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Who’s the Tool? You or Your Smartphone?

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Who doesn’t love their bedroom? I know I do. That feeling of sinking into my bed, getting under the covers, letting the day wash away, knowing I have another shot at a good day tomorrow. If you love your bedroom as a lovely escape, an erogenous zone, and/or simply a safe place for some much-needed rest, it seems odd to let something ruin it. Recently someone asked me if I keep my cellphone with me at night. I presume it’s because I’ve got a bit of a reputation for obsessing about focus, attention, and intentionality.

My answer is yes, with a giant caveat. I now allow my cellphone in my bedroom because I know I can trust myself to control my cellphone use. I have built very clear boundaries about cellphone use in various parts of my life (and the lives of my children) that include no web surfing, social media, or YouTube watching in bed at night, nor first thing in the morning. At this point, I know I can trust myself to follow those rules. At the same time, I know a lot of people who can’t (in part because I was one of them), who know they will use their phone if it is next to them, who won’t be able to resist one last swipety-swipe down the screen liking everything before they turn out the light. They need different boundaries, such as don’t put your cellphone in your bedroom (which was where this journey began for me).

Why? The simple answer is: Because it isn’t good for you. There is a ton of research on why, from a Harvard study on the blue light powering our screens and its impact on melatonin and natural sleep cycles preventing a good night’s rest to the dopamine hit you get with each like so you keep checking back for more to the simple problem that it keeps you from unplugging from work or other life worries and drama to the many things we don’t yet know about the impact that these incredibly powerful and constantly-used devices have on our bodies and minds.

I think about the addictive nature of cellphones. I use my relationship with alcohol as a model. As a functioning adult, I don’t wake up and have three glasses of wine with breakfast before work, even though I could. I know this would be bad for me, for my work, for my family, and beyond. I have rules for myself, and I follow them. We all know there are millions of advertising dollars being spent to feed all of us different takes on “drink wine” and “drink more wine” and “drink some wine right now” and “have a Bloody Mary since it’s morning.” I know it is everywhere I turn. 

Similarly, there are millions, if not billions, of dollars being spent by the brightest minds out there to encourage all of us to use our cellphones for everything. They seem to have an endless capacity to make our lives easier, more organized, more entertained, and to keep us more connected to other people’s devices. But notice it’s more about device to device or device to content connection than it is about actual human connection.

Of course, millions of dollars are also being spent to make sure I don’t put down my phone, and neither do you or your children. Technology companies are working hard to create and maintain an addictive relationship between people and their smartphones, to keep us checking back all day long, for many upwards of hundreds of times a day. Some of this is maintained through social FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which can be translated to phones to Nomophobia, meaning NO MObile PHOne phobia. One 2015 study of 100+ Midwestern undergrads found that cellphone separation had significant negative impact on cognition and emotion. 

If you could only read one article on how Silicon Valley is deliberately addicting all of us to our phones, check out “The Binge Breaker” in The Atlantic, featuring Tristan Harris, who once worked for Google. Harris says, “That itch to glance at our phone is a natural reaction to apps and websites engineered to get us scrolling as frequently as possible. The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem. You could say that it’s my responsibility to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage,’ he explains, ‘but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.’ In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.”

Forgive me for being dramatic, but this is a battle. And, to have any chance of winning, the first step needs to be an awareness it’s occurring. I don’t know about you, but I know I’m not equipped by default to face off against some of the brightest minds in the world and piles of corporate dollars devoted to R&D to understand how to manipulate my human behavior and my brain chemistry as it relates to my now essential smartphone. The corporations are doing their job – maxing out their share price by developing customer addiction. Rest assured, they are not concerned about any other impacts. I can hear the defense now: “Smartphones don’t kill people in car accidents, people (using smartphones) kill people.” This argument has baffled me with regard to guns, just as it will with smartphones. In this battle, it’s me, you, our kids, and other individuals who need to defend ourselves.  

Am I saying smartphones are the new cigarettes? No, not exactly, but kinda. Because while cigarettes have zero value and smartphones have immense value, I’m deeply concerned about brain re-wiring taking place and the potential degradation of the human ability to focus. We need to understand and control the downside as we look to capitalize on the upside.

So, why would I spend my last waking moments and my first waking moments of the day in front of a device that prevents a good night’s rest, alters my brain chemistry and my mind’s reward systems, and is designed to get me hooked and sell me stuff? Why wouldn’t I limit the number of my precious 168 weekly hours I spend on my device? 

As I tell my team and my students: If I don’t manage my cellphone use, then I am just ceding control of my mind to others while they stuff their pockets with money. If I don’t pay attention and set effective rules for myself (just like no drinking wine before work), and if I don’t follow those rules, I am allowing myself to be victimized. This is a serious addiction that we're still just beginning to understand, and its consequences may run parallel, or even far deeper, than cigarettes and booze.

So, what to do about it? First, if you know you are totally addicted to your phone or if you aren’t sure but you check it 150 times a day, seeking the thumbs ups and counting your likes, STOP. Seriously. Save yourself. Get real. Recognize what’s happening. You are a pawn in someone else’s big game.

Come up with a plan, a personal system, to manage your smartphone use. Make your smartphone your tool, not the other way around. And then, let’s start winning this battle.


1) If you have read this far, read Catherine Price's How to Break Up with Your Phone.

2) Learn how to use screen time and downtime on your iPhone, or Android dashboard.


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