I don’t use my smartphone with the addictive urgency of a drug addict — it’s much worse than that. I use it like it’s oxygen for failing lungs and I’ll die if I don’t look at it at least a trillion times a day. It’s caused squabbles between me and my spouse, Sabrina, and even elicited accusatory stares from my 3-year-old daughter, Marty, who frequently forces me to unplug by shaming me with withering words like, “Play with me!”

Yet I hadn’t critically examined my smartphone behavior until I was invited to download the beta version of Apple’s new operating system, iOS 12, which includes a feature called Screen Time. Because Apple and Thrive Global are aligned in their mission to help people be more aware — and more in control — of their relationship with technology, all Thrive staffers were given the challenge to test out Screen Time in beta and weigh in with their thoughts.

Watch as some of my colleagues share their experiences here:

Screen Time’s features include Activity Reports and App Limits designed to help people reduce interruptions like notifications, and manage screen time for themselves and their families (parents can control their kids’ time on specific Apps, for instance).

“In iOS 12, we’re offering our users detailed information and tools to help them better understand and control the time they spend with apps and websites, how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad during the day and how they receive notifications,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, in a statement. “These new tools are empowering users who want help managing their device time, and balancing the many things that are important to them.”

After a few weeks of tracking, I realized some eye-opening (and not so flattering) facts about my relationship with my phone. But once I started experimenting with different settings for regulating my iPhone behavior, I figured out some fundamental steps that helped me reinvent, even revitalize, my relationship with my phone. Think of Screen Time as a form of couples counseling between you and your beloved device. Here’s how to get the most out of it:

1. Forget About Screen Time…At First

First things first, when you download the new operating system, the Screen Time feature will appear in Settings. To get an honest assessment of how frequently you’re using your phone, I suggest forgetting that it’s on there for the first week and going about business as usual.

2. Analyze Your Stats While You’re Sitting Down, Because They’ll Likely Shock You

After you’ve waited a full seven days to nail down the extent of your smartphone madness, you can start planning the necessary adjustments. You’ll discover how many hours you spend on your phone each day of the week, including a breakdown of the length of time spent on productivity (responding to emails and phone calls), social networking (Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) and entertainment (Netflix, YouTube, etc.) Want a granular analysis? You can also find out how often and long you use individual apps. The analytics additionally reveal how frequently you pick up your smartphone.

Me? I handle my device an average of 80 (!) times per day and 96 (!!) times per day over the weekend, which was the real wake-up call for me because Saturday and Sunday are the only full days I spend with my daughter, who’s in daycare during the work week. As much as my adult brain craves multiple breaks from playing “tea party” or “mama monster” or acting out scenes from Frozen, which she can do in an endless loop, I realized in a concrete way for the first time ever how absent I’ve been from the fast fleeting moments of her sweet toddlerhood. What shook me further was the awareness that I’m not picking up my phone to do anything of any particular importance — my stats show that I check my email and text messages compulsively (nearly 6 hours between each) but I can’t think of anyone in my personal or professional life that has required an urgent response in months, maybe years! — so it’s like a weird tic I can’t seem to control.

Studies indicate that digital stimuli like receiving an email, text or Like, leads to a surge of dopamine, a chemical associated with the brain’s reward and pleasure system, as well as motivation and memory centers, which may play a critical role in my extreme need to engage with my phone even when there’s no particular reason to.

When I ask Robert Bilder, PhD., a professor in the department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, if I’m officially addicted, he advised me to assess my responses to a set of criteria designed to gauge mobile phone addiction. Of the six diagnostics used to determine dependence, which included statements like, “Continued inability to resist the impulse to use the smartphone,” and “Using smartphone for a period longer than intended,” I answered in the affirmative to all. No doubt about it, I’m an addict.

Twitter and LinkedIn also gobble up about two hours of my day. That’s about eight hours on the phone from morning until late at night, not counting the time I spend in front of my desktop for work. Time to shake things up.

