Is Your Phone Damaging Your Relationship? 20 Strategies to Take Control.

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Useful and everpresent, our pocket computer is designed for addiction. So how is your phone damaging your relationship? And what can we do?

The Sugar Doctor and Kia Handley discuss the impact of phone use in intimate relationships.

[Full Transcript Below - Please note this blog is a living piece and is continually updated as this is such an important issue of our times. You can download the transcript from the radio show, or read the living document below.]

You can listen to the show live on Monday mornings from 9:30 am on ABC Newcastle at 1233AM or stream live here.

[Original recording on ABC website here]

Kia Handley is: Not a car! Presenter ABC Newcastle. Loves vintage, Eurovision & great stories.

You can also find the incredibly talented Kia Handley on ABC  Newcastle Mornings here, Twitter @kiahandley  Facebook kiahandleyjourno and on her podcasts: This Retro Life & Let’s Talk-  Rural Mental Health, PLUS even more amazing gems here.

Episode Transcript:

Image shows a hand holding a phone with superimposed images of notications hovering in space above the phone.
Image from Canva

Why Do We Find Ourselves Endlessly Scrolling?

You get home from a busy day of work, ready for some downtime and to discover what has been happening in the wider world. You take out your phone, check, the news, check your emails, and check your social feeds. All of a sudden you find hours have passed and you are still scrolling scrolling scrolling…and now you'll begin to see your phone damaging your relationship.

But why do we find it so hard to put down the phone?

From a neuroscience perspective, we become addicted to our phones because of the way that phone manufacturers, phone apps, and social media platforms have deliberately hijacked our neuro feedback mechanisms to make those behaviours chemically rewarding for our brains & bodies.

When we are engaging with the world, we get feedback from our brain and body when we interact with others; We get a dopamine hit when that social stimulus is positive. And that's important because we're a social species. As we talk about all the time, you know, we need to build connections amongst ourselves to survive.

But what happens is that our phones leverage the same neural circuitry of rewards, this is the same neural circuitry that leads to addiction and the same parts of the brain that are linked to drug use and gambling. That's not surprising as the reward system provides us with dopamine regardless of the social or cultural contexts - whether it is rewarding the completion of a project, a line of cocaine, a win on the pokies, or a FaceBook notification, the neural mechanism is the same.

So we do get addicted to that little dopamine rush that we get when you see a notification pop up on your screen or a banner, that tells you that someone is engaging with you.

From a design perspective, the 'infinite scroll' which allows social media users to endlessly move up or down a page without refreshing, was invented to provide a seamless experience... BUT the impact of this is that users (YOU) never feel satisfied and can find yourself endlessly scrolling.

"We want things and when we get them, we enjoy them. However, the brain circuit involved in wanting (mesolimbic dopaminergic system) is much more powerful than the brain circuit involved in enjoyment. The feeling of wanting something can be so strong that even when we find what we want, we don’t get much satisfaction. Sometimes, the wanting networks in the brain become hypersensitive and we get addicted: endless loops of seeking. In addiction, what we want becomes dissociated from what we enjoy. 

Technology often capitalizes on the potency of wanting, providing endless possibilities for seeking but few experiences that satiate. We might find fleeting pleasure, but no enduring satisfaction. Our “tolerance” increases, and we need more to achieve the same effects. The result: we keep clicking and scrolling, mindlessly consuming content, often with minimal oversight from cognitive control regions of the brain. Ultimately, this behavior depletes us, but feeds engagement-based business models." ~ Quote from The Center for Human Technology Website here.

In fact, Aza Raskin, the inventor of the infinite scroll, deeply regrets this invention. He is one of the founders and driving forces now behind The Center for Human Technology where along with other tech designers( including former senior engineers and ethicists from Google, FaceBook and more) are working to drive change in the tech industry through educating the public, supporting technologists and tech leaders, and informing policy change.

Image shows old fashioned telephone handsets from the 80s on a messy benchtop. They are dusty and there is also a human skull, magnifying glass, golf ball and pen.
Image from Canva

How is Using Your Phone Damaging Your Relationship?

There are so many ways you'll find your phone damaging your relationships. The couples I work with on “the phone thing” have three main gripes. Most other complaints are really just a subset of these three;

  • One person is “chatting” online, to exes, to friends or colleagues, or to others, in a way that feels to their partner like infidelity, or an early stage of infidelity (whether it is emotional, romantic, sexual, or something else).
  • Someone is uncomfortable with the level or type of sharing of their personal life, or their partners personal life, on a public platform.
  • One partner feels like there is an issue with presence, level of connection, or quality of their time together.



[Read: Is Social Media a Force for Good or Evil in Relationships?]

20 Strategies to Take Control and Stop Your Phone Damaging Your Relationship

This is going to be a pretty long section, but is by no means comprehensive.

I have found that the iPhone rabbit hole is one which I have a real tendency to fall down, and when it is left unchecked it has a huge negative impact on my mental health, and I also find my phone damaging my relationship.

