Tuesday, Oct 03rd

Kicking the Habit: Tips for Mindful Phone Usage

CellPhoneUsageAre you easily distracted by the ping of your cell phone? Do you look to your phone for instant entertainment when you have a free minute or for comfort when you want to avoid awkward situations? Do you keep your phone on you at all times so you can frequently check in? Well you are certainly not alone, it turns out smartphones can be highly addictive. As helpguide.org explains, “Like the use of drugs and alcohol, they [smartphones] can trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine and alter your mood. You can also rapidly build up tolerance so that it takes more and more time in front of these screens to derive the same pleasurable reward.”

What's more, screen addiction and overuse of smartphones has been shown to cause a myriad of problems including increased feelings of depression and impaired academic performance. According to the Center For Humane Technology, “Technology's constant interruptions and precisely-targeted distractions are taking a toll on our ability to think, to focus, to solve problems, and to be present with each other.”

Unfortunately, many teachers at Scarsdale High School are seeing the side effects of cell phones on students in the classroom. Mrs. Jennifer Rosenzweig, an English teacher at SHS and the co-chair of the teacher Wellness Committee explains, “As a group of English teachers, we started to notice that our students do not have the same capability to read difficult texts as students did even ten years ago…we see first-hand how the rise in phone use is intricately tied to an inability to focus or sustain concentration in addition to an increase in levels of anxiety.”

Motivated to help her students and the larger SHS community, Mrs. Rosenzweig played a large role in creating the “Off And Away For The Day” initiative where students are encouraged to use their cell phones mindfully. After recently attending the “Off And Away For the Day” presentation at the high school, I had the privilege of speaking with Mrs. Rosenzweig and some of her colleagues, to help me better understand what “mindful cellphone use'' means and how students (and parents) can get started.

While the new initiative at SHS encourages students to keep their phones in their backpacks during class and in the hallways, it also makes room for limited and mindful use during free periods. When asked to define mindful cellphone use, Mrs. Rosenzweig explained that “It should be approached in the same way we would practice any sort of mindfulness, by bringing our attention to, and focusing on the present moment in a non-judgmental way. With our phones, that might look like trying to take notice of the reasons we reach for our phone, how the phone feels physically in our hand, and what emotions using the phone evokes. It is important to remember that our intention is to simply recognize the sensations and to not pass any sort of judgment on ourselves or our feelings.” Mrs. Rosenzweig also describes “reflection” as being an integral aspect of mindful phone use. After scrolling on or playing games on their phones, she encourages her students to check in with how that time on their phones made them feel (i.e.do you feel tired or have a headache?) and to try to remember those feelings the next time they reach for their devices.

Ms. Lauren Pomerantz, a social worker at SHS adds, “We all need to be reminded about how to live mindfully and be present in the moment. As in other forms of mindfulness, it starts with noticing our behavior so that we can evaluate and reflect. Being mindful with our phones can help us discover whether we are in need of information, bored, avoidant, anxious, looking for connection…”

Dr. Peter Faustino, a SHS psychologist, clarified that “An important developmental skill [for adolescents] is self-regulation and agency (act independently and effectively to control their own lives). Our mindful cell phone initiative seeks to raise awareness about habit forming social media, educating students on the research regarding cell-phone use and the developing brain, as well as making individual choices to curb their behaviors.”

Most of us probably find it pretty easy to grasp why mindful smartphone use is so important, but actually changing our behavior can prove to be a lot more difficult. While students at SHS are starting with “Off And Away For The Day,” I asked our experts what other strategies and tips they suggest to make this an easier habit to adopt.

Ms. Pomerantz suggests, “One practical place to start is designating times to check your phone. If you are someone who is used to checking every few minutes, it may be that you start to check hourly. Even turning over your phone at first is a place to start. Gradual steps may help figure out what works best for you.”

Mrs. Rosenzweig offered a few other tips but highly recommends that everyone check out The Center For Humane Technology as an exceptional resource for a wealth of information about this topic. Here are just a few of their suggested strategies:

-Turn off notifications for all apps
-Remove toxic apps such as Tik Tok
-Download helpful tools such as Freedom which blocks distractions across your devices
-Set boundaries by having device free dinners at home
-Fully disconnect for one day

Though all of these experts agree that we can’t change behaviors and form good habits overnight, they do believe that each small step we take toward mindful phone use is a step in the right direction. In fact, Dr. Faustino describes some of the success already achieved at SHS, “Since we have started, I have seen much more eye contact and social engagement within the building and in the hallways. And even if I see a student who is looking into their device, with a simple "Good morning - How are you?" they will put the phone in their pocket and engage with me. It feels like human connections are coming back!” Lauren Pomerantz adds that, “This [mindful phone use] is an example of where Scarsdale shines in the ability to partner with students, faculty, administration, parents, and the community.”For more information about mindfulness please click here

For more information about children and screen time including how screen time affects the developing brain, visit here and here.

Lastly, this TED TALK "How to Get Your Brain to Focus", discusses the effects of screen time on creativity and has been used in several classes at SHS.

Wendy MacMillan is a former teacher and now a proud mom of two, school aged children. With a background in psychology, education, and mindfulness, Wendy has long been passionate about wellness and helping others.


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