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Is Your Family’s Smartphone Behavior Healthy?

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 9 Mins Read

Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal

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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 smartphones? Renowned tech consultant and author Dr Tchiki Davis explains

Primary to 18+
Is Your Family’s Smartphone Behavior Healthy?

Are you checking your phone because you’re anxious? Are you gripped by the raging phenomenon called “FOMO” (fear of missing out)? Or are you craving acceptance? Whatever the emotion, smartphones have quietly got us hooked. Ever wondered if we can use technology to teach human values? Did we get you thinking? To help you understand this better, we reached 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 behavioral skills to feel happier, healthier, and more socially connected, even in the digital age. Here are some excerpts from an exclusive conversation.

Q. The phrase “well-being technology expert” gets us thinking. In this era of tech overuse, how does one switch to tech well-being?

A. It’s my view that technology is only bad for our well-being when it interferes with the mental, social, emotional, and behavioral processes that contribute to happiness and well-being. While researching my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I discovered many of the ways technology can hurt our happiness. But I also discovered many ways technology can 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 avoiding its use in ways that hurt happiness.

Q. 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…

A. 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 modeling healthy face-to-face interactions, parents can help ensure that their children know how to build healthy social bonds and relationships with others in the future.

Q. That brings me to the big question. How can parents be mindful in their parenting in this age of 24/7 connectivity? Do they need to become more aware of the device habits of their children? 

A. 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 behavior (e.g., FOMO). So, it’s important for parents to ensure they develop healthy smartphone behaviors (that’s what my book Outsmart Your Smartphone teaches). Then, model and teach these healthy behaviors to your kids.

Q. In one article, you urged people to question the true root of their FOMO and what emotions drive their behaviors. Can you explain that a bit more?

A. 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 are bored, get some exercise if we are anxious, or plan to see a friend in real life if we are lonely.

Q. Very interesting perspective indeed. Why is your book Outsmart Your Smartphone named so? 

A. 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 behavioral patterns—patterns that make us feel unhappy, unbalanced, and unconnected. So, we are 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 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 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!

Q. 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 instill kindness and gratitude in their children?

A. 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’re 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.

Here 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.

Q. 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?

A. 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’re far away), or when we share a quick kind note with our children while they’re 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.

7 Steps to Outsmarting Your Smartphone 

By Dr Tchiki Davis

  1. Build foundational skills: Come up with activities to help provide a clear timeline, set schedule, and social support.
  2. Stay present: Learn how to manage the fear of missing out.
  3. Make meaningful connections: Devote extra time and energy to creating happy and healthy relationships, both online and offline.
  4. Manage your emotions: Most important for happiness in the tech age is to manage emotions. Focus on high self-compassion, positivity and resilience.
  5. Practice kindness: Engage in kind acts and make your life more enjoyable. Kindness is like rocket fuel for happiness.
  6. Be true to yourself: Speak up for your needs and open yourself up for others. Remember, social media profiles are mere representations of who we think we should be and not reflections of who we actually are.
  7. Beat the hedonic treadmill: You can do many things to change your life and increase your happiness.

In a nutshell

  • Digital well-being is using technology in ways that help happiness and avoiding its use in ways that hurt happiness.
  • It’s important for parents to ensure they develop healthy smartphone behaviors, such as not checking their phones at the dining table or while interacting with their children.
  • Identify what drives you to use your phone (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 instill 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.
  • Sign up for ParentCircle’s #GadgetFreeHour campaign now!

About Dr Tchiki Davis

  • A Berkeley graduate and an expert in well-being technology.
  • An R&D consultant and contributor to Greater Good Science Center’s The Science of Happiness course.


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