Guidelines for Wise Use of Smartphones

Jul 31, 2017

Dr. Saul Rosenthal, a clinical health psychologist from Newton, Massachusetts, saw his first patient with internet addiction about 12 years ago. He says it's a problem that's on the rise, and a particularly difficult one to diagnose and treat.

Psychologists, like Rosenthal, use essentially the same techniques to diagnose a technology addiction as they would for a chemical addiction. For example, if you find yourself trying - and failing - to use your phone less, or if your texting or online gaming is interfering with real-world relationships and commitments, you may have a problem.

But, since cell phones and the internet are nearly ubiquitous and a necessary part of many people's jobs, it's rarely feasible to go cold turkey. That makes treating this kind of addiction particularly difficult.

"It's almost like 'how can you help an alcoholic work in a bar without slipping," said Dr. Rosenthal. "Traditional addiction treatments really aren't practical because, unlike heroine, you can't really live without technology. We really need to train people - or relearn - how to use technology in a healthy way."

While there isn't a ton or research showing exactly what works in this area, but Rosenthal encourages everyone - addicted or not - to adopt some basic guidelines for healthful technology use:

  • Make conscious choices. The more we rely on smartphones, the harder it is to disconnect. Consider which functions are optional. Could you keep to-do lists in a paper notebook? Use a standalone alarm clock? Make conscious choices about what you really need your phone for, and what you don't.
  • Retrain gradually. Try not to check the phone first thing in the morning. Then, during the day, gradually check in less often — maybe every 15 minutes at first, then every 20, then 30. Over time, the pull of notifications and anxiety about staying connected declines.
  • Set expectations. Establish expectations among family, friends, and coworkers to avoid misunderstandings if you don't reply to texts or emails immediately. Also, be aware of your own expectations, and avoid putting pressure on yourself to be "always on."
  • Silence notifications. It's a bit more work than adopting your phone's default settings, but making the effort to turn off unnecessary notifications can reduce distractions and stress.
  • Protect sleep. Keep technology out of the bedroom, and avoid using your phone late at night or right before bedtime. If you must use it, turn down the brightness. When it's time for bed, turn your phone off and place it in another room.
  • Be active. When interacting with social media sites, don't just absorb other people's posts. Actively posting ideas or photos, creating content, and commenting on others' posts is associated with better subjective well-being.
  • Don't text/email/call and drive. In 2014, more than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving incidents on U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. When you're driving, turn off notifications and place your phone out of reach.

NOTE: This is an edited version of an interview that originally aired March 27, 2017.