Have you lost power recently? It doesn’t happen often, but when the electricity goes out, even for a brief amount of time, it is stunning how quiet it becomes.

It is a type of quiet we’re not accustomed to; the whirring of modems, fans on laptops, the normally imperceptible electric hum that we are immersed in daily become suddenly, and noticeably absent.

Our personal devices have become as much a part of our lives as that electric hum, but on a much more individual level.

Most of us wouldn’t think about leaving home without our phone at a minimum; leaving it at home would feel almost like stepping out the house for the day without pants. Our devices are an extension of our lives.

Our connections with others, information about our plans for the day, work resource, encyclopedia, television and game center all in one. If we forget our smart phones at home or leave them at work, many of us would probably question our cognitive functioning.

We might even wonder if there is something wrong with our minds that we could forget something so important to daily life, particularly since most people no longer have a landline.

Our culture has developed a dependent relationship with our phones and devices. The dependency manifests in our daily lives as we incorporate these devices into our work days, use them to track our personal goals and calendar of events, and keep in contact with others.

We consult our phones to navigate us to new places, to get answers to random questions, to check in with friends, to network and as a cure for boredom. In short, our devices are a portal to life outside of ourselves.

We are so accustomed to their presence in our lives we sometimes look at them or “check them” without even consciously realizing we’re doing it. Is it such a bad thing?

We get a lot out of our devices, it only makes sense to value them, right?

Just like any other relationship of dependence, there are red flags and problem areas that can have detrimental effects on the dependent party.

Some common areas of concern include:

  • Discomfort with abstinence- When making an effort to decrease use of the device, one notices a level of discomfort that can range from mild to severe. Feeling “bored” or “underwhelmed” when not able to use the device.
  • Preoccupation with use- While engaging in other activities, having a persistent urge to “check” the phone to view messages, social media, or other updates.
  • Difficulty “uni-tasking”- It becomes difficult to put the phone or device away when engaging with others, watching a movie or eating a meal. Frequently using the phone or device when you are also doing other things.
  • Over Use- The phone or device is monopolizing your time and attention to the detriment of other parts of your life; it interferes with work responsibilities, relationships with loved ones.

It can be difficult to find a balance between using devices and over-using them. When considering ways to establish a decent balance, it may be helpful to first observe your current use in a non-judgmental way.

Pay attention to the proximity of your phone throughout the day; do you tend to keep it within reach? Do you carry it around when you attend meetings or keep it on you when you’re briefly going to a different area?

Do you take it into the bathroom with you? Observing your patterns of distance from your phone can be telling. Recognizing the amount of distress you feel when you leave the device behind can be an indication of your dependence.

Also observe of how frequently you pick it up. As you begin to work toward establishing a healthy amount of use with your device, it may be surprising how often you pick it up without consciously realizing you’re doing it.

If you turn off notifications so the phone doesn’t make noise, this may help decrease the amount of checking you do, but the muscle memory attached to that behavior still exists, and you may still check your device out of habit.

It may help to start tracking (on paper, obviously) how often you are checking the device throughout the day. The simple act of observing oneself engaging in a behavior is a useful and practical way to begin breaking away from it and setting boundaries for yourself.

It can be challenging to convince that dependent part of yourself that there are benefits to reducing the behavior. It is common to back-slide and justify old habits. This back and forth game we play in our minds when dealing with dependence is just human nature.

The toddler in us continues to exist, demanding his/her way even when it doesn’t make sense to our rational, grown-up minds. Similar to dealing with an unreasonable toddler, we can set firm boundaries and remain compassionate toward ourselves.

As we learn to set healthy boundaries with our devices, we learn distress tolerance along the way. Whether we are breaking up with cigarettes, chewing our fingernails or over-using our phones, distress tolerance is the key to decreasing dependence on bad habits.

Distress tolerance is a fancy way of saying “putting up with feeling awful.”

Often we cave to our urges in order to stop feeling badly. In the moment it may feel self-compassionate to do the thing that helps us feel better, but in reality we recognize that true self-love and compassion sometimes means saying no.

It means setting the limit with the toddler and letting the child have a tantrum, then redirecting the child toward something healthier. Sitting with discomfort and tolerating it until it passes is difficult but necessary. When practicing healthier boundaries with our use of devices, the same standard applies.

Offer yourself some alternatives such as mindful breathing, or practice sitting in silence and stillness. The overtaxed brain of someone who is dependent on their phone will become bored quickly with these options, and boredom is ok. Learning to sit with boredom and be alone with oneself is an important part of establishing healthy limits with devices.

It can be a tough sell at first, but allowing your brain to just ‘be’, without a lot of external stimuli is healthy and soothing. 


  • Dr. Teyhou Smyth

    Performance Coach, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, Keynote Speaker, Licensed Therapist (#115137)

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