These days wherever people go, they have a smartphone with them. Most adults spend part of their day looking at or tapping away on their phones, whether it’s texting, tweeting, or watching funny animal videos. Smartphones have become a constant accessory in our everyday lives.
This is especially true for parents of school-aged children.
At least one parent needs to be accessible at all times. For instance, if your child gets ill, the school needs to reach you immediately. The best way to make sure you receive a potential call is to keep your phone on you during school hours, even though most days, they don’t call.
But, does this trend to always be reachable have a downside?
Consequences of Always Being Accessible
Whether you’re running errands, working at home, at the office, or the park with your children, we have our phones with us all the time.
Access to our smartphones can be helpful. We can quickly Google the answer to any question our kids ask us. We can take pictures of them achieving firsts on the playground or photos of nature they find fascinating. We can call someone if an emergency arises like a car that won’t start. We can quickly check what our family and friends are doing on social media while waiting at an appointment.
But, are there negative consequences to always having our smartphones with us?
While smartphones can help increase our productivity, these devices can also interfere with our day-to-day activities both at work and at home. We get distracted when a notification ding’s and we feel the need to check it even when we are in the middle of a task.
We might end up feeling more distracted in our everyday life as we try to balance our tasks while still staying up-to-date with family and friends.
Lastly, it’s hard to truly have a break from everything if you’re expected to always have your phone with all its capabilities on you. You can’t ever really have time to yourself without the potential of being interrupted.
Research on Smartphones and Attention
It feels like every few weeks, some news or media outlet is discussing how smartphones are destroying our attention. But is this true?
To date, science doesn’t have a firm answer. Research on smartphones has to rely on quasi-experimental, correlational, and self-report methods for the most part. These types of research can only show correlation and not causality.
However, as more studies are conducted, research will be able to draw more specific conclusions with time.
At present, there is some suggestion that smartphones may impact aspects of our attention, including focused attention and sustained attention. Focused attention is our ability to attend to one source of information and ignore everything else. Sustained attention is our ability to keep that focused attention going over a period of time.
There may be a correlation between interrupted focused and sustained attention and smartphone use. Stothart and colleagues found that smartphone notifications interfered with participant’s performance on tasks demanding attention, even if they didn’t look at the notification. Thornton and colleagues found that the simple presence of a smartphone was enough to disrupt people’s attention, especially on more demanding tasks.
So what does this mean?
A review of the literature by Wilmer and colleagues explored the two main ways to date smartphones may interrupt our attention and productivity—endogenous and exogenous interruptions.
Endogenous interruptions are occasions when our thoughts drift to smartphone-related activity. For instance, you’re working on a task at work or paying bills. Suddenly, instead of focusing on that task, you’re wondering if friends have posted anything fun on Facebook. In this case, our phone didn’t do anything to distract us; our internal thoughts simply drifted to fun phone activities.
Exogenous interruptions, however, are those times when an external event or cue interrupts us and captures our attention. You might receive a ding that a new text message arrived or a beep that someone posted something on Facebook. These types of interruptions still impact your flow and attention, even if you don’t pick up your phone to look at the notification.
What does this imply for our everyday lives, especially if we need to have our phones with us?
Balancing and Being Accessible Without the Negative Consequences
Being available overall is an advantage. We have access to help at all times. But overuse of our smartphones and never getting a break from technology can also be wearing.
There is a way to find a balance between having all the benefits of your smartphone while minimizing the negatives.
The key is to develop smart habits and set boundaries for your smartphone use. What these habits and boundaries look like will depend on each person’s unique situation. Fortunately, there’s no right or wrong.
Please see some of our other articles “Do You Know Someone With A Smartphone Anxiety Disorder?” and “Best Music Apps to Keep You Motivated to Exercise.”
Identify How You Currently Use Your Smartphone
First, identify how you use your phone. Ideally, you’ll want to record how often you use your phone, what you use it for (work, text, games, social media, etc.), and when you use it. Smartphones, both iPhones and Androids, come with a Screen Time function that will track how you are using your phone, which can help you in this phase.
During this phase, don’t judge yourself. Record your usage honestly, whether you’re reaching for your phone because you’re bored, stressed, or procrastinating. Maybe you use it to reward yourself for completing a tough task.
After recording how you use your phone over several days (a week would be ideal), identify how you feel about your use. Do you use it more than you expected? Do you feel it’s interfering with your daily life? Be honest. This information is to help you. You don’t have to share it.
If you found your phone did distract you at times, identify whether it was due to your mind wandering towards thoughts of your phone versus notifications interrupting you. This information will help you identify strategies so you can minimize being distracted by your phone.
Strategies to Help Manage Smartphone Use
Not all of these strategies will help everyone, and that’s okay. Find what works for you and ignore the ones that don’t help you. As you begin to incorporate new techniques, remember you’re establishing new habits and setting boundaries. This process takes time. With practice, your new habits will become easier.
- If you have to have your phone with you at all times, keep it out of your sight. If you’re at home, put it in another room with the ringer on. If you’re away from the house, put it in your purse or briefcase. When you get to your destination, don’t take it out. Have the volume on so you can hear it if you receive a potentially important phone call.
- If you need to be reachable, let the people who would contact you know to call your smartphone, not other methods like texts. This technique allows you to ignore all other notifications that you might receive. The only information that would signal an emergency is a phone call. You can also assign people with a unique ringtone as a way to screen calls.
- Schedule set times to check texts and emails. This strategy is especially helpful if you look at your phone repeatedly throughout the day, even if you didn’t receive a notification. By establishing set times, you’ll train yourself to look at your phone less often. This technique can also help if you find your mind wandering to your phone while you’re doing other tasks. At those times, remind yourself you’ll look later.
- If you feel you overuse your phone for games or social media, schedule set times to use those apps. This can be hard because games and social media apps are highly rewarding to use. If you find yourself constantly using or thinking of them instead of working, then you may want to limit your use. If setting a limit doesn’t help, you may want to consider deleting the apps from your phone for a while.
- Take a break from your phone. Even if you need to be accessible most of the time, see if there is a time or day of the week where you don’t need to be reached. For instance, schools don’t need to contact parents on the weekend. You can run an errand and leave your phone at home. Take a walk or bike ride without your phone. You can turn your phone off, put it in a drawer, and do something fun for you.
- Turn off notifications.
- Remove unnecessary apps.
Getting the Most Out of Your Phone Without the Distractions
Smartphones provide us with many benefits. However, sometimes, these tools can also contribute to distracting us or reducing our productivity.
We can find a balance, even if we need to be accessible most of the time. To find the balance that works for us, we need to learn how our use of smartphones helps us and be honest about our overuse. This will allow us to use the proper strategies so we get the most out of our phones without the negative consequences.
- Interfere = ttps://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352853217300159
- Stothart and colleagues= https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26121498
- Thornton and colleagues= https://econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/abs/10.1027/1864-9335/a000216?journalCode=zsp&
- Wilmer and colleagues = https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5403814/