I have ADHD so harnessing my attention is already a huge challenge for me.I can FEEL it. I am wired. I can’t relax. Most importantly, my capacity for focus is profoundly diminished. I feel a constant itch in the back of my brain to “just check this thing”.

Technological Solutions;

Set Your Phone to Grayscale

Using the grayscale effect is super simple and a powerful way to make your phone less interesting.

The toggle means your screen appears in black & white, which removes the lure of the colourful apps and means the notifications don't catch your attention as easily.

How to Use This Strategy:

If you're using an iPhone,

  1. Open Settings, then choose Accessibility > Display & Text Size > Color Filters.
  2. Turn the Color Filters toggle switch on, and Grayscale appears as the top option.

You can read more here - includes instructions on using android phones.

Turn Off Notifications

I'm sure that you, like me, have picked up your phone to use a tool (like the calendar or clock), seen a notification in an app and found yourself half an hour later forgetting completely what you were there for!

The red colour of your notifications is a colour that signifies to our brain 'danger' or 'pay attention'. 

Phone app creators are deliberately leveraging this attention grabber by using notifications to make you open your app, and then hoping you will spend more time there. Spoiler: you will. In fact, apps are continually adding notification "events" that are increasingly meaningless, just to capture your attention again.

How to Use This Strategy:

Go to Settings > Notifications, or swipe left on any incoming notification and hit Manage > Turn Off.

You may also need to go into each app and edit the notifications. For example, in Instagram I get notified of comments but not likes. While it takes a bit of time at the front end to select these options, over time you'll regain it in spades!

Remove Toxic Apps

Are there apps on your phone that you regularly spend too much time on?

How do you feel when you finish using an app?

Do you use the apps? Or do the apps use you?

I have spoken in much more detail specifically about social media and relationships, and this also applies in a broader sense to ALL the apps on your device.

Let me give you some examples of how I have done this;

  • I am a voracious reader and read A LOT of fiction. I deleted the library and eReader apps from my phone. I still use my Kindle (because there are no other distractions) and have resumed going to the ACTUAL library!
  • I have deleted FaceBook and Twitter completely from my life. No regrets. I still use Instagram. For now.
  • I don't have games or 'entertainment' on my phone. No shade on you if that's your thing, but for me it is a wormhole with strong gravitational force.
  • I've deleted (most of) the 'work' type apps that I can also access from my laptop. This means work=desk.

How to Use This Strategy:

Be ruthless. Reclaim your life.

Set Screen Time Limits

Most (all?) devices have options within the settings to limit the amount of time you spend on particular apps.

Decide in advance how much time you are happy to invest into your phone use... consider the percentage of your waking hours in your lifetime you would be proud to spend on your phone.

For example;

If you are awake from 7am - 10pm, that is 15 hours per day.

If you are on your phone for 45 minutes a day, that is 5 percent of your waking hours!Many people are on their devices for a LOT more than that.

It may not seem like a lot, and I would encourage you to do the same exercise for the amount of time, energy, and attention you devote in your waking hours to: your health, your friends, your family, your relationship, your passions!

How to Use This Strategy:

Calculate how much time you would be proud to tell others you spend on your phone daily. 

  1. Go to Settings > Screen Time.
  2. Tap Turn On Screen Time
  3. Tap Downtime, then turn on Downtime.
  4. Select Every Day or Customize Days, then set the start and end times.

Level Up:

Ask your partner or a trusted friend to set your screentime password. This should be different to your personal phone password. This means that when you run out of time, you need to ask them to provide it or to punch it in.

My partner does this for me with grace and generosity - he never gives me shit or says no, he just allows the time I ask for. The added friction for me of having to ask, and of thinking about the fact that I even want to ask, is usually enough to get me off my phone!


Use a Screen Time Tracker

Set up a screen time tracker on your phone so that you are clear about the ACTUAL amount of time you are on your device.

You should also be able to see which apps are catching your attention.

There is no judgement here, just get clear where you are happy to spend your time!

How to Use This Strategy:

This may already be built into your phone, or you could download an app like Moment.

Moment is a great choice because it provides you with information that helps you to repattern your habits;

  • Coaching to reduce phone use: Improve health, wellness and focus by reducing your phone usage through simple habit tweaks recommended each day
  • Screen time measurement: Moment runs in the background to automatically track your phone use -- no need to open the app
  • Useful data to improve awareness: Break down each day to see when you’re on your device, how many times you’re picking it up, and how much quality offline time you’re logging
  • Create and join groups of friends or family members to keep each other actionable & receive coaching in tandem
Gamify Phone Free Time

Download an app to your phone that encourages you to put down your phone. This could be a productivity strategy for you, and also a great relationship strategy to stop your phone damaging your relationship.

What I love about this strategy is that it doesn't require continuos decision making energy - you set the period of time, put down your phone, and walk away!

How to Use This Strategy:

Download an app and start building a habit around using it when you are with your partner, friends, and family.

