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7 Tips to Get Smartphone Overuse Under Control

How to take back your life from your smartphone.

Source: iStock

How much time do you spend using your smartphone on an average day? If you’re like many people, you might be shocked by the true answer. In a study by British researchers, young adults (ages 18-33) estimated how much time they spent on their phones. An app was also installed to measure their actual usage over a two-week period. It turned out they were actually using their phones about twice as much as they believed.

On average, study participants’ phone time added up to an amazing five hours per day — nearly one-third of their waking hours. Among other things, they used their phones to check the time, keep up with social media, listen to music and even occasionally have a phone conversation.

Personally, I also rely on my phone to check my email, schedule my calendar, monitor the weather, manage my banking, map my driving route, track my bike rides, follow breaking news, take photos and watch videos. Yep, the time could add up quickly.

But as convenient as it is to have all that power and reach at my fingertips, it’s also disconcerting to be so heavily reliant on an electronic rectangle. I often feel as if using my phone may have crossed the line into overusing it. Like many people, I’ve reached the point where it feels like it’s time to put down my phone and take back my life.

Who’s in Charge Here, Anyway?

The dependent relationship that many of us have formed with our smartphones comes at a cost. Potential hazards such as social disconnection, mental fatigue and traffic accidents have been well documented. Lesser-known risks that have come to the fore within the last few years include disengaged parenting, damaged romantic relationships and texting-and-walking injuries.

Most people, myself included, aren’t going to toss out their cell phones. But we also don’t want to feel as if we’re at the mercy of these demanding devices, which draw us in with a steady stream of messages, alerts and notifications — and lure us away from other important things.

So how can we prevent smartphone use from becoming overuse? That’s the question I recently posed to clinical psychologist Lisa Strohman, J.D., Ph.D. As founder and CEO of the Technology Wellness Center and author of Unplug: Raising Kids in a Technology Addicted World, Strohman has given more thought to this question than anyone else I know. Below are some of her tips for getting cell phone use under control, so it’s not controlling you.

Show Your Phone Who’s Boss

Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. It’s a common scenario: “You’re still in bed, and you reach over and grab your phone,” Strohman says. “Then you’re immediately hit with 18 emails or news of a bombing somewhere.“ This gets your morning off to a stressful start, which sets the tone for the rest of your day. As an alternative, Strohman suggests spending those first few minutes calmly thinking about something for which you’re grateful.

Make “out of sight, out of mind” your motto. When you’re socializing, put your phone in your pocket, purse or backpack. Then give yourself permission to check it at reasonable intervals; say, every 20 minutes. “If you have your phone out, research shows that a lot of interpersonal communication is lost,” Strohman says.

Enlist others as accountability partners. Strohman recommends telling others that you plan to stop using your phone in certain situations (such as during meals), just as you would tell them when you’re planning to quit smoking or give up diet sodas. Then they can help you stick with your plan by holding you accountable for your behavior.

Stop using your phone well before bedtime. “At night, as you’re winding down, set a time to disconnect from technology and connect with the world around you,” says Strohman. “In our home, two hours before we go to bed, phones are off.” If you don’t want to turn off your phone, at least put it to bed early on its charger.

Uninstall apps you don’t actually need. If you’ve tried setting limits for yourself but are having trouble sticking with them, make it easy. Remove that social media app you can’t quit checking or game you can’t stop playing. For essential phone functions, such as voice mail and text messages, turn off notification sounds.

Consider installing “parental controls” for yourself. For example, there are apps that disable phone features such as texting while you’re driving.

Remind yourself that your phone is just a device, not an appendage. You can leave it at home occasionally, and the world won’t actually come to an end. “I certainly don’t think adults should be without a cell phone,” Strohman says. “But I don’t think it’s mandatory to have it with you at all times the way most people do.”

Linda Wasmer Andrews writes about practical ways to boost health and happiness in daily life. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.