Spending too much time on your phone? Behavioral science has an app for that

We’re squandering increasing amounts of time distracted by our phones. And that’s taking a serious toll on our mental and physical well-being.

In 2017, U.S. adults spent an average of three hours and 20 minutes a day using their smartphones and tablets. This is double the amount from just five years ago, according to an annual survey of internet trends. Another survey suggests most of that time is spent on arguably unproductive activities like Facebook, gaming and other types of social media.

This is bad news because research by myself and others shows that excessive technology use is linked to depression, accidents and even death.

Perhaps ironically, software developers themselves have been on the forefront of efforts to solve this problem by creating apps that aim to help users disconnect from their devices. Some apps reward or even “punish” you for staying off your phone for set periods of time. Others block you from accessing certain sites or activities altogether.

But what makes some of them work better than others? Behavioral science, my area of expertise, can shed some light.

The more we have access to on our phones, the more people drive distracted. AP Photo/LM Otero

Why we need help

Technology is meant to be addictive. And a society that is “mobile dependent” has a hard time spending even minutes away from their app-enabled smartphones.

This addiction has consequences.

The most serious, of course, is when it leads to fatalities, like those that result from distracted driving or even taking selfies.

But it also takes a serious toll on our mental health, as my own research has demonstrated. One experiment I conducted with a colleague found that looking at Facebook profiles of people having fun at parties made new college students feel like they didn’t belong. Another study suggested that people who spent more time using social media were less happy.

Ultimately, our phones’ constant connection to the internet – and our constant connection to our phones – means that we miss out on bonding with those that we care about most, lowering everyone’s happiness in the process.

Trying to unplug

The good news is that most of us aren’t oblivious to the negative effects of technology and have a strong desire to disconnect.

As you might expect in a market economy, businesses are doing their best to give us what we want. Examples include a Brooklyn-based startup selling bare-bones phones without an internet connection, hotels offering families discounts if they give up their mobiles during their stay, and resorts creating packages built on the idea of creating sacred spaces where consumers leave their devices at home.

And app developers have also risen to the challenge with software aimed at helping us use our phones less. Behavioral science research offers some insights into what features you should look for in a productivity app.

Why sleep when you can scroll through Instagram instead? WeAre/Shutterstock.com

Goal setting is key

Research suggests that you should download applications that ask you to set specific goals that are tied to concrete actions. Making commitments upfront can be a powerful motivator, even more so than financial incentives.