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Why you should take a break from your smartphone

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All those beeps and dings are designed to keep you engaged with your tech. But overuse can harm your health. Experts help you design your escape.

Elizabeth Millard

By Elizabeth Millard

Let’s try a quick experiment. Take your smartphone and other dinging devices and place them in another room. If you’re reading this on your phone, resist the urge to click on other apps or notifications while you’re here.

If you get a pang of panic being away from your device, you’re not alone. According to the tech company Asurion, Americans check their phones 96 times a day on average. (That’s once every 10 minutes.) And it’s common to feel anxiety or fear when you’re not connected. So common, in fact, that experts came up with a new term for it: nomophobia (NO MObile PHOne phoBIA).

A study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that people had physical effects when separated from their smartphones. These included anxiety, changes in their breathing, trembling, perspiration, agitation and a rapid heartbeat.

Besides the fear of not having a phone on you, there are other not-so-great health impacts of being too connected. Research has found a link between smartphone overuse and poor sleep, difficulty learning and feelings of loneliness, to name a few. Excessive use may even change the structure of our brains, according to a 2020 study in Addictive Behaviors.

Technology isn’t all bad. It saves us time and helps us access information easily and communicate with friends, family and colleagues near and far. It can even help you save money. Our free discount prescription card, for instance, is available online. You can use it at the pharmacy to save up to 80% on your medications.

That said, it's important to be mindful of what technology might be displacing, says Julian Lagoy, MD. He’s a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health based in San Jose, California.

"If you find that tech use, especially social media, is taking away from other productive activities like socializing, quality time with family and exercise, then this is a problem,” Dr. Lagoy says.

Whether you’re feeling negative effects or not, taking a break from tech can help you understand how it factors into your life — and how you really want to spend that time. Use these tips to create your own reset.

Expert-backed ways to take a tech break

We asked experts for their tips on how to develop a healthy relationship with technology. And no, none of them involves throwing your phone off a bridge or living off the grid. Here’s what they had to say.

Swap in fun activities

White-knuckling your way through a tech break can make it feel less like a vacation and more like work. Dr. Lagoy suggests replacing time spent on social media with other activities you enjoy or that are a more productive use of your time. This could mean trying a local dance class, exploring a state park you haven’t seen yet or just treating your dog (and yourself) to an extra-long walk.

Getting out in the fresh air tends to be particularly valuable if your tech has made you feel restless or anxious. A 2020 study found that even viewing green space from your window can lower depression and loneliness and increase life satisfaction.

Take micro breaks

Not ready for hours or days of unplugging? Start with one meal. Dr. Lagoy says giving friends and family your full attention when having lunch or dinner can make a big difference. Or try taking short breaks from your routine, such as not looking at your phone first thing in the morning or right before bedtime.

“These small steps help,” Dr. Lagoy says. “Research shows that starting with small changes has a higher likelihood of overall success compared to starting with big changes like a complete tech break. In the end, it may help prevent addiction to social media and technology.”

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Write down your reasons

The research here provides some good starting points for understanding why you should take a tech break. But knowing your own personal reasons can make it easier to set realistic goals, says Hannah Paull. She’s a psychologist at Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta.

“With awareness comes choice,” she says. “The first step is to become aware of how your use of technology and social media is negatively affecting your mental health. The second step is to decide why making the change is worth it and what goals you hope to achieve by creating new habits.”

Use tech to power down

It may seem counterproductive to use technology to limit your screen time, but your devices have some handy tools to set boundaries, says Paull. For example, smartphones have settings that let you disable notifications, which means you won’t hear buzzing and beeping as often. You can also set your device to “airplane mode” when not in use to cut off all communication.

Non-smart technologies can help, too. For some, wearing a watch or using an alarm clock other than their phone’s alarm is enough to prevent overuse. Or schedule time on your Google or Outlook calendar to be without your phone.

It doesn’t matter how or for how long you take a break. What counts is that you are in control of your technology — not the other way around.

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Additional sources
Smartphone use and anxiety:
Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care (2019). “NOMOPHOBIA: NO MObile PHone PhoBIA”
Smartphone addiction and our brains: Addictive Behaviors (2020). “Structural and functional correlates of smartphone addiction”