Four guidelines for smart use of smartphones


These days, you can’t go any­where with­out hear­ing about how tech­nol­o­gy is ruin­ing every­thing, includ­ing our hap­pi­ness. There is some truth to this, but it’s not the whole sto­ry.

Tech­nol­o­gy can be bad for us—for exam­ple, when social media gives us FOMO (fear of miss­ing out) or traps us in fil­ter bub­bles that pre­vent us from see­ing mul­ti­ple points of view on impor­tant issues. As a soci­ety, we are increas­ing­ly con­cerned that tech­nolo­gies like smart­phones and social media result in more social com­par­i­son, bul­ly­ing, and loneliness—all stum­bling blocks to hap­pi­ness. Tech­nol­o­gy seems to be bad for our hap­pi­ness when it inter­feres with the men­tal, social, emo­tion­al, and behav­ioral process­es that con­tribute to well-being.

But we often fail to real­ize (and dis­cuss) the ways that tech­nol­o­gy can also sup­port hap­pi­ness and well-being—for exam­ple, when video calls let us talk to peo­ple all over the world or when apps or online arti­cles give us a sense of pur­pose, joy, or excite­ment.

While research­ing my new book, Out­smart Your Smart­phone, I dis­cov­ered many of the ways tech­nol­o­gy can and does hurt our hap­pi­ness. But I also dis­cov­ered many ways tech­nol­o­gy can and does sup­port our hap­pi­ness … espe­cial­ly if we use it in the right man­ner.

If you’re try­ing to lim­it tech­nol­o­gy use for your­self or your kids, don’t for­get about some of its poten­tial ben­e­fits. Here are four research-based ways to spend your time on tech­nol­o­gy that can boost your health, hap­pi­ness, and well-being.

1. Learn new goals and habits

Tech­nol­o­gy has giv­en us access to lots of health and well­ness resources, mak­ing it eas­i­er than ever to build and prac­tice skills like grat­i­tude, mind­ful­ness, and emo­tion reg­u­la­tion online. You can now use apps to do every­thing from track­ing your mood to prac­tic­ing ther­a­peu­tic breath­ing to build­ing resilience.

Although not all well­ness apps are equal­ly effec­tive, research sug­gests that evi­dence-based smart­phone apps can indeed teach us the skills we need to opti­mize our well-being, help us stay moti­vat­ed to do so, and even ben­e­fit our men­tal health. For exam­ple, research is explor­ing the ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness apps, apps deliv­er­ing cog­ni­tive-behav­ioral ther­a­py tech­niques (CBT, the gold stan­dard of ther­a­py), and apps that pre­dict people’s moods and inter­vene with sup­port at just the right time.

In my research, we found that a com­put­er-based train­ing in emo­tion reg­u­la­tion improved anx­i­ety and well-being among those who had trou­ble reg­u­lat­ing their emo­tions, sug­gest­ing that skills that pro­mote hap­pi­ness can be learned online.

2. Engage in activities that promote happiness

Social media is a space where we can con­nect social­ly and engage in kind and help­ful behavior—activities that have been shown to boost health and well-being. For exam­ple, by send­ing mes­sages on social media, we can express a kind word or share our gratitude—Thanks again for lis­ten­ing when I was hav­ing a rough day last week!—anytime we want, with ease, even to peo­ple far away.

A recent study sug­gest­ed that among young peo­ple with symp­toms of depres­sion, social media was very impor­tant for help­ing them express them­selves cre­ative­ly, get inspi­ra­tion from oth­ers, and even feel less lone­ly. A whole 30 per­cent of young peo­ple with ele­vat­ed depres­sion symp­toms say using social media when they’re feel­ing depressed, stressed, or anx­ious usu­al­ly makes them feel bet­ter, while only 22 per­cent say it makes them feel worse.

One par­tic­i­pant shared, “Social media makes me laugh and keeps me dis­tract­ed so that I have time to breathe and col­lect myself.” Anoth­er shared, “It just helps me feel out­side myself for a bit and find inter­est­ing top­ics I’d like to pon­der on.”

