From dating apps to social media – how to have a healthy relationship with your phone

Despite its name, social media can be the opposite of social.
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Board public transport, go out for a meal or simply take a stroll down the street and it’s normal to be surrounded by people who are glued to screens or plugged into headphones.

As much as we might yearn to go back to the smartphone-free days, they’re here to stay, so it’s important that we keep our relationships with our devices healthy in order to protect our relationships with others.

As clinical psychologist Mary Grogan says, phones aren’t inherently good or bad. They’re just tools, and it all depends on how we use them.

Smart phones and social media are designed to be addictive. Every notification causes a release of dopamine – the feel-good hormone that has you constantly checking your phone or refreshing social media – in the brain, which for some people, can lead to compulsive phone-related behaviour.

Although having lots to attend to on your device might make you feel or look important, it tends to make everyone else in your presence feel the opposite.

“If you’re with your friends or family and pick up your phone every time it beeps, the message you’re sending is that what they bring is not as important as whatever’s happening on your phone,” says Mary. “This can be hurtful and rejecting.”

Being on your phone communicates to people that you’re not giving them your full attention, that you’d rather be somewhere else, or that you’re waiting for something more interesting to happen.

Whenever you have company, do your best to put your phone away and on silent – giving the person you’re with your full attention shows you’re engaged and care about them.

If you’re unsure if you have an addiction to your phone, see how comfortable it feels to switch it off, put it away or commit to a digital detox. Can you forget about it, or do you find yourself reaching for it and incessantly wondering what you’re missing?

Using an app that monitors your screen time can also be a huge wake-up call.

“It can be quite shocking to see that all of those minutes have added up to a significant amount of time,” says Mary.

“Ask yourself if this is how you really want to be spending it.”

Feeling like your partner or a friend is more interested in their phone than you is never nice, so if you believe someone’s screen time is taking a toll on your relationship, you shouldn’t be afraid to raise the issue.

Explain calmly what you’ve noticed, without attacking the other person, and express how it makes you feel.

“You don’t always know how it’s going to be received, but try to be open and not defensive,” says Mary.

“In most healthy relationships, this kind of open communication can result in a decent discussion about how you can prioritise the face-to-face connection, while also not dropping the importance of keeping up with friends, work or whatever else on your phone.”

If the roles are reversed and someone has commented on your phone habits, instead of brushing it off or getting defensive, try to understand how they’re feeling and be open to making some changes if you care about the relationship.

In her line of work, Mary says it’s common for people to show her text or email conversations and ask for help deciphering what the messages mean. The reason for this confusion is a lack of context and non-verbal cues.

“We read gestures, tone of voice, body language and all the nuances and subtleties of a face telling us something,” she says. “With texts and emails, communication is stripped of that context, and people struggle and get confused without it. That’s why I say face-to-face conversation is unbelievably important.”

Being able to text and email is an absolute godsend, but when it comes to having difficult or emotional conversations, it’s always better to opt for in-person interactions to avoid misunderstandings or saying things you’d never say in person.

Difficult conversations aren’t enjoyable for anyone, but next time you find yourself reaching for your phone as an easy way to navigate the discomfort rather than manage it in person, ask yourself who you really want to be in the situation, how a message could be misconstrued and who it could be shown to.

Face-to-face conversation is still incredibly important.

Despite its name, social media can be the opposite of social.

The constant stream of happy snaps creates an ideal breeding ground for unhealthy comparison, insecurity, FOMO, loneliness and depression. In Mary’s opinion, this is because a fundamental ingredient is missing – vulnerability.

“It’s easy to curate a fabulous-looking virtual life, but what we know about connection is that it’s all about vulnerability, and there’s essentially no vulnerability online,” she says.

“It’s all about, ‘Look at my fabulous photos; look at me having a great time in this place, at this party and on this holiday.’ When you talk in person, you often discover that people are having a hard time, but they don’t post that online. That opportunity to connect through vulnerability isn’t there.”

In real life (IRL) conversations are when people let down their guard, and reveal what’s going on behind the scenes, which provides the basis for deep trust, understanding and connection.

Social media’s failings don’t mean you should delete your accounts, but you should be mindful of how much of life isn’t being shown, and use social media to complement the beautiful connections you have in real life, not become a replacement for them.

Children need some extra help navigating the online world.

Social media and smartphones can be a minefield for adults to navigate, let alone children.

Mary explains that the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain, which is responsible for behaviour regulation, motivation, planning and problem solving, isn’t fully developed until we’re in our mid-20s.

“If you give your children screen time or a phone too early, it’s like giving them alcohol or drugs early and them having no clue how to manage it. I’d encourage people to think very carefully about how they want their children to use devices and what the rules are around that.

“My other worry is that people – and children in particular – can become attached to their devices rather than to people,” Mary continues.

“Brain development is dependent on non-verbal communication, and it’s how we develop social communication skills, so to have a device instead of that can actually be really damaging.”

If you have teens or tweens under your roof, Mary suggests limiting how much time they can spend on devices each day and what they’re allowed to access. Prioritise social interaction, play and physical affection so their attachments to people are stronger than their attachments to devices.

Have conversations about the importance of face-to-face interaction, how messages can be misconstrued, the different feelings social media can generate, things they might see on their devices and what they could do in different online scenarios.

As a parent, you can also enforce rules such as not allowing phones at the dinner table, in bedrooms at night or after a certain hour, and limit their wifi access.

Regularly check in to ask if anything has happened that they want to talk about. “It’s really important to have those conversations so you’re not just dropping your kids into the online world without helping them navigate it,” says Mary.

(Image: Getty Images)

Dating apps can provide a wonderful way to meet new people, but the way they function doesn’t always foster the healthiest attitudes.

“The fact you can just swipe to reject or accept somebody is quite dehumanising,” says Mary. “Rather than being happy with the people in your life, there’s also the sense that there could always be somebody better or different out there.”

As easy as it is to just swipe left, ghost or block people and feel removed from the repercussions, always remember that you’re doing it to people with feelings. Try to put yourself in their shoes and avoid treating anyone in a way that you wouldn’t want to be treated yourself.

Anytime you plan on meeting someone you’ve met online, remember that a great virtual relationship doesn’t always translate in real life.

“It can seem as though you have a good connection online, but then you walk in and immediately know it isn’t going to go anywhere,” says Mary.

In those situations, it’s important to trust your intuition, both for your safety and to stop feelings getting hurt.

“Ultimately, it all depends on how consciously we use technology,” says Mary.

“It can be a force of incredible good – and it can be the opposite. In the same way we have relationships with food and alcohol, we have a relationship with technology. It just needs to be thought through before we engage with it.”

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