Five reasons your phone could be affecting your mental health

🕵️‍♂️ By Lauren Holford | ✍️ 15th Feb, 2019

Have you ever taken a moment to really think about what your life would be like without Google, Facebook or Instagram. With no laptops, no Iphones, no androids. Our digitally-connected lives are becoming so enriched, convenient and on-demand, it’s increasingly difficult to seriously contemplate a reality so far removed from things which define our lifestyle today.

Just stop and compare for example a Nokia 3210 to the latest smartphone. The differences are most likely laughable between the phone you use today and a device that's most cutting-edge features included monophonic ringtones and Snake. But, the intervening tide of technology has infiltrated our lives so seamlessly that it’s been easy to assimilate advances without much thought or question as to their long-term effects.


Is it too little, too late?

Mainstream conversations around the psychological effects of technology, whether there is a dark side to mobile phone usage and how addictive social media are only just beginning and yet for the majority of people going cold turkey on tech is no longer an option. It is well and truly integrated into our lives and realistically, it’s going nowhere. Whether its communicating with colleagues or clients, writing reports, conducting research or creating content, most of us are now reliant on some form of tech as a necessity to our livelihood.

So, what is the deal? If a permanent digital detox is out the question, are there things we can incorporate into our routine to avoid potentially harmful effects on our mental health? Here’s five things to try in order to take back control of how we use our phones.


1. Time flies when you’re scrolling on

Do you ever go on your phone to check the weather, how to get somewhere or read the latest news and realise 30 minutes later you are aimlessly scrolling through social media comparing your life to others? Maybe you or someone you know doesn’t quite realise how much time they spend on their phone each day?

The Problem

According to comScore the average American spends almost 3 hours a day on their phone, amounting to 86 hours a month! It’s perhaps unsurprising when you think about how phone apps are designed to be intuitive, habit-forming products, but it’s still time we’ll never see again. Monitoring the time we spend on different apps and more generally on our devices can help us keep track of what you are going on and provoke us to think about why and what we are getting out of it. Are you just looking at social media out of boredom or are there real-life issues you are avoiding, consciously or not? It is worth noting scientific research has now made significant links between the use of social media for escapism and mental illness such as anxiety and depression.


One of the easiest ways to keep tabs on time spent on social media is by making use of the Time Limit function on our phones, that can make sure we only spend 10 minutes a day checking on what’s new with our Facebook friends, following the lives of our Instagram contacts or catching up on the latest tweets from our network. Decide on your limits and regain time to put towards something more fulfilling.

How to: On an Iphone with iOS 12, just go to Settings>Screen Time>Time Limits.


2. Buzz off alerts!

Are you constantly distracted by phone notifications? Ping. Lauren has added a new photo. Is your phone always buzzing? Beep Beep. Joe has tagged you in his story. Are you worried you haven’t replied to Charlotte yet? Ting. James has sent you message.

The Problem

According to Chloe Brotheridge, author of The Anxiety Solution, the average person in the UK checks their phone 28 times a day, which works out to over 10,000 time a year! We can get so hooked on the rush of each new ‘hit’ that we are easily caught up in a loop of anxiety-inducing behaviour that takes our focus away from the moment we are in. Plus, being bombarded with constant updates is exhausting, making it hard for many of us to ever properly relax.


Rather than receiving constant updates, decide how often you actually need to check your phone and reduce the distracting notifications. Even if you need to be reachable for an urgent work email or emergency text, your Whatsapp or Facebook alerts are most likely not immediately essential, so consider turning them off. If you choose to keep certain notifications turned on, be mindful that having sound on can cause increased anxiety compared to silent alerts.

How to: On an Iphone, just go to Settings>Notifications to see a list of all apps and the notifications you currently allow. Pay particular attention to those listed as sounds.    


3. Screen out and tune in

We might seem tech-obsessed sitting next to strangers on our commute to work, but what about when we’re out for dinner with friends we haven’t seen for ages and we keep ‘just replying to a message’? Do we truly appreciate a moment or catch-up if we don’t give it our full attention? Why do we prioritise chatting online to in person?