While social media does seem to be ben­e­fi­cial for some, it may not be the best strat­e­gy for over­com­ing men­tal health chal­lenges, giv­en cer­tain prob­lem­at­ic habits it might encourage—like com­par­ing our­selves to the seem­ing­ly per­fect lives of our friends and peo­ple we fol­low. But when we use it in con­junc­tion with face-to-face social inter­ac­tions, it does indeed appear to be a use­ful tool for self-expres­sion and social con­nec­tion.

3. Actively engage with your community

It’s true that peo­ple who engage in more pas­sive Face­book use (e.g., scrolling with­out inter­act­ing with oth­ers) tend to be more depressed, one study found. The authors sug­gest that pas­sive­ly using social media might stim­u­late those “upward social com­par­i­son behav­iors,” which can leave peo­ple feel­ing infe­ri­or (I suck!), envi­ous (it’s not fair!), or both.

But peo­ple who use Face­book more active­ly (e.g., lik­ing, com­ment­ing, and post­ing) tend to have low­er lev­els of depres­sion. Over time, they say that they get more pos­i­tive feed­back, likes, and social sup­port from oth­ers, which may con­tribute to their low­er depres­sive symp­toms.

This sug­gests that cer­tain ways of engag­ing with oth­ers online may be good for us, per­haps because they involve social con­nec­tion rather than social com­par­i­son. By reach­ing out to oth­ers, engag­ing in mean­ing­ful social inter­ac­tions, and strength­en­ing our social bonds, we can like­ly improve our well-being online.

4. Find health-related information and stories

As we all strive to take care of our minds and bod­ies, a full 80 per­cent of young adults have gone online for health infor­ma­tion. Indeed, we may use the Inter­net to learn about health and well­ness chal­lenges, read oth­ers’ health-relat­ed sto­ries, or seek out a well­ness prac­ti­tion­er. Research sug­gests that, by doing so, we may be able to feel more con­fi­dent in our deci­sions and improve our com­mu­ni­ca­tion with health providers.

Using the Inter­net in these ways may be impor­tant for those strug­gling with men­tal health issues like depres­sion. For exam­ple, one par­tic­i­pant says, “I have watched sev­er­al peo­ple detail their fit­ness rou­tines and how they used it to beat men­tal health dis­or­ders such as body dys­mor­phia and those affect­ed by obe­si­ty and food addic­tion.”

In fact, 90 per­cent of young peo­ple with depres­sion have gone online seek­ing infor­ma­tion about men­tal health issues. Although we need more research to under­stand how they use this infor­ma­tion, it does seem that the Inter­net is one more avenue where peo­ple in need seek out sup­port. By giv­ing us access to infor­ma­tion about health, men­tal health, and well-being, tech­nol­o­gy enables us all to more eas­i­ly seek out and dis­cov­er the well­ness strate­gies we need.

How­ev­er, for the Inter­net to be a use­ful tool to find health infor­ma­tion, it’s impor­tant to also increase our health literacy—namely, by ensur­ing peo­ple know which web­sites to trust, how to iden­ti­fy their health chal­lenges accu­rate­ly, and how to apply the infor­ma­tion they dis­cov­er.

Technology—the Inter­net, smart­phones, and social media—can hurt our hap­pi­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly if we let it inter­fere with or pull us away from face-to-face inter­ac­tions.

But, if we’re thought­ful about how we use tech­nol­o­gy, it also has the poten­tial to make us hap­pi­er. So we don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly need to get rid of our phones and com­put­ers or go on a full dig­i­tal detox. Devel­op­ers just need to be thought­ful about build­ing tech­nol­o­gy, and we need to be thought­ful about using it, in ways that pro­mote hap­pi­ness.

– This essay is adapt­ed from Out­smart Your Smart­phone: Con­scious Tech Habits for Find­ing Hap­pi­ness, Bal­ance, and Con­nec­tion IRL (New Har­bin­ger, 2019, 200 pages) by Tchi­ki Davis, MA, PhD, a well-being-tech­nol­o­gy expert and con­trib­u­tor to the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

Tips in Context:

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Technology

Tags: boost your health, CBT, cognitive-behavioral-therapy, depression, digital detox, emotion regulation, Facebook, Gratitude, happiness, mental health challenges, mindfulness, resilience, smartphones, social-media, technology, well-being, wellness apps

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