10 mins read

How to use your phone less


Parenting is hard. Sometimes parenting is so challenging that, by comparison, your smartphone becomes an easy escape.

And even if you’d like to use your phone less, it’s hard to make a plan amid the daily grind of parenting tasks and obligations.

After all, who wouldn’t rather watch TikToks of the latest viral dance instead of listening to siblings bicker? The list of alternatives goes on and on. You could be checking sports scores, answering one last work email, shopping, finishing the grocery list, browsing itineraries for a solo vacation, texting a friend.

At some point, though, your phone can become a crutch for coping with hard feelings and situations. Too much screen time can also feel alienating for both you and your child.

If that’s the case, don’t feel guilty, because you’re not alone. More than half of parents say they’ve resolved to spend less time on their phone, according to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s national poll of 2,044 parents of children 18 and younger. Parents reported often setting this goal at milestone moments, like the new year, birthdays, or the start of school.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan School of Medicine who conducts research on family screen time, says that parents really shouldn’t blame themselves if they turn to their phones frequently.

“It is hard to disengage from our phones,” Radesky says, noting that the devices are effectively designed to compete for our attention.

Instead of a prolonged guilt trip followed by little to no action, Radesky recommends the following strategies for parents who want to use their phone less:

1. Take stock of how you’re using your phone.

Parenting with a phone in hand can feel like a blur. You might move from handling a lunchbox crisis to looking for a dinner recipe to helping a toddler get their socks on to answering a work Slack message to confirming playdate plans, all within the span of 10 minutes.

Could the dinner recipe and playdate plan confirmation (and possibly work) have waited until your kid got out the door for school? Probably. Did they offer a much-needed distraction or make you feel more efficient? Perhaps.

Or think back to a calmer time of day. Did you take an after-dinner Wordle break from parenting that was supposed to be short but only ended with your child shouting at you to put your phone down?

Neither of these scenarios is inherently wrong, but it’s important to be aware of the dynamics that shape your phone use, says Radesky, who is also co-medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health.

You might look at a screen time report to determine how much time you’re spending on specific apps, messaging platforms, and newsfeeds. Reflect on how these different uses make you feel. Does impulse shopping on Amazon in an effort to soothe your frayed nerves after a child’s meltdown really improve your mood? Only you know the answer.

Developing an awareness of what’s appealing about your phone, and how phone-related activities make you feel, is key to coming up with a plan to ultimately use it less.

2. Pick achievable goals.

Once you have an idea of how you’d like to reduce your phone-based screen time, start with achievable goals.

What’s reasonable will depend on your personality, says Radesky.

A highly pragmatic parent, for example, might realize they’d like to spend one less hour on social media each day. With that equation in mind, they’re able to make a shift in their daily habits.

But another parent who’s feeling less motivated may struggle to immediately reduce their use by 60 minutes. It might be more effective to change the content they’re consuming to something less engaging so that it’s easier to put down their phone.

Radesky warns parents against pursuing a “quick silver bullet” solution, or betting on the hope that if you just reduce screen time, “everything else will just fall into place and improve.”

Instead, plan on your new approach taking effort, with positive change happening over a period of weeks and months.

3. Find other fulfilling things to do.

Whether it feels valid or not, time spent on your phone is giving you something of potential value, even if it’s just a temporary escape.

When you restrict use, Radesky says it’s critical to find fulfilling ways of spending that time. Instead of doomscrolling for 10 minutes, take a quick walk outside, dance to your favorite song, meditate, or read with your child.

If you feel like that newfound time wasn’t well spent, it’s possible you’ll pick up your phone in search of a reliably entertaining, distracting, or gratifying experience.

To avoid that setback becoming a daily occurrence, Radesky recommends that parents think not just about making progress on their screen time report but rather what activities make them feel they had a “good enough” day.

4. Use screen time tools.

If you need additional structure and support as you attempt to reduce phone use, take advantage of screen time tools like the iPhone’s Do Not Disturb and notification summary settings, which let you control and adjust how frequently you’ll be interrupted by text messages, notifications, and phone calls. Android phones have similar controls.

Radesky also recommends timers, whether in your own home or via an app, like Instagram’s daily time limit tool.

At the same time, those measures aren’t surefire, which Radesky understands. Some people may approve exceeding a time limit, or forget they set a timer in the first place, which is why it’s important to have other strategies at the ready.

5. Put a barrier between you and your phone.

One reason phones can be so appealing to parents is because, by design, they encounter little friction when using the device.

By contrast, says Radesky, “parenting kids is full of lots of friction.”

To reduce the chance of instinctively grabbing your phone, introduce some friction: Put a barrier between you and it. This could mean placing it in a zippered pouch, putting it in another room, or turning it off. If you’ve got the stomach for it, try leaving it at home.

Radesky says it may also be helpful to think of how badly technology, social media companies, and advertisers want that phone in your hand so they can market products to you and generate more revenue. They have designed an online ecosystem with the goal of enticing you to stay there as long as possible. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

6. Make a game out of less screen time; come up with a natural reward.

Changing behavior is hard. Inviting friends and family to join you in a low-stakes challenge can make it easier.

You might pair up with a mom friend who also wants to spend less time on her phone. Working together can provide helpful accountability. You can also choose to dedicate some of the time you would’ve spent on your phone to a coffee date with each other as a reward for your collective effort.

If you want to try a family challenge, set reasonable screen time goals for each member and settle on a shared, natural reward upon achieving them. That could be a family movie night or other fun activity, but don’t reward the effort with something disproportionate and high stakes, like a trip to Disneyland. The point is to enjoy the time together that you’ve reclaimed from your collective screens.

7. Be present for your child in the right moments.

If you want to feel like you’re winning as a parent, do your best to be present for your child in the moments they need you most.

That doesn’t mean immediately putting down your phone to answer a question they have when you’re texting with your own parent, for example.

Radesky says that in that scenario you can be transparent about what you’re doing, noting that you’ll respond momentarily. Such clarity is important because watching someone on a phone is somewhat of a “black box,” says Radesky. You don’t know what they’re doing, or why they’re not paying attention to you.

If you really do need 10 more minutes on your phone to take care of urgent tasks, let your child know. You can even invite them to use a timer to hold you accountable.

What you really want to avoid, however, is being absorbed in your phone, and unresponsive, when they need you to listen, comfort, or engage them in other timely ways.

If they’ve stomped off to their room to cool down after an outburst, for example, don’t get lost in your phone. You could instead let them know that you’re open to talking (or hugging) when they’re ready, even if you’re texting your spouse or partner in the meantime as a way to decompress. But once they open that door, the phone disappears, not you.

“Parents are often surprised how much their calm attention matters to kids,” says Radesky. “That is the number one of thing we can do for our kids’ mental health, is to just be like, ‘I’m here and I’m listening. I want to understand.'”





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