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USING PHONES SMARTLY FOR MENTAL HEALTH

There is a strange phenomenon that has the modern world at its mercy. A phenomenon in which we are all attached to a device that connects us with every other device, and renders us available and contactable from anywhere across the globe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. According to the latest data, there are 5.15 billion individual users of this device in the world today. In the UK, around 95% of households are connected to it. As you may have already guessed, this device is the smartphone.

We all know why smartphones are amazing. What we may be less aware of is the dramatic shift that they pose to the reality and psychology of human beings. A species now interacting and communicating in a way, and on a scale, that it never has before. Smartphones present opportunities that have allowed the human race to achieve unimaginable heights. But, they have also created new conditions and environments that have the power to strain the psyche and invade our mental health; causing suffering for those whose engagement with this extraordinary mode of communication is neither conscious nor controlled.

One of the primary issues here is addiction. Research shows that the average person in the UK checks their phone 28 times a day. That rush of dopamine we receive from each new hit of information that a text message, email, or news headline gives us is highly addictive. And, unlike previous forms of engagement such as books and films, phones have no stopping cues. We read the last page of a book, the credits roll at the end of a film, but there is no such mechanism in smartphones; with which we can browse search engines and social media endlessly.

It comes as no surprise that excessive phone use is believed to have a direct correlation with anxious tendencies. ‘Nomophobia’ (no mobile phone phobia) is on the rise and is a direct consequence of our compulsive mobile phone usage, and the impulse-control problems that follow. This serves to keep us in a persistent state of anxiety. The only cure for which is our smartphone. Anxiety is further enhanced by the noises our phone emits every time someone messages, calls, or reacts to a post on social media. For some people, all of these incoming alerts can at times border on harassment. At the very least, it can be quite annoying. Moreover, for people who already suffer from anxiety, the heightened sensitivity to noise may result in existing symptoms being worsened by the incessant blaring of a smartphone in the vicinity.

Current research is increasingly pointing to the conclusion that the more time we spend on our phone, the more likely we are to become depressed. Studies in America have revealed that students who use their phones as a means of escapism have much higher rates of mental health difficulties and depression. Furthermore, most of us also use our phone as an alarm clock, which means that it’s the first thing we look at when we wake up. Usually we do more than just look at it. Diving head-first into stress-inducing work emails and comparing ourselves to that influencer’s latest visually-enhanced selfie doesn’t seem like the best way to start our day. Our motivation for browsing and scrolling may be something worth examining.

There are a few basic steps we can take in order to alleviate the negative effects of this wondrous tool. One thing many people do now is to have their phones on silent, permanently. This measure alone will go a long way to reducing its stressful effects. The next step might be to try and break from the habit of checking it constantly; thereby eliminating those impulse-control problems we may have acquired along the way. We can do this by not checking/using our phone for set periods of time. Certain times of the day, or of the week. Or, if your schedule varies so that you’re never doing the same thing at the same time, then certain activities can become a no-phone window instead. Dinner time, football matches; whatever it may be. The more beloved the no-phone activity, the more likely it is to motivate us and improve our standard of living by increasing the time spent on things that we truly value and are passionate about; enabling us to be fully present when we experience them.

If you’re someone who has no time off at all or must remain contactable at all hours of every day, then it’s worth looking into phone settings that allow only the absolutely necessary alerts. Muting other apps, for instance, and allowing phone calls and SMS alerts only. Or you may wish to mute particular conversation threads and chat groups that aren’t urgent, leaving yourself available only to essential communications. The ideal outcome is to remove any unnecessary apps altogether. To be clear, ‘unnecessary’ includes any and all apps that don’t improve the quality of your life or serve you directly; and meaningfully. These steps can be difficult at first but, like an addiction, we can move past the initial hump. We can overcome the withdrawal as if it were a drug. Soon we are likely to feel good about these changes and, in turn, broaden our practice. We may even try new techniques. Like not using our phone before work. Or switching it to airplane mode on weekends. By doing this, the smartphone is no longer a phone but still remains a camera. Thereby flipping our perspective on, and relationship with, a tool that we’ve all grown so deeply attached to. An opportunity to experience the same device in a new way.
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