How To Break Up With Your Phone

Air Date:
Heard On The Morning Show
People with smartphones
Adam Fagen (CC-BY-NC-SA)

What’s the first thing you reach for when you wake up and the last thing you touch before you go to bed? Your phone. We look into how communication devices are designed to manipulate our brain chemistry and how the time we spend on them affects our behavior. Plus, we give a plan to develop a healthy long-term relationship with your smartphone.

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  • How To Have A Healthier Relationship With Your Smartphone

    It’s the siren song of the 21st century: check your email, check Twitter, get on Facebook. Do it right now.

    Even if you don’t like calling it an addiction, constantly staring at smartphones is changing the way our brains work, according to health journalist Catherine Price. She’s the author of a new book called “How to Break Up With Your Smartphone: A 30 Day Plan to Take Back Your Life.” But she says breaking the habit isn’t as impossible a feat as people make it out to be.

    “It’s not about dumping your phone entirely,” Price said. “Think of it more like couples therapy.”

    It’s tough to study the exact, long-term effects of frequent smartphone use, mostly because they’re so new, Price said. Scientists have found, however, that the same brain chemicals released when people are addicted to a substance are released when people check their phones.

    The most prominent of those chemicals is dopamine. Dopamine indicates to the brain that something is important, new and requires attention. Smartphones are packed with features that trigger that kind of a response, Price said.

    “There are many features in the phones which are designed to either trigger the release of dopamine or make it very easy to stay on the phone,” Price said,

    Social media apps, for example, are deliberately designed to trigger that dopamine response. There’s no natural stopping place — like the end of a chapter or page of a web search — so the brain is continually producing dopamine. Users then associate their phones with that dopamine response, which makes them want to check it more.

    That’s part of the reason the average adult checks their phone between 50 and 300 times a day, researchers say.

    Price said the average amount of time adults spend staring at their smartphone is almost four hours a day, about a quarter of the time spent awake. That’s according to data from Moment, an app that lets users track how much time they actually spend on their phones. It doesn’t even include time spent talking on the phone, listening to music or podcasts, or any other time the screen is dark.

    Price said constantly being connected like that is changing the way our brains work. For example, distractions throughout the day interrupt the brain’s process for changing short term memories into long term ones, Price said. So even if the intent of your Tweet or Instagram is to capture the moment, it could actually be doing the exact opposite.

    “That’s just one of the ways being constantly on your phone, more specifically being constantly presented with little distractions that suck up any moment of downtime is affecting (our ability) to think deeply and create new memories,” Price said.

    But Price said there are some simple tricks that don’t require a life-long digital detox. An easy first step is downloading one of the many apps that let users see how much time they spend on their phones to get a sense of how much time they actually spend scrolling and posting.

    One concrete thing smartphone users can do to create a healthier relationship with their phones is delete social media apps from their phones and check the sites on web browsers instead. People should replace those apps with apps for activities they want to spend time on. Price said she has an app on her phone for meditation, and another for tuning her guitar — two activities she’s trying to make a more regular part of her life.

    “So the things on my homescreen are triggers for things that I actually want to be doing,” Price said.

    Overall, she recommended not thinking of kicking the smartphone habit like a diet or something people need to “stick to” or else they fail.

    Instead, people should shift their lifestyles to become more aware of how much time they spend on their phones and try to focus on activities and moments that are happening outside the device.

    “It’s not about spending less time on your phone but more time on your life,” Price said. “Restructuring your life and the way you use your phone so you are prioritizing things that bring you meaning and joy.”

Episode Credits

  • Kate Archer Kent Host
  • Nyajai Ellison Producer
  • Catherine Price Guest

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