Why Your Phone is Not the Enemy

Fab Giovanetti

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How to bring mindfulness into your screen time

Digital detoxes, minimalism and boundaries are a big topic of conversation these days — something I feel strongly about, primarily but not exclusively because I have written a book on the matter.

The real question we should start asking ourselves is whether our phone is the real enemy here.

Rather than going cold turkey or fighting against the finely calibrated, billion-dollar barrage of demands for our attention that ping up on our phones, we need to know how to strike a healthier balance with our devices.

I was very excited to enlist the help of journalist, author, and tech lover Becca Caddy to investigate the effects of technology on our well-being for the publication of her book, Screen Time.

Passive vs active scrolling

There’s a considerable debate about how using our tech affects our mental health. 

Some people think it’s terrible for us or people that think it’s not that bad. There’s this nuance in the middle: “It’s a lot to do with us, what we’re doing on our devices, specific apps. I kept coming across the difference between when you scroll passively, and the mental health effects of that compared to when you’re active. “

That simple switch between passive and active scrolling can drastically change how we feel about interacting with our devices.

If we can understand how our phones affect every area of our lives, from our concentration to our body image, then we can start making the small shifts that will add up to ensure our technology is working for us, not the other way around.

Negative mental health effects could often be associated with passive behaviour: awareness can help better understand the reasons behind behaviours, whether scrolling, checking notifications, or anything else.

“I don’t think the answer is always to be actively doing — yet if I’m in a bad mood, I can bring awareness to how scrolling is making me feels, and I go do something else. That was something that shocked me because I could just see myself in it.”

Another strong feeling linked to our phone usage is the one of comparison and how we relate with what we see online: “comparison is by far one of the tendencies we are drawn to when looking at our consumption of online information”.

In her book, Screen Time, she mentions one study stating that it’s not people we feel close to or celebrity that we compare ourselves with the most. People on our periphery, our acquaintances, are the ones we compare ourselves to the most.

Becca also mentions how we don’t just compare ourselves negatively to others, but also positively based on other people’s misfortunes: “I realised how many facets there are to comparison. I didn’t know that before I started the research for the book.”

Are we addicted to tech?

According to Becca’s research, people who look at data obsessively can have perfectionist tendencies: “in the book, I write about disordered eating, and how that can be perpetuated by using certain tech and tracking.”

In an article she wrote for Wired, she mentions a study showing people who use many fitness tracking techs and how they might have more kind of disordered eating tendencies. “That could be because they’re more attracted to tracking things all the time, so it’s not that the app or the device has caused it”, she continues. “I think that’s important, and it came up so much in the book. At one point, I had to take some mentions out — it was on every fourth page!”

She is talking about the concept of causation vs correlation.

“I think there’s more responsibility on the companies to look into the implications”, she admits. Yet, we can also do something to bring more awareness to our behaviours, especially when it comes to wearable technology and our relationship with it.

“I think that just taking a day off now and again can be helpful. Just to prove to yourself that you don’t need to be tracking your sleep every night. I have even to tell myself this because I love seeing data, and graphs and all this.”

Knowing that you don’t have to do it all the time this a massive step towards heightened awareness. Another simple tool to help is setting up better boundaries, generally.

“People are so overwhelmed. Everything has been happening online, for the past year, in more ways than ever before.”

So many people are people pleasers and worried about what will happen if they miss something: “I know people that look at their emails all the time because they struggle for work. There are external pressures as well playing a part”.

Becca talks a lot about courage when it comes to making those types of decisions. Courage can mean various things: maybe courage to say no, or courage to accept some of our coping mechanisms to deal with uncertainty and mental health struggles through technology.

We can reframe boundaries as something that we do for ourselves by changing our mindset and allowing ourselves to slack without having to go cold turkey or embark on digital detoxes every month.

“Things are still uncertain as everyone’s mental health has been shaken. I’m going to allow myself to keep scrolling for a bit if I want to. I found that when I have that acceptance and awareness, I do start to make changes. By being aware, you accept your responses to situations, and the next step is taking action.”

Reframing our relationship with technology 

Your phone, your watch or your laptop are not the enemies. Right now, we are pointing fingers at our phones; in ten years, it may be VR.

Forget aiming for inbox zero and screen-free days.

The best way for offline and online to coexist is to understand what makes us feel good. Adapting to that instead of just treating it as a coping mechanism that doesn’t make us feel any better brings the power back into our hands.

Learn to reassess your relationship with your phone on your terms, spotting what works for you and what doesn’t. Your phone? Your rules.

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