The key to staying sane in our hyperconnected world is adopting healthy and sustainable habits around the way we use tech so that you are in control of it (rather than the other way around).
From watches that ping when you’ve got a new text to the Instagram feeds you can’t stop scrolling through all the freakin’ time, there’s no denying that we’re more plugged in than ever before. Sure, this level of connectedness has benefits—it’s simple to stay in touch with friends and family; you can express yourself on social media; multitasking is easier—but there are also some pretty serious drawbacks. Staring at our devices may be pleasurable in the moment, but "pleasurable behaviors are addictive," says David Greenfield, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, and they come at a cost. And thanks to our ever-present electronics, research shows that the average American’s attention span has dropped over the past decade from 12 seconds to a mere eight—shorter than the attention span of a goldfish. One study from the American Psychological Association found that nearly one-fifth of people say technology is a source of stress. Then there are the potential physical effects of being "always on," from neck pain (and wrinkles) to elevated blood pressure.
But giving up all your screen time? It’s just not practical. Thankfully, experts agree that you don’t have to break up with your phone completely—you just have to relax your death grip on it. Here, those experts will guide you to a more sane relationship with your tech.
Turn off push notifications. Getting constant updates on what’s happening in the world is informative—but it can also be distracting. "If you’re allowing yourself to get interrupted five times in a half an hour, you’re never actually focused in that time," says Jesse Fox, PhD, head of Ohio State University’s Virtual Environment, Communication Technology, and Online Research (VECTOR) Lab. One easy fix is to turn off as many notifications as you can live without.
Convert to black and white. One reason our devices are so alluring is that they’re vibrant. Go retro, recommends Greenfield. Many smartphones now allow you to change the settings so the entire phone appears in gray scale.
Put away your phone during meals. It’s a common sight at restaurants: a gleaming smartphone next to the bread basket. And yet, research shows that, even if we’re not checking our phone, simply having it on the table during a convo can reduce the quality of the interaction—our brains are just waiting for it to light up, and as a result, we are not fully present. "The more energy we direct toward our devices, the less energy we’re directing toward whoever is in the room with us," explains Elisabeth LaMotte, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the DC Counseling and Psychotherapy Center.
Designate tech-free hours. Many of us feel "naked" when we’re without our devices, but taking breaks from technology can do wonders for our well-being. "Start by designating a certain time each day that’s tech-free—like while you’re eating lunch," says Adam Alter, PhD, a professor at NYU and author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked ($27; amazon.com). "Then see how you feel after a week or so. Most people feel happy with the change, and they go on to expand it."
Make your bedroom a no-tech zone. "Most people use their phone for an alarm clock," says Dr. Greenfield. But when you reach for your phone to switch it off, it’s easy to start scrolling through Twitter. In fact, it’s best if you can leave your phone outside the bedroom at night and invest in an alarm clock. Also: If you’re getting cozy with your cell in bed, it’s less likely you’re getting cozy with your partner, says Jennifer Taitz, PsyD, author of How to be Single and Happy ($16; amazon.com). Make your bed a device-free zone and invite greater opportunities for intimacy—and sex. Oh, and you’ll also sleep better. Screens’ blue light tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime, which makes it harder to drift off.
Rediscover paper. If you’ve ever noticed that reading a book feels more satisfying than reading a tablet, you’re not imagining things. Not only do books offer fewer distractions, but research suggests that when we read on paper, our minds process abstract information more effectively. Additionally, consider getting your news from a newspaper, says Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project and Better Than Before.
Limit yourself to one screen at a time. When we’re attempting to work (or, say, watch The Bachelor) and we start scrolling through Instagram, our brains go a little haywire. "Multitasking is really bad for us," says Fox. "If you are focusing on a task and you get distracted—like, oh, I’ll just click over to this other window or I’ll just look at this text message—it takes several minutes to recalibrate our brains back to the original task." Make a habit of only looking at one screen at a time to improve concentration—and, in some cases, enjoyment.
Spring clean your social media accounts. Facebook and Instagram help us to connect with people in unprecedented and truly gratifying ways. But research shows that the more time we spend on social media, the worse we feel. That’s not surprising, given the fact that we see only a heavily curated version of friends’ and celebrities’ lives, which can be toxic for self-esteem. How can we stay on social while also staying healthy?
Fox, who studies the impact of social media on society, says the key is to be proactive about who and what you follow. “Think about what—and who—makes you feel bad,” she says. “And what makes you feel good.” From there, clean house—don’t be afraid to block, mute, unfollow, or delete, until you’ve created a list of connections who make you laugh and smile and fill you with happiness.
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Download the right apps. Plenty of us feel addicted to our phones—and for good reason. Checking our devices activates the reward circuitry in the brain, triggering the body to release a hit of the “pleasure hormone” dopamine, which is exactly what happens when we gamble, says Dr. Greenfield.
It seems counterintuitive, but these apps can actually help you cut back on, well, all things digital: The Moment app can track how often you use your iPhone and iPad each day and also lets you set daily limits; the Freedom app lets you block whatever sites distract you on your mobile device or computer, with the goal of helping you focus; and Off-Time (available on Android) allows you to selectively block calls, texts, and notifications (an iPhone’s “Do Not Disturb” setting offers a similar service).
Protect your body. The average American spends nearly half of every day staring at a screen, and sometimes our bodies pay a price. To combat digital eye strain, which can cause dryness, blurred vision, and headaches, follow the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes you look at a screen, look up and at an object 20 feet in the distance for 20 seconds. Also, don’t forget to blink! To fix "text neck," skip the bent neck and hold your phone higher so you can look at it straight on. And avoid "smartphone thumb"—that perma-bent texting position can cause inflammation, irritation, and pain—by taking regular breaks from your phone and mix up the way you type, using different fingers.