task, or whether you’re truly enjoying your digital experience.”

You might be surprised by how much of your smartphone use is purposeful, and how much is simply spent passing time between meetings.

Commit to a phone-free bedroom

Do you often find yourself on social media long after you decided to go to bed, or checking it first thing in the morning? We’re especially triggered to engage in compulsive smartphone behaviors in our downtime, but falling asleep and waking up beside your smartphone isn’t benefiting you — it’s damaging both your sleep and productivity.

To shave off some screen time and help make your smartphone use controlled and intentional, turn your bedroom into a smartphone-free zone, Schroder says.

“The lure of a screen in a quiet bedroom is hard to resist. Eliminate the temptation by keeping phones out of the bedroom entirely and reach for a book or magazine instead,” she suggests.

Don’t use your phone to multitask

Even when we’re occupied, it’s natural to gravitate toward our phones. Think about the last time you were with a group of friends — how much time was spent actively engaging with them, and how much time was spent individually huddled over your phones?

Research shows that multitasking with your phone during social interactions decreases well-being, and even being near your phone while you’re focusing on another task serves as a distraction and reduces cognitive abilities. If you want to truly benefit from your actions — work, play, and smartphone use — give your full attention to just one at a time.

Think about your values

When deciding what types of smartphone use to keep and which to toss, Schroder recommends thinking about how your smartphone use aligns with your values and goals.

“Take time to mindfully consider what you value most in life. What do you want your life to be about? Quality relationships? Physical and emotional health? Spiritual growth? Professional growth?” she asks. “Regularly consider whether screen use is moving you toward or away from your values.”

And if it isn’t helping you go where you want to go? Cut it back.

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