There are some pretty boisterous claims made about smartphones – with one writer claming that smartphones have ‘destroyed a generation’. Whether you agree with this claim or not, there is no doubt that the way we use our smartphones can have a positive, or negative, effect on our wellbeing.
This can, at times, lead to shameful feelings and worry that we’re spending too much time connected to our devices. We’re definitely not alone in worrying about our phone habits; smartphones are a right old contentious issue these days, especially when it comes to their effect on our mental health.
Lots of people have looked at smartphone addiction, and, while you can’t become physically addicted to your phone – it seems that we can, and often do, become addicted to some of the behaviours surrounding our phone usage.
This is hardly surprisingly – the apps on our phones were specifically designed to be addictive. You know what it’s like to pick up your phone and see lots of little red notification bubbles. They jump out at you, effectively shouting ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ You can only get rid of them by tapping the app, and, once you do that, you pretty likely to start playing the game, or scrolling through the feed.
Similarly, the pull-to-refresh function on apps – where you swipe down at the top of the screen and wait for the app to refresh – can feel addictive. There’s a sense of anticipation – what will pop up next? There’s even a scary name for this kind of app design amongst tech people: Brain Hacking.
But, when depression is kicking our butts, and we can’t get out of bed, or leave the house, our smartphones are a life-line, quite literally sometimes. Our phones allow us to reach out to people from our bed, offering a huge variety of platforms to talk on. We can text or Whatsapp our friends, or we can visit a favourite forum to connect to people we identify with. Our smartphones can help us feel less isolated, which is so important when we’re trying to cope with depression. If we feel like we are getting to crisis point, we can use our phones to contact support services such as the Samaritans, or we can call our care team, or for an ambulance. In these times, our phones are invaluable.
Often with depression, we need to distract ourselves from our thoughts, and smartphones enable us to do this. We can play games on our phone, read books, listen to a podcast, use a meditation app – the possibilities are limitless. When we are depressed, our smartphones can help us feel more engaged, and can distract us from scary thoughts, and pain.
Whether you worry about using your phone too much, or not, there are a few things you can do to make sure that your smartphone is helping your mental health, rather than hindering it:
It can help to know just how much we are using our phones, and why. We can then make educated decisions surrounding whether we’re happy with that, or not. We all use our phones for different reasons and so this is far from an exercise in self-shaming, it’s to equip us with knowledge to help us to be more mindful going forward. There are lots of different apps you can use to track the time spent on your phone. Moment is a good one for IOS, and QualityTime is useful for Android.
If you need a more reward-based method, the Forest app allows you to set designated times for not checking your phone, and, as long as you don’t fiddle with your phone during these times, you will grow a virtual forest. Sounds slightly weird, we know – but it really can help.
Delete Some Apps
We know that there’s a certain irony about downloading apps to help us use our phones less, but it’s all about being more mindful about the things we do with our smartphones, and how we want to use them. Along these lines, deleting some apps can help make our phones work better for us. We’ve all likely got a few apps that we’ve downloaded and used once, but now just sit there on our smartphone, sending us notifications and adding to the electronic noise. There’s no point them being there, so we could delete them.
Unfortunately, (and frustratingly!) some of the apps that come pre-installed on our phone can’t be deleted. What we can do though, is collect them all into one folder and move them off our home screen(s), out of sight. We can then even go ahead and group the apps that we have left on our phones, into different folders: entertainment, music, games, social, etc. This will leave our screens looking a lot less cluttered, and restricts the amount of notifications we see – making them easier to ignore.
An app we might consider deleting, is our email app, especially if it’s connected to our work emails. It’s really hard not to get pulled into work matters when we’re accessible 24/7 and it becomes the expectation that we’ll deal with things as they arise, rather than during our contracted work hours. Setting boundaries around when we’re working, and when we’re not, is really good self-care.
Turn Off Alerts
If we go to the settings on our smartphone, we should find an option that lets us select which apps send notifications. We would advise turning off the majority of these because in doing so, we then get to choose when we’ll check-in. We don’t need to know immediately when someone pins something from our Pinterest board, or that we’ve been tagged in another cat video on Facebook. These alerts ping away all day long, flooding us with a stream of notifications that we just have to look at straight away, lest we miss out on something important. It is rarely that important, or worth interrupting our day, or train of thought for.
When we turn off alerts, we take back control. It’s a decision that we will check in and communicate when it works for us, not when a ‘ping’ and a notification pulls us in.
Facebook has a tool called ‘On This Day’ where it will send you a round-up of all the posts you’ve made historically, on the given date, and those of your friends. Tread carefully with this one. We might find that we’re being reminded of past relationships, of things we’d rather forget, or, of times which feel light years from where we are now that depression has us in its grip.
The settings can be changed here – you can choose to turn the notifications off or to filter the memories by date, and/or people.
Be Aware on Social Media
Scrolling through social media when we’re suffering with depression, or even just having a down day, can makes feel worse. Social media is full of highlights and hustle. Everyone looks like they’re having much more fun than we are; that they have more friends than we do; that they are much happier than we are. We start to compare ourselves, and our lives to these pictures – and inevitably find ourselves lacking. It’s easy to forget that we are looking at series of highlight reels. We don’t tend to post pictures of the panic attack we had before leaving the house, but we will post a picture of ourselves sitting in park an hour later. We can’t compare ourselves to the picture we see on social media, because those pictures don’t present the truth, only one side of life (and an edited on, at that).
We can make our social media feeds better. Go through the accounts you follow and make sure you’re only following people who make you feel good. Don’t be afraid to use that ‘Unfollow’ button – it feels deliciously freeing! If you feel like you can’t unfriend or unfollow someone completely (a family member perhaps), then you can mute the person so you don’t see their updates. Look for new people to follow who inspire and encourage you. It’s your feed, make it how you want it.
There’s no getting away from it, our smartphones can be as handy as they can be a hindrance. Since this is the case, it makes sense to edit/consider/tweak how we use them do they work for us, and not against us.
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