The moment Catherine Price realised her relationship with her phone was “toxic” – despite it being “normal” – was shortly after she had a newborn baby.
The American science journalist, founder of Screen/Life Balance and New York Times bestselling author of How to Break Up With Your Phone realised her daughter was looking up at her, and she was looking at her feed.
“I saw that moment as it would appear to someone on the outside. It’s not how I wanted to be interacting with my daughter, or modelling for her,” Price said.
In the third instalment of Dominic Bowden’s WellBeings podcast, she explained how phones are hijacking our dopamine, our attention-spans, and our time for the things that bring us joy – and how to fight back.
“I think everyone can relate to the question: Who is in control, you or the phone?” podcast host Bowden said.
Before the pandemic, the average person was spending four hours a day on their phones (not accounting for any other type of screen), said Price. That’s 60 full 24-hour days a year, or about a quarter of your waking life.
Ask yourself: Is that intentional?
A number of factors fuel our addition to our phones, Price said, so don’t blame yourself for losing this battle. Essentially, you’re fighting your own biochemistry.
Firstly, you’re up against app developers who engineer their products to hold attention, because that’s how they make money.
“The more time you spend on Facebook, or the apps it owns like WhatsApp or Instagram, the more time it has to show you ads, and gather data on you, so it can show you more targeted ads in future.
“Every minute you spend online is a minute you spend making money for someone else,” Price said.
Number two: We keep phones in our pockets. Any addiction specialist will tell you ease of access is a big hurdle, Price said.
An alcoholic shouldn’t keep beer in the fridge. Someone quitting smoking shouldn’t keep a pack nearby. But we keep phones at an arm’s length, and a lot of time, scrolling is so habitual that we don’t even realise we’re doing it.
Price recommends putting a rubber band around your phone. That causes you to pause when you reach for it, and to notice you’ve picked it up.
“The next step is to investigate why you picked up your phone. Did you have a purpose? To check your email? To check the news? To call someone?”
Chances are there was an emotional cue, Price said. Maybe you were feeling anxious and wanted soothing; bored and wanted a distraction; or lonely and wanted connection.
Then ask yourself: What else could I do? That could be talking to a friend or coworker nearby, or meditating, stretching, or reading.
“If the answer is you just want to be on your phone, that’s fine. Just be intentional,” Price said.
Developers bake dopamine triggers into design so that when someone looks at their phone, they hardwire their brain to look again and again.
“On our phone, unpredictable rewards are social affirmation in the form of a like or comments. Or the receipt of new information,” Price said.
Price doesn’t think people should ditch their screens completely.
“Screens are enjoyable, useful, and necessary – especially in a Covid-19 world. But most people would admit they don’t feel great about how much time they spend on them,” she said.
Don’t worry, though, there are some practical ways to reduce screen time.
Get a real alarm clock
Most of us sleep with our phones next to our beds, and use them as alarm clocks. That means you have to touch your phone first thing in the morning, before you do anything else.
Using phones before bed also seriously screws with good sleep, because you’re looking at blue light and stimulating content right before you try to rest.
Set physical boundaries
Price charges her phone in a closet. So if she wants to check it after the end of the day, she can, but she has to get up. Creating distance between you and the phone means you’re less likely to doom scroll on the couch, with TV, or a social occasion going on in the background.
You can also designate places like the dinner table as ‘no phone zones’.
Reduce dopamine triggers & ease of access
“Get anything you could lose yourself in off your home screen.”
Yes, that means TikTok. Price doesn’t have email, news apps, or social media on her phone at all.
Try a digital Sabbath
Pick one day each week when you don’t use technology. Friday to Saturday is a good option.
“If that freaks you out, that indicates how much you need it.”
“You’ll feel very twitchy and anxious the first night. But then you’ll be astonished by how time seems to slow down.”