NEWS

A Small Reduction in Smartphone Use Can Make a Big Difference for Mental Health

drawing of hands with smartphone handcuffed to wrist

Verywell / Laura Porter

Key Takeaways

  • A new study found reducing your smartphone usage by just an hour a day for a week can improve your mental health.
  • Monitoring your smartphone usage and how it impacts you can help you to make positive changes.
  • Completely stopping smartphone usage was not found to be as beneficial for mental health.

More than 6 billion people worldwide use smartphones, and that number is expected to climb each year. We use our cell phones for literally everything—from simple phone calls and texting to booking reservations and driving directions.

People spend an average of five to six hours each day on their smartphones, not including work-related use. While they are useful, excessive cell phone use can have a detrimental impact on mental health. It has been linked to impaired cognitive function, impulsivity, sleep problems, and addiction to social networking in teens.

Despite those dangers, a new study, published in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, found that it only takes a minor tweak in smartphone usage to make a noticeable difference in your mental health.

“Per the study, conscious and controlled changes of daily time spent on smartphone use can contribute to subjective well-being—fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms, less problematic use tendencies, more life satisfaction—and to a healthier lifestyle, [including] more physical activity, [and] less smoking behavior, in the longer term,” states Yalda Safai, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist in New York.

Being glued to screens all day, no matter how small, is not healthy. However, by reducing smartphone usage and being mindful of the ways you use your smartphone, you can take steps that will improve your mental health.

Don't Ditch Your Phone, But Limit Use

For this study, German researchers collected data from April 2019 to November 2020, from participants ages 18 and older. Over 600 individuals were randomly selected and divided into three groups. One group did not use their smartphones at all for one week. A second set of people limited the amount of time they used their smartphones, cutting down usage by one hour daily. The final group continued to use their smartphones without changing their behaviors.

Yalda Safai, MD

Per the study, conscious and controlled changes of daily time spent on smartphone use can contribute to subjective well-being—fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms, less problematic use tendencies, more life satisfaction

— Yalda Safai, MD

Participants answered questions about their lifestyle habits after one month, and again after four months. The purpose was to see if the changes in smartphone usage resulted in changes in their behavior or mental health. Researchers asked questions about the individuals’ physical activity, cigarette smoking, and signs of depression or anxiety.

The results showed that people don’t need to give up their cellphone usage entirely for better mental health; but limiting usage does help.

“The findings of this study indicated that a reduction of smartphone use by one hour per day for one week resulted in long-term reduced smartphone use, as well as reduced depression and anxiety, and improved physical activity and life satisfaction,” explains Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD, ABPP-CN, Director, Psychology, Neuropsychology and Social Work, Co-Director, Center for Behavioral Health, John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

The study findings also zeroed in on the prime amount of time to use your smartphone to improve mental health issues.

“These results are significant because they suggest there is a ‘sweet spot’ for smartphone use; with total abstinence and continued problematic smartphone use to be less healthy than just a one-hour reduction per day, for one week, which was sustained over time,” Dr. Katzenstein notes.

Knowing a little less time on the small screens can make a significant difference in your mental health is helpful but knowing how to implement that reduction is key.

Making Your Smartphone Work for You

The need for smartphone usage varies from person to person. However, exercising self-control is something everyone can do to make a difference for their mental health.

“Monitoring your usage and being mindful of usage can have significant impact,” Dr. Katzenstein states. “Putting yourself on a ‘social media diet’ or a ‘smartphone diet’ can help reduce overall smartphone usage, even if you just try to do it for one week.”

Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD

Putting yourself on a ‘social media diet’ or a ‘smartphone diet’ can help reduce overall smartphone usage, even if you just try to do it for one week.

— Jennifer Katzenstein, PhD

Experts also recommend being mindful of how you feel when you are using your smartphone. Cut back if being on your smartphone makes you feel stressed, hurried, or anxious.

If you’re concerned about missing your device in hand, or your hourly social media fix, you can replace cell phone surfing with other activities. Reading, exercising, time with family and friends, and other activities you enjoy can decrease the urge to peruse your phone apps.

When your nose isn’t buried in your phone, you can notice more of the beauty and joy of and in the world around you. Not being engrossed by the news and social media can be just the change you need to improve your mental health.

“A small change in our behavior can result in a big impact to our overall mental health and how positively we feel about our lives, as well as the health behaviors we engage in,” Dr. Katzenstein concludes.

What This Means For You

Excessive cell phone usage can wreak havoc on your mental health. For most people, completely stopping cell phone usage isn’t a realistic option. The good news is, however, that according to this study, you don’t have to stop. Small changes in your smartphone usage habits can make a big difference in how you feel mentally and emotionally.

 

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Statista. Number of smartphone subscriptions worldwide from 2016 to 2027.

  2. Statista. How much time on average do you spend on your phone on a daily basis?

  3. Wacks Y, Weinstein AM. Excessive smartphone use is associated with health problems in adolescents and young adults. Front Psychiatry. 2021;0.

  4. Brailovskaia J, Delveaux J, John J, et al. Finding the “sweet spot” of smartphone use: Reduction or abstinence to increase well-being and healthy lifestyle?! An experimental intervention study. J Exp Psychol Appl. Published online April 7, 2022.