by Dr. Thomas Franklin

As we begin a new year, it’s a good time to pause and reflect. When were we our best selves in 2019? What can we do differently or better in 2020?

I believe one of the most important things you can do to be your best self in 2020 is to put down your phone. Here’s what I mean: we have all become addicted to our phones. It is understandable. Our smartphones provide real value to our lives. But their ubiquitous overuse has caused a digital addiction epidemic.

This overuse is especially apparent in young people. Children are using devices and interacting with media at a growing rate. They are being put in front of screens instead of interacting with other humans and caretakers. According to Common Sense Media, children as young as five consume over two hours of media a day. Adults often use these devices in lieu of spending quality time with their children, spouses, and each other. All of this alleged “connectivity” has left us feeling isolated, depressed, and sometimes, feeling more disconnected with others than ever.

Smartphones and digital addiction

As a psychiatrist for Sheppard Pratt Health System, I can anecdotally attest that there’s a strong correlation between the amount of cumulative time that teenagers spend on their devices and incidences of depressive and suicidal thoughts.

If smartphones are a practical and valuable tool, with the ability to connect rather than isolate us from others, why is there such a potential to harm our mental wellbeing?

There are several reasons.

First, 24/7 connectivity exacerbates the “fear of missing out” or FOMO. Through our smartphones, we are exposed to an endless feed of photos and messages from every party that we are not invited to, every sunset we missed, every vacation we wish we could enjoy.

Second, the constant barrage of stimuli trains the brain to move from one subject to the next quickly – which limits attention spans and deeper cognitive processes, such as innovation and creativity. It also contributes to a feeling of restlessness and anxiety.

Finally, obsessive phone use exhibits the hallmark traits present for any addiction: it’s compulsive, detracts from relationships with others, and causes a person to withdraw from activities he or she previously enjoyed.

 

Digital adaptation

Do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? If you do, it’s okay. There are simple strategies to transform your digital addiction to digital adaptation. The world has changed such that it would be inconvenient to live without a smartphone in this day and age. But you can adapt to control your phone use, rather than let it control you.

Here are five tips:

  • Turn off all notifications.
  • Create family phone etiquette rules, such as no phones at the dinner table or create a “parking spot” for phones after a certain time each night. Prioritize in-person communications over text or electronic communications.
  • Establish occasional digital hiatuses.
  • Proactively look for activities to do with people and family members, to replace time that you might have spent consumed by a digital device.
  • Remove the apps on your phone that you are most tempted to waste time on. Or, most newer phones allow you to limit the amount of time you’re allowed to spend on each app each day. Set those limits and stick to them.

Last year, I guarantee that the times that you were your best self were when you were laughing with friends, enjoying a heart-to-heart with your partner, and thriving at work or giving back to your community. All times when your smartphone was absent. Go and be your best, digitally-adapted self in 2020! 

Thomas Franklin, MD, is a psychiatrist and service chief at the Ruxton House at Sheppard Pratt. He is board certified in psychiatry and addiction medicine. For more information, visit Sheppardpratt.org.

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