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Breaking Up With Your Smartphone

Now—this moment—is the time to break free.

Key points

  • You may know your screen habits are not ideal, but most people don’t act on this knowledge.
  • Using the science of habit change, you can forge a healthier relationship with tech.
  • A “momentologist” is smart about reaching for the phone in strategic moments.

I just set my phone down, but thankfully and notably, it’s well within arm’s reach. As a psychologist, and parent, I consider the following to be of concern:

  • In a study utilizing a large, national sample of young adult participants, social media use was shown to have a significant relationship with sleep disturbance.
  • Kids with higher (more than 1 hour daily) of screen time were more likely to struggle with mental health difficulties such as depression, and were less curious and more distractible, and had greater difficulty making friendships.
  • Over the past 20 years our society has seen a 40% decline (most of it occurring over the past decade) in indicators of empathy in people, and that researchers are linking this trend with the rise of digital communication technologies.

Here’s the deal: You can read all these research findings, and you can even be concerned. You can be concerned enough to toss these stats out at your kids or colleagues around the proverbial water cooler, and guess what? It won’t lead to squat in terms of change! Your (and my) screen time totals will be unlikely to nudge downward.

That’s not an indictment of you (or me). It’s me pointing the finger (or flipping the bird!) at the reward-based brain anatomy in our skulls. I’m merely underscoring the fact that our brains are forming “habit loops.”

The Brain Basis of Our Screen Compulsion

According to research conducted by scientists such as Judson Brewer at Brown University’s Mindfulness Research Center, the human brain forms habit wiring for predicting when, where and how threatening, uncomfortable, or pleasurable outcomes will happen. Our brain evolved over millennia to both scan the environment for threats to our survival (think saber-tooth tigers), as well as for fat-rich, life-sustaining food sources.

We don’t face saber-tooth tigers and most (but unfortunately not all of us) have access to food every day, we still have the same “survival-brain” anatomy of our forebears. Now, our phones juice our brain’s release of the neurochemical dopamine when we encounter a “cue” we’ve learned to be associated with something rewarding (or that allows us to avoid a perceived threat). That dopamine release when we’re cued (or “triggered”) leads us to act in ways that, in the past, got us rewarded (or less uncomfortable).

Trigger … Behavior … Reward … and together, they a habit loop make. It’s what psychologists call “reward-based learning.” As I’m sure you’ll agree, not all habits are bad. Think working out, eating leafy greens, or brushing your teeth. These habits got going in the first place with the same principles of being cued, you did the action, and there was something rewarding (like a “no cavity” report from your dentist or improved health).

How Mindfulness Has Become the “Leafy Greens” for Habit Change

In his book, The Craving Mind, Dr. Brewer describes the research showing that there is a free and accessible method for “snipping” the habit loops for smoking, overeating and substance abuse – mindfulness practice.

As we get ever-more brain-cuffed to our phones, we appear to run the risk of grooving our brains’ wiring with habits of avoidance of challenge, distracting from discomfort, and distancing from each other. With its emphasis on harnessing attention with intention (i.e., redirecting it on purpose to the present moment), mindfulness practice—with all its scientifically-established health benefits— helps us not drift hopelessly away from one another.

Admittedly, mindfulness has become a “thing” we form New Year’s resolutions about and “know is good for us” (just like those “tasty” leafy greens!). I propose a new frame for mindfulness … “momentology.”

Momentology as the New Case for Your Phone

In my work, I refer to mindfulness practice as “momentology” – a set of secular principles and methods for authentically engaging, managing, and harnessing moments in daily life, including moments when our phones are prone to pulling our brains into habits of mindlessness.

Momentology is more akin to a “profession.” You enter a “career of curiosity” when you consistently notice what the present moment offers. We’re talking about taking your smartphone out of your pocket and getting smart – a PhD of sorts – in noticing details of what that palm-sized Times Square gives and takes. The most effective professionals bring curiosity and flow-state engagement to their work moments. You can begin this new momentology career by doing the same with this beautiful burden of technology in your pocket.

How to Become a Momentologist with Your Phone

1. Map Your Phone Habit. What situations, moods, cues in your daily life spark you to mindlessly pick up your phone and doomscroll? I’m talking about when your phone becomes the ultimate fidget (that doesn’t spin).

So, what are your habit triggers? Then pay attention to the behaviors you do with your phone that are mindless and have that distinctive “rabbit hole-descent” feel to them. Then last, begin to wonder, what rewards do these offer? What discomfort are they pushing off? What pleasures do they bring? Get honest and get exhaustive!

2. Begin Weakening the Phone Habit. Bring even more curiosity to bear on what your screen habits are giving you. Notice the loops in action without trying to force any changes just yet. Many people fail in their efforts to alter entrenched habits because they jump too quickly toward new, “healthy” habits without doing the work to “weaken” the “reward value” of the bad habits themselves.

You can accomplish this by going more deeply into noticing what the “give” is for your phone habits. What are the benefits doom-scrolling brings? How are you feeling while you’re doing it?

Be a “momentologist” and observe every nook and cranny of what it looks, sounds, and feels like to use your phone in a not-calling-your-mom or truly-conducting-important-business kind of way. If you’re not sure how to do so, pick up your phone and try the following:

Try This: Phone Freedom Practice:

1. Sit comfortably, with your phone in the palm of your hand which you can rest gently on your lap. Keep your eyes open.

2. Turn your phone on, but do not open any particular app. Let your thumb hover over top the screen, tapping it only to keep the phone “unlocked” and open.

3. Take a deep breath into the belly. Let yourself feel the smallest ways the breath enters and leaves your body. Place your attention on the feeling of your breath coming in and out (without breathing in any specific, controlled way). If your mind snaps away, just gently draw your attention back to the breath.

4. Notice any of the following, and if they arise, just quietly note them and bring your attention back to the feel of your breathing.

a. Is there any impulse drawing your thumb or finger to open an app, check email, or some other aspect of your phone? Get curious as to any want or desire. Notice the pull and see if you’re willing to ride the impulse without following it.

b. Is there something about looking at your phone that stirs frustration, angst or anger? Are you reminded of someone or something that feels worthy of blame? Frustrated over not immediately opening and using your phone?

c. Is there anything about looking at your phone that worries you? Is there an internal itch—a restless, crawling feeling? Watch these move through mind and body. Just let them be.

d. As you hold your phone, do you notice any sagging, depleted feelings? A fatigue that sets in as you just sit looking at your phone, trying to keep awareness on the sensations of breathing?

e. Does looking at this small object cast any doubt on how you manage your daily life? How does this small, thin rectangle make you feel your sense of control over your life?

Instead of closing our awareness and letting this screen become a black hole our time and well-being falls mindlessly into, are we willing to make a habit of seeing the negative states it can draw out of us?


Brewer, J., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2017). The craving mind: from cigarettes to smartphones to love--why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Caplan, S.E. (2010). Theory and measurement of generalized problematic Internet use: A two-step approach. Computers and Human Behavior, 26(5): 1089-1097.

Levenson JC, Shensa A, Sidani JE, Colditz JB, Primack BA. (2016). The association between social media use and sleep disturbance among young adults. Prev Med., 85:36-41.

Twenge JM, Campbell WK. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Prev Med Rep, 12: 271-283.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: the power of talk in a digital age. New York, Penguin Press.

Thomée, S. (2018). Mobile Phone Use and Mental Health. A Review of the Research That Takes a Psychological Perspective on Exposure. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 15(12), 2692.

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