The Problem

It’s like calling someone and getting repeatedly put on hold. It’s kinda awkward if not annoying and it doesn’t make you feel very valued or important. And yet we all seem to be guilty of it at some point unless everyone’s phones are piled in the middle of the table and the first person to check theirs foots the whole bill. The craziest part is that switching off and socialising with friends in real life is a proven anti-depressant (as is exercise, and even homework!), but we are choosing to engage in anxiety-driven messaging instead.   


So how do we avoid it? Experts advise that consciously making clear rules for yourself such as not going on a device when you are sitting at a table to eat is a great way to start. Questioning yourself as to how important it is to respond or react to online chatter immediately can also help you gain perspective on your priorities. The temptation to check your phone is also considerably less when it is in your bag or pocket rather than out on the table and when it is on silent or do not disturb as opposed to loud.

How to: On an Iphone, flick the ringer to Silent on the side of your phone or flick up and turn Do Not Disturb On then put your phone away out of sight.


4. To sleep or not to sleep

Is watching Netflix your go-to before bed? Does your nightly routine include lying in bed checking messages and scrolling social media on your phone before you close your eyes? It’s another all-too-easy habit to fall in to, but the impact this has on our sleep can seriously affect our mental health.

The Problem

Sleep scientist Matthew Walker lays out the clear effects of LED screens in his bestselling book Why We Sleep. He explains how our bodies are particularly sensitive to the blue light emitted by LED screens on our phones, laptops and tablets, which mimic bright morning light. In contrast to the low-light and darkness that help induce sleep, this inhibits our body’s wind down process. Add to this stress-inducing work emails or social FOMO and we are left wide-awake and sleep deprived - something that is proven to go hand-in-hand with depression and anxiety.         


Walker’s advice includes avoiding looking at LED screens in the hour before sleeping and instead encourages us to take a hot shower or do something quiet and relaxing like reading a book. Most devices also now have integrated display settings that allow you to dial down blue light on screen, so make sure you have activated this on all our your devices to start from at least a couple of hours before bed. If some of your devices don't have this feature built-in, you can download F.lux as an add on.  

How to: On an Iphone go to Settings>>Display & Brightness>Night Shift. Schedule warmer screen settings from sunset to sunrise.


5. Free yourself of FOMO

Do you recount every aspect of your life on social media? Realistically how often do you post about your ‘lows’ compared to your ‘highs’? The reality is that the majority of us share our shiniest experiences online, but are less than forthcoming when things aren’t going our way.   

The Problem

Yet when we scroll through a feed of glorious snaps, it’s easy to feel like everybody else is leading a more exciting life than ours. We start to compare ourselves and feelings of inadequacy creep in. It’s important that we acknowledge this when it happens and consciously remind ourselves that social media isn’t a true reflection of life, rather a platform most people use to show the ‘best’ version of themselves.


Lonely Planet's insta story on Travel FOMO recommends that we should try looking back at our own photos, instead and allow ourselves to relive our own special moments. Swap time spent on social media to create more real-life memories with friends. Or if you are fed up of seeing everybody else’s travel pics, use it as motivation to plan your own day out or trip away.

How to: Organise a day trip such as getting together with friends for one of our unique self-guided adventures. Decide when you can do it and put a date in your calendar to look forward to.


Take action now

Ditching our phones completely is unlikely going to be a feasible answer in the long term, but we should pay attention to and address certain behaviours for a more balanced lifestyle. Having awareness about how we use our phones is really the key to making the most of its amazing benefits while avoiding potential mental health issues.

If you feel like any of the issues above are affecting you, three things you can do right now are to:

  • set daily time limits for each app;

  • turn down or off all but essential notifications and;

  • schedule warmer display settings during the evening.

Perspective and discipline are also super important in helping us avoid potentially damaging tech habits. If you struggle with these things, team up with a friend to help each other keep tabs on things. Consciously prioritising real-life experiences with friends and keeping perspective on how people use social media will ultimately ensure healthier relationships with our phones.


Did you find this post useful? If so, share it with friends or family you think might find it interesting. Are there any other techniques you use? We’d love to hear about them at [email protected]!