Is your family’s smartphone behaviour healthy?

In this tech-crazy world, we accept that our devices are ruining our happiness, yet we can’t stop using them. Is there a way we can ‘outsmart’ our smartphone? Tech consultant Dr. Tchiki Davis explains

By Dr Meghna Singhal  • 12 min read

Is your family’s smartphone behaviour healthy?

Are you checking your phone because you are anxious? Are you gripped by the raging phenomenon, ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out)? Or are you craving for acceptance? Whatever the emotion, smartphone has quietly got us under the carpet. Ever wondered if we can use technology to teach human values? Did we get you thinking? To help you understand this better, we reach out to Dr. Tchiki Davis, a noted tech consultant and writer of the blog Click Here for Happiness for Psychology Today. Dr. Davis is also the co-creator of online programs at The Berkeley Well-Being Institute in California. The goal of these online programs is to help individuals build their mental, emotional and behavioural skills to feel happier, healthier, and more socially connected... even in the digital age. Here are excerpts from an Exclusive conversation.

The term ‘well-being-technology expert’ gets us thinking. In the era of growing concerns of tech overuse, how does one switch to tech well-being?
It is my view that technology is only bad for our well-being when it interferes with the mental, social, emotional, and behavioural processes that contribute to happiness and well-being. While researching my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I discovered many of the ways technology can and does hurt our happiness. But I also discovered many ways technology can and does support our happiness…especially if we use it in the right ways. So I define digital well-being as using technology in ways that help happiness and avoid using it in ways that hurt happiness.

One of the key elements for well-being here is to choose face-to-face interactions whenever possible. These are particularly important, especially in the context of parent-child relationships…
When we interact face to face, we learn how to communicate more effectively. For example, we see body language, observe the tone of voice, and perhaps most importantly for our relationships, we can see how our words affect people, both positively and negatively. So, we are learning how to interact with people in ways that foster better, healthier relationships. Children, especially, are learning so much every moment by watching others. By modelling healthy face-to-face interactions, parents can help ensure that their children know how to build healthy social bonds and relationships with the others in the future.

That brings me to the big question - How can parents be mindful in their parenting in this age of 24/7 connectivity? Do parents need to become more aware of the device habits of their children?
Children learn by watching. If parents don’t want their children to check their phones at the dinner table, then the parents shouldn’t check their phones at the dinner table. Most adults have their own challenges when it comes to managing their smartphone behaviour (e.g., FOMO). So, it’s important for parents to ensure they develop healthy smartphone behaviours (that’s what my book Outsmart Your Smartphone teaches). Then, model and teach these healthy behaviours to your kids.

In one article, you urged people to question the true root of their FOMO and what emotions drive their behaviours. Can you explain that a bit more?
Our phones were designed to be these useful tools. We could pick them up when we wanted directions, or needed to get in touch with someone. But now we pick up our phones sometimes hundreds of times per day, not because we need to but because we want to. We need to ask ourselves what is driving that ‘want’? Are we trying to decrease negative emotions like boredom, loneliness, or anxiety? Or are we seeking fast-acting positive emotions like a laugh or a feeling of acceptance from a ‘like’ on a post? By questioning our motives and emotions we can start identifying what drives us to use our phones and then, we can start to meet these emotional needs in other, healthier ways. For example, we can play a game if we’re bored, get some exercise if we’re anxious, or plan to see a friend in real life if we’re lonely.

Very interesting perspective indeed. Why is your book Outsmart Your Smartphone named so?
In our technology-obsessed world, we now rely on our smartphones and other devices for work, information, or simply calling for a lift. As a result, we have developed a new set of emotional and behavioural patterns—patterns that make us feel unhappy, unbalanced, and unconnected. So, we’re in a predicament where our devices are ruining our happiness, yet we can’t stop using them.
So in my book, you’ll discover seven steps (see box) that will help you outsmart your smartphone. When you take these steps, you’ll learn how to use technology in healthier ways. You’ll discover how to limit your use of technology in the ways that promote happiness. And you’ll start to find happiness, balance, and true connection in spite of using technology. By the end of the book, you’ll understand why it seems so much harder to find happiness now, in the technology age. But you’ll also be equipped with new skills that will help you meet these new challenges. And you won’t even have to throw out your phone!

Is your family’s smartphone behaviour healthy?

Not sure anyone out there is keen to throw out that device. You talk about using technology to reconnect with values. How can parents use technology to instil kindness and gratitude in their children?
Great question! There are all sorts of ways to practice gratitude and kindness using our phones. These are some tips from my Psychology Today article on practicing gratitude using social media:

  • Write short gratitude messages to close friends. You could think of names of four close friends and for each person, write what you are grateful for.
  • Create a gratitude list (e.g., post what all you’re grateful for today) and tag your friends to share their lists
  • Use online tools to create a gallery of images of people, places, or things you’re grateful for

Following are some ways in which you could cultivate kindness online:

  • Share advice, words or support, or empathy, even with strangers online
  • Shift your focus to what you can give. For example, ask friends to donate to a charity on your child’s birthday instead of giving gifts
  • Take ‘friendies’ instead of selfies. Take pictures of your friends and highlight the awesome things that make them special

ParentCircle is hosting the world’s first ever #GadgetFreeHour campaign to help families connect better. The idea is to keep away from all gadgets for one hour upon returning from work and rediscover the magic of spending time with your child. What do you think of this initiative?
This sounds awesome! The more time we can spend with each other without our phones present the greater well-being we are likely to have. Research shows that even having a phone present during a conversation can hurt the interaction! I think we currently use our gadgets in ways that can be harmful to our connections, but we have to remember technology can also be good for us—for example, when video calls let us talk to people all over the world (including our children when they are far away) or when we share a quick kind note with our children while they are at school. So technology is not inherently bad nor inherently good for our happiness. It’s all about when, why, and how we use tech. If we build some good tech habits, we can indeed have good relationships with our children and others, even in a tech-crazed world. 

In a Nutshell

  • Digital well-being is using technology in ways that help happiness and avoid using it in ways that hurt happiness
  • It’s important for parents to ensure they develop healthy smartphone behaviours, such as not checking their phones on the dining table or while interacting with their children
  • Identify what drives you to use your phone (e.g., are you feeling bored? Or are you seeking acceptance?). You can then start to meet these emotional needs in other, healthier ways
  • Parents can even use technology to instil gratitude and kindness in their children

What you can do right away

  • Use your smartphone to create a gratitude list for the day and tag your friends to share their lists
  • Take ‘friendies’ or pictures of your friends and highlight the awesome things that make them special

About Dr. Tchiki Davis

  • A Berkeley graduate and a well-being-technology expert
  • A R&D consultant and contributor to Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
  • Devised the popular online The Science of Happiness course

About the author:
Interviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 30 October 2019. Reviewed on 15 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

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