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Girl using a smartphone

Feeling unsatisfied with life? Why you should put down your phone

‘That phone must be glued to your hand!’ ‘Why don’t you join us in the real world?’ ‘You’re being so antisocial…’

Do any of these comments feel familiar? If you’re hearing things like this from friends and family on a regular basis, their statements might carry a lot more gravity than just a teasing joke. Have you ever thought you might be happier if you spent a little less time on your phone? Science is starting to suggest so.

Dr Sharon Horwood, a Lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Psychology, lead a research project that has confirmed that problematic smartphone use is linked to lower wellbeing.

‘There’s a constant stream of news and entertainment in our life now, and if that content is not necessarily positive it might be contributing to technological overload or techno-exhaustion,’ Dr Horwood says.

If you’re constantly reaching for your phone to passively scroll through social media or to seek entertainment when you’re bored, you could be jeopardising the parts of your life that actually contribute to your wellbeing.

How can we define ‘problematic smartphone use’?

Problematic smartphone usage is defined as ‘compulsive usage that leads to impaired daily functioning in terms of productivity, social relationships, physical health, or emotional well-being,’ in Dr Horwood’s research article.

According to Dr Horwood, this is related to four main areas:

  • how much control you feel you have over your phone use
  • whether your smartphone interferes with your day-to-day life, such as work and study
  • whether your phone obstructs positive relationships with others
  • whether you use your smartphone as a remedy for boredom and lack of personal growth.

In other words, you’re basically picking up your smartphone as a way to hang up on other aspects of your life. For example, the act of ‘phubbing’ (phone snubbing) is one element of problematic smartphone use, where you ignore those around you in favour of your phone.

Dr Horwood also says that habitual or compulsive smartphone use – whether that’s using your phone to relax, escape or pass the time – are the best predictors of lower wellbeing.

‘The question is, does using your smartphone in a problematic way lower wellbeing, or is someone whose wellbeing is low for other reasons more likely to turn to their smartphone for comfort, distraction, or perhaps escapism?’ she says.

'There’s a constant stream of news and entertainment in our life now, and if that content is not necessarily positive it might be contributing to technological overload or techno-exhaustion.'

Dr Sharon Horwood,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

How can it affect your wellbeing?

Dr Horwood describes the factors that come together to create a good life as, ‘positive social relationships, a sense of personal growth, autonomy, and having a sense of control over one’s life.’ These are all the various parts of your life at risk if you’re a problematic smartphone user.

‘While smartphone use is unrelated to people’s overall life satisfaction, it is associated with mood and these broader indicators of human flourishing,’ Dr Horwood explains.

‘Wellbeing is about feeling satisfied with your life, managing day-to-day activities, and positive relationships. Problematic smart phone use impacts on all those things.’ It’s linked with feeling negative emotions, a reduced sense of purpose for life, and an impacted ability to resist social pressure.

As smartphones become more pervasive in society, especially in teenagers and primary school students, Dr Horwood says, ‘that exposure can have lots of potential negative effects including cyber bullying, anxiety and depression, sedentary behaviour, low body image, and family conflict.’

Dr Horwood notes that smartphone use shouldn’t be completely condemned though.

‘For what we term “communication use” – calls and text messages – there’s a slight positive association with wellbeing,’ she said. ‘Using phones to facilitate a direct connection with people seems to be good, as opposed to passively looking at what people are doing on social media.’

How can you avoid problematic smartphone use?

Dr Horwood’s tips for maintaining healthy smartphone use are to:

  • Turn off all non-essential notifications so your phone isn’t constantly interrupting you.
  • Set aside a block of time per day to look at your social media feeds, if that’s what typically distracts you.
  • Use the screen time functions on your phone to set limits on daily phone use.
  • To improve your sleep quality, don’t keep your phone beside your bed at night. Preferably charge it in a different room.
  • If you find your socialising is restricted to your smartphone, aim to build daily interactions with people in real life.
  • Try to get up and move more throughout the day to reduce sedentary behaviour and improve your mental wellbeing.

For more strategies for managing screen time from Dr Horwood, check out BlackScreens.

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Dr Sharon Horwood
Dr Sharon Horwood

Lecturer, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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