3. Start Setting Limits

The great thing about Screen Time is not just the startling awareness it provides about our insatiable need to be in constant communion with our phones, but that it allows us to actually make positive behavioral change. The Downtime feature lets you set time limits on which apps you’ve noticed you overuse, so I went for it.

One day in the middle of our vacation on Cape Cod, MA, I decided to use Downtime from the moment I woke up until Marty’s nap time around 2 p.m. (To use Downtime, go to Settings in your phone, click on Screen Time, tap Downtime, and set the start and end time that you’d like your apps to be disabled.) But bad habits die hard. I kept forgetting my self-imposed digital media exile, and would reach for my phone only to click a dimmed app, like Mail, that taunted: “You’ve reached your limit on Mail.”

Although Downtime gives you the opportunity to “Ignore Limit,” and launch your desired app anyway, I instead sought self-deceiving ways to fulfill my digital lusts. For example, I fled a family scene set around the backyard kiddie pool pretending I had to use the restroom to look something up on Sabrina’s computer and got caught. “You’re cheating,” Sabrina barked. In the car, while she was driving and taking in the beautiful dunes and nostalgic gray clapboard houses, I grabbed her phone to check if Clem & Ursies, one of our old haunts, was still in operation, but she pulled the phone from my (tremoring) hands and said, “No, cheating! Can’t it wait? We’re not going there now.” She was right — I look up so many odd, unnecessary things just to be doing something. “Be still, look out the window, sing a song,” she commanded. Sabrina doesn’t use her phone nearly as much as I do, although she’s not entirely immune either.

One night, she drove to Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar to pick up a bunch of lobster rolls for us and our friends who rented a cottage down the street from us. While she was waiting for her order, she noticed everyone, including herself, scrolling through their phones. “What did we do before smartphones?” she asked me. “Did we strike up conversations with strangers? Did we scope out the crowd? Like literally,” she asked, “What did we do?” Neither of us remembered….

4. Implement Small Changes, Which Will Pave the Way for Larger Ones

Once back in the sweltering heat of New York City, it seemed like the perfect time to take on the unpleasant task of modifying my relationship with my dumb smartphone, if for nothing more than to improve my family relations. I’ve made a few incremental changes so as not to startle my system, much like weaning off a drug in tiny, measured doses. From the time I get home, around 7:15 p.m., I set Downtime to block access to all my apps, including Mail and Messages, so I am fully present for Sabrina and Marty during dinner. Afterward, I give Marty her bath, read her her favorite books and put her to bed. By 8:45 p.m. she’s down for the night and it’s time to connect with Sabrina. We read or watch a show, then I flip back on my phone for one final look — and yeah, that look can last another hour! — before I slide it under my bed for the night. I implement the same practice on the weekends, also relying on Downtime from about 8:00 a.m. until Marty’s naptime at 2:00 p.m. I still forget that my phone is on lockdown and reach for it, only to feel pangs of panic and anxiety that I can’t use it. Sometimes, I admit, I override the temporarily limit I’ve put on a particular app. But it’s getting easier.

5. Substitute Your Cellphone With a New Pleasing Activity

Screen Time is a great first step, but Bilder, who co-authored a paper last month demonstrating that people actually suffer withdrawal symptoms if deprived of their mobile phones similar to those dependent on chemical substances, thinks there’s only one surefire way to radically change our fraught relationships with our phones: “What we’ve learned from behavioral psychology over the last 100 years is that the only way we’re going to get rid of problematic behaviors is by offering alternative reinforcing behavior,” he says. And it will be different for everyone. For me, what works is listening to Chet Baker while combing through a mess of old magazines (unread copies of National Geographic, the Smithsonian, the New Republic) with Marty by my side as she masters the art of using scissors by cutting out pictures that please her. That’s something I definitely prefer doing above all else, including fiddling with my phone.


  • Stephanie Fairyington

    Contributing Writer at Thrive

    Stephanie Fairyington is a contributing writer at Thrive. A New York-based journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic (online), The New Republic (online), The Boston Globe, and several other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her spouse Sabrina and daughter Marty.