Published: May 9, 2020 By

We know about the harmful effects of phones to our brains, our bodies, and our relationships.

However, during COVID-19 social distancing, we increasingly need to use our phones for human connection and much-needed distraction. How do we resolve this dilemma?

Many of us use our phones as a conduit for human connection, storytelling (e.g., audiobooks and podcasts), and health purposes. But especially during COVID-19 isolation, we often use our phones to assuage loneliness and meet needs for human connection.

My intention here is to talk about how to create healthy boundaries around your phone to reduce distractions in order to get what you really need and want in your life.

Why healthy boundaries around your phone during COVID-19 are important

In 2018—in the middle of writing my dissertation—I read the book “How to Break Up With Your Phone” by Catherine Price. It changed my life for the better in many ways: I deleted social media apps. I turned off all notifications. I stopped bringing my phone into the bedroom. Because I sleep and focus much better now, I want to help others find similar peace and grounding by avoiding distractions from your smartphone.

In particular, I write this to help graduate students. Proper screen/life balance is especially important for graduate students because you are doing difficult intellectual work that is often highly unstructured.

Getting motivated to work on your dissertation during unstructured time was already extremely difficult for graduate students before all of this happened. Now it’s even harder. I believe that more awareness about the way phones encourage distraction will help us uncover a better way to live. Phones change our brains in ways that make it more difficult to focus and to create the long narrative structures needed for a thesis or dissertation. Meanwhile, the phone is also a useful tool that when used properly can enhance our lives.

Getting what you really need

The constant entertainment of the smartphone fills a void in our life. Certain cravings indicate the need for human connection, distraction, and comfort, and we often use the phone to fulfill those cravings. However, sometimes something else besides the phone is actually what will satisfy that need in a more robust and healthy way.

When we crave human interaction and we reach for our phones for texts and social media, we access something sweet like sugar, but not very nutritious: a quick fix of dopamine and a shot of serotonin. We feel really good, really quickly. However, what we really need is broccoli. We need more substance to feed our hunger for human connection.

In COVID-19 times, this is hard to find. But what about picking up the phone and having a conversation? Sitting down to do a Zoom call? I notice myself resistant to doing video calls because I want to do other things—chores—when I talk on the phone. Of course this is a good way to do two things at once. But what if you slowed down and just did one thing at a time? If you have roommates, what about doing something with them? If you have pets, try spending some quality time with them.

The brain also doesn’t recognize texts and social media as a human connection. For the brain to recognize human connection, it needs eye contact or to hear another voice. I encourage you to make a phone call or make eye contact on your video chat (as much as possible) instead of text messaging, since texts do not register as human contact in your mind. Listening to audio books or podcasts on your phone is another good way to hear a human voice and feel connected to humanity through storytelling.

Reflect on what you need

Try answering the following questions:

  • What do I use my phone for?
  • What do I love about my phone?
  • What am I craving when I reach for my phone?
  • What is missing in my life that I’m using my phone to fill?

Some answers that come to my mind are:

     1. Human connection and social interaction

I feel myself getting lonely, I reach for my phone. I crave feeling connected to my family, community, and my world. The phone is an incredibly powerful and useful tool for human connection.

The phone is also useful for connecting to the world through music, stories, and art. I use my phone to listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and the news. Our craving to learn is key in our evolutionary process of survival.

Even in this, however, there are alternatives. Instead of a podcast or a TV show, what about reading a book? Books provide a longer and more fulfilling narrative that can help you connect with other human stories around you.

Or, what about trying meditation or yoga? These ancient practices can help you feel connected to the world and the universe around you.

     2. Distraction

We all need a little distraction from our lives, especially from the mess of the pandemic. However, are there other, healthier ways to distract ourselves? I noticed that I was using Instagram to distract myself with beautiful scenery and arresting images of nature. So, I decided to go on walks outside more often. Think about the kinds of distraction you are seeking and how you can get that need met through restful and relaxing activities.

     3. Creativity

In addition to looking for the broccoli instead of sugar, you also want to get the meat (or tofu if you’re a vegan like me) that really satisfies and fills you up and helps you build muscle. One way to do this is actually engaging in creative activities yourself. Some examples include crafts, like coloring books or knitting. Playing an instrument. Writing short stories. Cooking. Drawing. Gardening. Scrapbooking. What feeds your creative needs?

A person kneels in the dirt and tends to a small plant

When we use the phone as a distraction from uncomfortable and restless boredom, this stifles creativity. Many argue that boredom is actually necessary for creativity.  

Not convinced? Put away your phone and any other media—TV, books, music. Fill a pot full of water, put it on the stove and turn on the burner. Stand there as you watch the water boil. With this empty space, see if you can come up with any solutions to problems or questions that have been bugging you. Sometimes sitting in silence and boredom—something so rare these days—is exactly what we need to solve that problem in our code, in our analysis, in our writing, and even in our lives.

Take some time for yourself

Take some time to think how you could create something to help you feel more fulfilled in your life. Think about those more substantive projects and connections that can provide nutrients and keep you fuller longer.

The point here is: what are you craving? How can having a less-attached, less-dependent relationship with your phone be one way to embrace creativity? How can you get the broccoli and meat/tofu your brain really needs for appropriate human connections, breaks, creativity, and rest?

Ultimately, this isn’t about how to make your life better, how to change yourself, or how to give up your phone. This is an article to encourage you to ask yourself: What do I want my life to look like? I hope that less screen time and more creativity time will help you craft the life that you really want: a life that is fulfilling and satisfying with colorful taste and substance.

To continue this conversation, join me on Friday, May 15, 12 p.m., for a webinar about utilizing smartphone strategies to optimize your graduate school experience during COVID-19.

If you or someone you know is struggling, Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) is available and providing drop-in and individual counseling appointments via telehealth. Graduate students can also join CAPS workshops covering topics like coping skills, anxiety management and more.

Sarah Tynen is the graduate program manager at the Graduate School. She completed her PhD in geography in May 2019.

For more information, contact Sarah Tynen at gradprofdev@colorado.edu. Check out the Graduate School’s website for all of our professional development opportunities.