I particularly like Flora for two reasons:

  1. It is super effective. You link a credit card, choose the amount of time  (from 15 mins to 2 hours), and add dollars.

    If you use your phone before time is up: financial penalty. It's pretty motivating! I usually choose $10. It's enough to motivate me, without being awful if there is a reason I need to use my phone (you can allocate up to $100). 

  2. They will plant trees. The app is built around 'growing' trees and shrubs - each time you complete a period of focus the app creates a plant for you. For a small fee you can also plant real trees by doing this.

Here are some other suggestions. I haven't used these but a quick google found them (you could look too!)

Doingly: Raises money on your behalf for a charity of your choice. The more you focus (don't use phone) the more money you raise.

Pause for: Earn cryptocurrency to spend in Kin app network for the time you pause. [I have no fuckin' idea how this one works].

Please let me know if you come across a good one and I'll link it here!

Remove Blue Light at Night

Night-time exposure to the blue light of your computer or device screen makes you more alert and affects your circadian rhythms. That means it can have an impact on your capacity to get to sleep, the quality of your sleep, AND the quality of your partner's sleep!

This is a big area where you will see your phone damaging your relationship.

How to Use This Strategy:

On your iPhone or iPad, go to Settings > Display & Brightness. Tap the Night Shift setting, which alters the screen temperature of your device to a warmer color, filtering out the blue light.

On your laptop or computer you can download f.lux which will also alter the screen colour.

There is more research on the f.lux site on the impacts of blue light.

Block Distracting Apps & Websites

I get that not all of you want to completely delete social media apps or websites from your lives, there are still some great benefits to using those tools!

A great strategy to help with that is to download #blockit: Block Distractions which helps you to choose which elements of each app you'd like to use, and which are a distraction or rabbit hole for you. 

For example, you can block the newsfeed on FaceBook, but still use the Groups.

Note: This is only free for FaceBook, if you want to use it for other apps you will need to pay US$1.50 - $4.50

How to Use This Strategy:

  1. This app only works in safari - you need to delete the app related to the site e.g. delete the FaceBook app and only access through safari.
  2. Download #blockit: Block Distractions
  3. Enable Content blockers by going to Settings> Safari > Content Blockers and toggling on #blockit
  4. Choose which elements of which apps you want to block!

For example, I have paid to block YouTube. I deleted the YouTube app and now only access via safari. I have blocked: recommended videos, trending videos, related videos, comments BUT I can still see my subscriptions which means I watch videos that I want to watch and don't fall into rabbit holes.

There are also some great Chrome extensions like UnDistracted which serves the same function (hiding distracting elements of social media sites).

Use Focus & Productivity Apps & Websites

We are so used to multi-tasking that our brains can get used to never fully focusing on one thing.

A simple way to retrain your brain to focus is to select one thing at a time and pay attention only to that. Choose an amount of time; say 20, 45, or 90 minutes, and focus on one task or outcome only for that period. It might be: tidying up/cleaning, being deeply present with your partner, focusing on one item of a project, and so on.

Relationally this is important so that when you are spending time with your partner you aren't also planning the weekend, checking your phone, and watching TV. Carve out time where you pay attention only to each other.

How to Use This Strategy:

Find an app or extension that you like to use.

I mostly use my phone timer for this, and work in blocks of 45 -90 minutes which is my sweet spot for productivity. When I am feeling depleted (due to chronic fatigue) or distracted (due to ADHD or general life) I do a thing I call "20:20" which means I focus for 20 minutes then do whatever I feel like for 20 minutes. Depending on the day (and my energy levels) it might be 20 minutes on the computer, then 20 minutes tidying, then 20 minutes on the computer followed by 20 minutes reading and resting.

You could find a good Pomodoro timer app or extension - here is a good article that describes the Pomodoro technique and has 10 suggestions for apps.

You could also use the apps that are suggested in the "Block Distracting Apps & Websites" and "Gamify Phone Free Time" sections above.

Buy a Separate Alarm Clock

Super simple strategy - stop using your phone as an alarm clock.

It's just too easy to pick it up in the morning and start your rounds of "checking things" for those little morning dopamine hits. I can't count the number of days I've done this instead of rolling over and snugging up with my love, or just spent a few moments in gratitude or rest.

How to Use This Strategy:

  1. Buy alarm clock.
  2. Use it.
  3. Keep phone out of the bedroom to charge.

Relational Solutions;

  1. Set and protect screen free time each day in your household
  2. Structure activity time in your household (no screens)
  3. Structure relaxation time in your household (no screens)
  4. Give your partner your screen time code
  5. Discuss social media boundaries with your partner
  6. Calculate the percentage of your waking hours that you spend on your phone/laptop/ipad/TV
  7. Find old school alternatives to things you do online - borrow library books, join IRL groups, use a Message app, phone a friend or use facetime to connect with friends (instead of social media platforms)
  8. Eliminate outrage from your diet
  9. Have conversations about topics you disagree with
  10. Create a charging location away from social spaces & bedrooms