Can’t Get Away From Devices? Tips to Break Cell Phone Addiction Through Strategic Unplugging
Family Focus Blog, Scarlet
April 15 2017

I was watching 60 Minutes the other night and they did a piece about cell phone addiction and about how the whole tech world actually designs apps and devices to be more addicting. Well, it is working.  Big time! I mean you see people everyday who can’t put down their phone- you might even be one of them!  Most of us have a love/hate relationship with our smartphones and tablets.  Cell phones provide a lot of benefits for managing our household, and work but they also have the danger of turning us and our kids into “zoned out zombies.”  In a world of rapidly progressing technology, it is super useful to have some guidelines on  how to break cell phone addiction while still leveraging the benefits of technology and devices.

Today, I am pleased to have an expert on just that subject, Amy Blankson, to share with you some tips for being intentional about when, where, why, and how we use tech (and how we let our children use devices as well).  Amy Blankson is the co-founder of GoodThink, a company focused on the science of happiness.  She has also just authored a new book called, The Future of Happiness: 5 Modern Strategies for Balancing Productivity and Well-Being in the Digital Era, (BenBella, April, 2017- Amazon affiliate link below for your convenience).

Amy’s practical wisdom, experience as a mom, and positive outlook gives the uncertain parent the framework they need to approach technology in a way that leverages it for the good. Her book delivers a powerful roadmap for parents who want to know how much technology to allow their kids and how to use technology without letting it overcome you or your children.  Today, she shares with us a guest post with ideas for using cell phones more intentionally.

Break Cell Phone Addiction Through Strategic Unplugging

By Amy Blankson

I walked out of Starbucks looking like a zombie yet again. I had been working on my laptop intensely for a few hours and was sick and tired of staring at my screen and answering an endless stream of emails. I squinted my eyes to adjust to the bright Texas sun and fumbled for my car keys while precariously juggling a Frappuccino in one hand and my laptop in the other. I’m not sure if it was the heat or the caffeine that made me see the mirage, but I envisioned my laptop slipping in slow motion out of my arms and smashing onto the concrete. For just a brief second, I felt this wave of relief, even glee, that I had emerged the victor over some epic struggle between adversaries. But then I immediately thought of the quantities of photos, ideas, and—yes—work documents that I would lose should that happen, and I clutched my computer just a bit tighter.

I drove home in a bit of a daze, trudged into the house, and dropped my laptop bag on the nearest chair. I could tell I wasn’t the only one “teched out.” One of my bright, beautiful daughters sat with glazed eyes on the couch watching Netflix; another sat next to her mindlessly playing on an iPhone; and the third lounged on a beanbag reading her language arts homework on her iPad with a bored expression (no wonder Steve Jobs never let his children play with these devices!). Meanwhile, my husband was at the kitchen table, busily typing on his work PC, his phone tucked between his cheek and chin with a serious look on his face.

When no one seemed to acknowledge my presence, I found a plug near the kitchen table and pulled out my laptop to recharge. Where was happiness in the midst of all of this circuitry?  

I can tell you, the next several hours in my house did not go well that night. There were tech tantrums (you know, the gnashing of teeth when a device is removed from a miniature zombie), grumpy parents, and late bedtimes. The truth was that the devices were not to be blamed; it was the parenting (ouch, that hurts to admit).  In an effort to finagle a little extra work time, my husband and I had inadvertently hired digital babysitters.

I share this vignette from my life because perhaps you can relate. Instead of being plugged in to our devices, sometimes what we need most is to be plugged in to each other. A recent study found that children actually need to power off devices regularly so that they can understand the clear boundaries between the virtual world and the real one. Given that the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that controls impulse, does not finish developing until the mid-20s, parents should not be surprised if younger children with smartphones lack impulse control and find themselves more easily addicted. The truth is that all of us need these boundaries in our living and working spaces more than ever. Because maybe there is something abnormal about walking into my home and plugging in my laptop before hugging my husband and kids.

We need to learn how to manage our devices, not merely manage to get by.  Rather than just getting away from our devices, I advocate a method I call “strategic unplugging.” And to prove to you that tech is a tool and not a toxin, I am going to use tech to help you gain greater control over your tech. Our goal is to control our impulses by being intentional about when, where, why, and how we use tech.

  1. Know Your Stats. Download the Instant app or Moment app to see how many times you turn on your phone each day. The average person checks his phone 150 times every day. If every distraction took only one minute (a seriously optimistic estimate), that would account for 2.5 hours of distraction every day. That’s 912.5 hours a year, or roughly thirty-eight days each year.  You see the problem? Knowing your stats increases your awareness so that you can make proactive choices about how you spend your time and energy.
  1. Know Your Limits. You don’t always need to turn off technology—sometimes you just need to learn how to set limits and boundaries so that you do not fall off the Happiness Cliff.  Every app we use is subject to the Law of Diminishing Returns, meaning that even the most useful app can be overused. If you can begin to recognize that feeling within yourself when you might be falling off the Happiness Cliff, you can teach yourself to stop the behavior while you are still ahead. To see which apps you might be overusing, download the Break Free app to see how often you use different apps or applications. In addition to limiting your phone usage, you can get creative about setting limits for use of technology in other domains of your life, such as abstaining from tech at nighttime, which will improve your productivity and mood for future days, as well. You can also set limits for how many people you follow on Twitter, how many e-books and audio books you buy, or how many apps you own. Rather than trying to consume everything for fear of missing out (FOMO!), learn to introduce only what you can actually consume and enjoy. As my mother always said, “For every new toy you get, you need to give another toy away to make space for it.”
  1. Know Your Weaknesses. Download the Unplugged app for iPhone or the Offtime app for Android to boost your willpower in putting your phone down from time to time. The Unplugged app encourages you to put your phone on airplane mode for short periods of time in order to focus or connect with others better, and the Offtime app whitelists contacts that you want to be able to pierce through your downtime, like your spouse or children, but otherwise shuts down apps, calls, texts, and emails. We know that merely having a phone in your presence—even if you don’t touch it—decreases your productivity and weakens your ability to connect with other people. A recent study of 450 workers in Korea found that individuals who took a short work break without their cellphones felt more vigor and less emotional exhaustion than individuals who toted their cellphones along with them on their breaks, regardless of whether they actually used the phone! This could be a great strategy for using your lunchtime to recharge or to connect with friends
  1. Know Your Intentions. Download the Live Intentionally app to write explicitly how you would like to use tech in the future. For example, you might write:
  • My intention is to use my phone as a tool and not as an escape.
  • My intention is to check email only once a day.
  • My intention is not to turn on my phone at family dinnertime.
  • My intention is to look people in the eye rather than at my screen.

Without setting an explicit intention for yourself moving forward, the brain will resort to muscle memory and sink into previous habits. Individuals who write down their goals are 42 percent more likely to stick with them. Consider starting your day (weekend days too) by taking two minutes before you ever touch your phone or computer just to savor an “unplugged space” at the beginning of the day.

Knowing that technology is here to stay, we have to be active participants in rewriting the rules for how we use technology to communicate and in shaping the spaces and places in which we live, work, and learn.