Want to be more creative, more connected and happier in 2019? Put down your smartphone

Using your phone less often might be the only resolution you need.

Using your phone less often might be the only resolution you need

An image from Anton Scamvougeras's book Dysconnected: Isolated by our mobile devices, which argues smartphones are negatively impacting our creativity and connection to other people. (Anton Scamvougeras)

If you could do one thing this year to be happier, more creative and more connected to other people this year, then using your smartphone less may be the only New Year's resolution you need.

The devices and their impact on human health and behaviour has caught the attention of academics, researchers and counsellors, many of whom agree that the ubiquity of smartphones has become a distraction.

Pedestrians look at their mobile phones near Brick Lane in London, Britain October 5, 2016. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

"Smartphones are very useful and fun, but you should also be considering what you might be missing out on in the form of missed conversations, casual social interactions, or beautiful views — not just what you are gaining," said Kostadin Kushlev, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. 

Kushlev is a former student of UBC professor Elizabeth Dunn, who researches how technology shapes human happiness. One thing she has studied is how notifications that buzz on people's phones are distracting and ultimately make people anxious and unhappy.

Behavioural changes around smartphone use is something Anton Scamvougeras has thought a lot about as a neuropsychiatrist at UBC.

He counsels people with disorders such as Tourette's syndrome and says smartphone use has become addictive for many people.

"We're using it in the way that you know gamblers behave or people with various addictions behave," Scamvougeras said. "We're using it automatically, without thinking, for things that are not really useful."

Benefits of boredom

In 2016, Scamvougeras published a book called Dysconnected: Isolated by our Mobile Devices, which explores, with original artwork, how distracting smartphones are and how they don't allow for boredom.

Scamvougeras describes this as gap time — moments when our minds are free to come up with creative ideas or figure out problems.

"And what's happening is we're all now automatically filling that time with cellphones," he said.

An image created by neuropsychiatrist Anton Scamvougeras about how he sees smartphones separating people from their environments. (Anton Scamvougeras)

Brain vs. phone 

Fellow UBC academic Peter Reiner says many people accept smartphones as extensions of their minds. He studies the impact of technologies on our brains as a professor of neuroethics​.

He says many cognitive tasks, such as remembering phone numbers or directions, have been offloaded to devices.

"And so it becomes a matter of knowing where to gather knowledge being the skill that we need to have, rather than having knowledge itself," he said.

Reiner says this isn't inherently bad, as having our phones handle some tasks can free up the mind for more important things. However, he says nobody has really figured out yet which tasks are best left to our brains and which ones our phones should handle.

Until then Reiner says it may be wise to limit phone use or at least be less reliant on it.

Kuslev says Apple's screen time usage report, which shows people how much they are using their phones, and Google's digital wellbeing apps, help with awareness.

Tips to reduce use include turning off notifications, keeping phones out of sleeping areas, turning your display to greyscale and trying to get through a day on only one battery charge.

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