WHEN are we not attached to a smartphone?
According to research, people in the UK spend more than three and a half hours online each day – more than an hour longer than those in Germany and France.
And even if you have your scrolling under control and don’t lose hours watching Instagram Reels, the chances are, the second you get a message notification, you grab your phone and get sucked in.
“We’re all so connected with each other,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr Ian Nnatu, who acknowledges phones have been “a huge force for good” in many ways.
However, when you’re stuck answering messages day and night, the pressure to respond to everything can become all-consuming.
Here’s how to manage your digital availability so your pinging phone doesn’t totally rule your life…
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Decide Your New Norms
Constant notifications and having your phone buzz with messages can make you feel good, but can also be overwhelming.
“One of the challenges we have in society now is we don’t have accepted norms about how quickly we respond to messages,” Dr Nnatu says.
“Is it fine to wait till after lunch or perhaps the following day to reply?”
That pressure of thinking we have to answer there and then can trigger stress and anxiety.
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But take a breath – you don’t have to reply immediately.
“Set boundaries with your friendship groups and work colleagues about what’s acceptable in terms of how quickly you respond,” says Dr Nnatu.
That could mean deciding on a time frame you think is reasonable when it comes to non-urgent messages.
So if it’s your boss, perhaps replying to an email within 30 minutes is fair, while with friends, 24 hours might be fine.
Try sticking to your new time frames to reinforce them, so those on the receiving end will adjust to your new norm and come to expect it – just give them time!
If you’re the one desperately waiting on a text back, and the happy buzz that comes with it, try to wean yourself off feeling that way by “reflecting on what might be going on with the other person”, advises Dr Nnatu.
“Don’t jump to conclusions if you don’t get a response six hours or 12 hours later.
"Sometimes we project our own feelings on to the other person without necessarily understanding the context.
"They might be pulled away doing something else. They might be in a work situation or just completely uncontactable.”
And that’s fine!
If you don’t want to be chased for an instant response, don’t expect it of others – we’ve all got to help break the cycle.
Protect Your Work/Life Balance
Clearly dividing work and home can be tricky, especially if you’re part-time or you work from home some days.
Being clear when you will and won’t be available to answer emails and messages can be a game-changer, though.
“It’s important people’s working hours are protected,” says Dr Nnatu, adding that presenteeism and being contactable out of hours can actually impact a company’s bottom line.
“If you’re not taking care of your employees’ mental health, that’s going to affect productivity and output.”
You might not control your company’s work/life balance policy, but you can still take simple steps to protect yours.
For example, noting in your email signature the hours you do check and respond to emails, so people don’t expect you to reply to them at 10pm.
If it’s family and friends you need a break from, set up the “Do not disturb” function on your phone, so that you receive notifications when you want them, eg between 9am and 7pm.
Create New Habits
We all know we should keep phones out of the bedroom and away from the dinner table, but are you actually doing it?
“Everybody has to try to ensure they have some boundaries,” advises Dr Nnatu.
“That could include putting limits on screen time or reducing how much time you have with particular apps, turning off notifications.
Access certain platforms through a different device, such as your PC or laptop, instead of your phone, so you have to go through the process of actually logging in to access the apps you use most and receive the most alerts from.”
Dr Nnatu also recommends filling up your leisure time with activities that don’t involve messaging your mates or scrolling notifications.
“Do more sports, meet people face-to-face, go outdoors,” he says.
“A big issue is FOMO (fear of missing out) and the idea that if you’re not on all the time, and available and ready to respond, then you’ll miss out on something,” says Dr Nnatu.
Overcoming FOMO involves changing your mindset and accepting you just can’t do everything, he explains: “There will always be something happening and you can’t make yourself available 24 hours a day.”
Not unless you want to negatively impact your mental and physical health.
“As psychiatrists, we are seeing more and more people coming in with adrenal fatigue, burnout and stress because of this 24-hour lifestyle, and feeling wired – generally not feeling refreshed and not being able to recharge their batteries.”
Pick the activities and events that mean the most to you and then prioritise downtime in between those plans.
Saying “no” to the other stuff can be really powerful for you and your health.
“Pay attention to signs that your phone usage is problematic,” says Dr Nnatu.
There aren’t specific guidelines on screen time, but experts recommend no more than two hours a day for children.
The tell-tale signs:
- You reach for your phone when you’re lonely or bored.
- You repeatedly check your device at night.
- You become anxious when you can’t find your phone.
- A loved one is raising questions about how much time you’re spending online.
- Your internet use is interfering with your work or social life.
- You check your phone while driving.
“Something that’s common to all addictive behaviours is loss of control.
"When you feel you don’t have as much control as you did over a certain behaviour, you can’t take it or leave it.
"That’s when alarm bells should start ringing – when you try to stop it and you find you can’t,” says Dr Nnatu.
We need our phones for everything – from ordering food to organising diaries and booking tickets.
Managing our need for notifications, then, is vital.
But if things are spiralling, seek help from your GP, who can refer you for cognitive behavioural therapy and NHS talking therapies.
“It might be that compulsive mobile phone usage is masking an underlying problem and is a way of you trying to manage underlying anxiety, worry or stress,” explains Dr Nnatu.
“The key with mental health is always being self-aware, recognising things – and getting help early, before things escalate.”
What That Ping Is Doing To Your Brain
“Notifications give us a hit of dopamine – a chemical in the brain associated with reward and pleasure,” explains Dr Nnatu.
“Posting and messaging becomes compulsive, because it’s rewarding.
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"The more likes and messages you get, the more positive you feel.”
But that can lead to addictive behaviours.
- Source: *Ofcom
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