Well-Being//

5 Ways to Set Digital Boundaries With Friends Who Won’t Stop Texting and Messaging You

Whatever you do, don’t guilt-text-back.

Courtesy of KARRASTOCK/Getty Images
Courtesy of KARRASTOCK/Getty Images

You probably know someone who demands your digital attention 24/7. Whether it’s via text, email, or DM (or all of them in rapid succession), the notifications roll through no matter the time of day, with little regard for what else you have going on in your life. The expectation is clear: You’re on call (or text) at all times. And it can be exhausting. 

But here’s the thing: No matter how much we may love our friends and family, we don’t owe anyone an immediate response. Being that plugged-in all the time is not sustainable, and it’s not healthy. So what do we do when we have a friend, family member, or co-worker who feels a constant need to ping (and expects a real-time response)? Here, a few strategies for dealing with a “technologically needy” person in your life:

Set boundaries

The first — and often hardest — action to take in a situation like this is to set firm boundaries, and stick to them. “It’s important to be honest about what your needs are, where your boundaries exist, and how [someone] can support you in meeting them,” says Christina Broderick, a clinically trained Licensed Social Worker. One way to do that is to communicate — ideally in person — that you’re simply not going to be able to respond as quickly as they might like. Joanne Mackie, a New York-based psychotherapist, suggests saying something along the lines of: “I really need to be able to put aside some ‘no digital’ time, so if you don’t hear back from me quickly, please know that it isn’t about you. I am taking desperately needed downtime!”

Use technology to your advantage

If you can’t stop the messages from coming in, you can at least control when you turn your attention to them. For this purpose, the “Do Not Disturb” button is your best friend, says Broderick. On an iPhone, for instance, you can put specific SMS or iMessage conversations on Do Not Disturb. “This is an important step toward an effective self-care practice and alleviating the pressure to respond,” she adds.

Tell friends when you plan to unplug

If you’re planning to take dedicated breaks from using your phone, Mackie suggests telling your family, friends, and co-workers that you will be implementing these technology breaks in advance. That way, if something is truly urgent, they’ll know the best way to get in touch. This is also a good way to see who’s capable of supporting you. “Most people will probably respond with, ‘Oh, I should do that!’ or something similar. If someone becomes offended that you need time to care for yourself, make a note of it,” adds Mackie. 

Put your phone to bed

You don’t need to put your phone to sleep in a literal tiny bed (though it’s incredibly cute), but your sleep time is an especially important time to dodge unwanted digital dialogue (so you can get adequate shut-eye). “Try sleeping with your phone in another room,” Broderick suggests. And in the morning, resist the urge to grab your phone immediately and respond to everything you missed while sleeping. These pauses, when they become habit, can be incredibly powerful in redefining our relationship with technology.

Only respond when you want to

This is easier said than done, we know. But Malcolm Gladwell, who spoke about this on the Thrive Global podcast, says it’s all about managing expectations and teaching people your new way of operating: “If you don’t answer people’s texts and phone calls and emails right away, then they learn that and understand. You just build into them an expectation that they’re not getting [a reply] back right away,” he says. “If everyone observed the 24-hour rule of responding to emails, the world would be a much better place.” We agree, Malcolm.

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