Is It Even Possible To Have A Healthy Relationship With Your Phone?

This week at Refinery29 Canada, we’re dialling into one of the most intimate (and infuriating) relationships in our lives: the one we have with our phones.
It’s been 32 minutes. Thirty-two minutes without absent-mindedly refreshing my email, checking Instagram likes, and scrolling through Twitter. I’m trying a phone-weaning tip recommended by experts in which you leave your cell charging in a location where it’s not readily accessible and then go about life without a device permanently attached to your hand. My phone is in my room. I’m in the kitchen. In 32 minutes, I’ve reached for my phantom phone four times — each time forgetting where I put it and remembering that my tech addiction is really, really bad.
Such cellphone separation anxiety is the new normal. The average Canadian millennial spends nearly five hours a day online, mostly on our phones. Last year, there were over 26 million Canadians with smartphones (other stats list this figure as high as 86% of the country) and that number is climbing. Globally, the average smartphone user is on her device 63 times a day; the majority of those people check them while speaking to friends and family, right before bed and first thing in the morning. I am guilty on all counts. I’m so zoned into my phone in the presence of my partner, he’ll text me sometimes while he’s sitting beside me on the couch just so I’ll look up and pay attention to him. I know — it’s really, really bad.
“It’s difficult to gauge how much time is too much time (on our phones),” says Toronto-based tech podcast host and author Amber Mac when I ask her if my phone habits — and the phone habits of the majority of Canadians — are unhealthy. “You know that you have a phone addiction if it’s affecting other elements of your life,” she adds. Meaning that if you keep picking up your cell during brunch with your best friend, if you’re liking pics of your crush’s nature selfies instead of enjoying the outdoors yourself, or if you get distracted by your phone so much at work it’s affecting your productivity, it’s probably time to re-evaluate your digital habits.
Listen, I love my phone. It’s the most intense unreciprocated relationship in my life so I understand that when someone says to “re-evaluate your digital habits” you may think um, no thank you. Like me, you’ve probably heard about the downsides of cellphones so often that your reflex may be to scroll past the headlines and roll your eyes. But their impact on our mental health is real. Rates of anxiety and depression have increased significantly since the advent of social media, which over 60% of Canadians say is what they use their phones for the most. These scary statistics are why recovering tech addict and science journalist Catherine Price wrote the bestselling book How To Break Up With Your Phone, which includes a 30-day guide to breaking up and making up with your device. Yes, you read that right: Price isn’t suggesting we go back to using an app-free Motorola Krzr, or God forbid, a land line. “The problem isn’t smartphones themselves,” she writes. “The problem is our relationships with them.”
It’s a relationship that’s primed to be addictive: The adrenaline hit of likes on Instagram or retweets on Twitter is the same dopamine fix triggered by playing slot machines. (Former employees of Facebook, Google and Apple have admitting to feeling guilty that they created products to intentionally get users hooked — more eyeballs equal more advertising dollars). To find more balance, “we need to be conscious of our attention [towards our phones] in the same way we would be conscious of our bank accounts,” says Price. She suggests thinking about the aspects of our phones that make us feel good (receiving a text with a picture of our puppy when we’re stuck at the office) or bad (everyone is posting about a party when we’re stuck at home) and focusing on the positive parts. Another tip? Identify where you’d rather be focusing your attention offline before you fall down a YouTube wormhole. “Let’s say I want to be spending more time playing music, if I get lost in a phone spiral I get irritated because that was time I could have spent playing the guitar and doing this thing I actually love.”
What if the thing you love is work? Our jobs are a valid reason to be connected. Takara Small, a Toronto-based tech columnist and founder of VentureKids Canada (a non-profit that teaches kids to code and build startups), says that social class, financial security and the gig economy are defining factors that are not talked about enough when it comes to phone addiction. “It’s become the norm to have to engage with work off-hours. Or, if you have a side hustle, you have to constantly be connected to your device.” Staying up to date with my Twitter timeline is part of my job. At previous workplaces, it was an unspoken expectation to answer emails on the weekend. My phone was essential for my livelihood.
These reasons, and the fact that some people are finding a sense of community online that we aren’t getting in real life, are why we shouldn’t shame the people who are unable to disconnect at the end of the day, Small says. But that doesn’t mean those people should just lean into having a tiny portable computer glued to their eyeballs 24/7. If people are dependent on their phones for income, Small says there are ways to improve their relationship to their phones, like the obvious: putting it on silent while they sleep, or the less-obvious, turning on tracking features that disclose how much time a user spends on certain apps. “It will help people determine if they are using their phone for work purposes or for social means, or if it’s just a bad habit,” says Small.
Mac agrees and cites Instagram’s move to ban likes (a test of this feature is happening in Canada right now) as a helpful tool to curb unhealthy phone practices, whether you’re posting for work or for fun. Apple has introduced the “Screen Time” feature where you can see exactly how long you’re on your phone (it’s 11 a.m. as I’m writing this, and my screen time is already at three hours and eight minutes). You can also set time limits for certain apps. There are teems of mindfulness and meditation apps available to ease the anxiety caused by our phones. Spend too much time on apps? There’s an app for that.
You can even go analog with your digital-reduction strategies. Since picking up our phones can be reflexive — so much so that you don’t even know you’re doing it — Price says placing a rubber band or hair tie over it can be a subtle reminder of how frequently you reach for your device. She calls this exercise, “what for, why now, what else?” Asking those simple questions when you grab your cell can make you pause and reach for something else. Or try hiding your more addictive apps in folders that aren’t visible on your home screen. Basically, make your phone as boring as possible.
So far, that strategy has been working for me. My phone charged for a full hour before I caved, but the first thing I did when it was back in my hands was move Instagram off my home page. Embrace the baby steps, says Price. “I always tell people you’re not going to end up with a perfect relationship with this thing unless you get rid of it, so don’t beat yourself up if you fall back into old habits. The point is how fast can you notice it and how fast can you get back on the track you want to be on?”
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