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Do you “zombie check” your phone? New tools can help

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
Short on safety measures.
  • Joanne Orlando
By Joanne Orlando

Senior lecturer, Western Sydney University

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Technology has undoubtedly become essential for productivity and communication in our professional and personal lives.

However, the most prominent reason users of all ages reach for their device is not to work, but to “zombie check.” These are the unthinking times you use your device throughout the day to avoid boredom. For example, pulling out your phone while in line for coffee, waiting for dinner to cook, or when there is a lull in a TV program.

We turn to our device when the task at hand becomes too difficult, too tedious, or simply unfulfilling. And we often use our smartphone for zombie scrolling because it’s always with us.

Our unproductive zombie screen hours can creep up – but they don’t need to rule us. With new tools now available to monitor your use of technology, here I’ve put together four steps to help you understand and maybe even change your tech habits.

Health risk with some technology use

Research shows that while creative, focused technology use has an overall positive effect on us, excessive unproductive use can have negative mental and socio-emotional implications for young people and adults. For example, it can contribute to reduced mental well-being, and sleep disturbances. Ensuring our screen time is useful and not excessive is important for adults and for children.

Digital detoxes are often posed as the answer to managing screen time. However, their underlying assumption that “all technology use is the same” is not a sustainable management approach.

A one-size-fits-all recommended number of screen hours also does not work. Even professional screen time recommendations for children acknowledge that placing a number on recommended hours is too difficult because of our varied technology needs and lifestyles.

Solution: cutting “zombie” screen use

Data from the UK suggests the average person checks their phone every 12 minutes. The key to effective screen time management is to weed out uses that do not have a positive impact on your life, such as zombie scrolling.

The recent release of new screen time management tools available on our devices and social media platforms can help with this.

Apple recently introduced Screen Time to its new operating system. This is a new section of the settings menu which creates detailed daily and weekly activity reports. It shows the total time a person spends in each app they use, their usage across categories of apps, how many notifications they receive and how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad.

Googles’s new Digital Well-being dashboard for Android users has a similar design.

Newly established features on YouTube tell you how long you’ve watched YouTube videos today, yesterday, and over the past seven days.

Facebook and Instagram are also in the introductory phase of a similar range of settings.

Step-by-step approach

These screen management features can help us understand and modify our technology habits. With data, we may be able to see and identify our own usage “red flags” (problematic areas), and move towards better self-regulation to kick zombie screen time habits.

The following stepped plan offers a way to apply new screentime features.

Step 1: Map your use

Use the screentime features to examine how you use technology during the day and over a week.

Identify the aspect of your zombie use that you want to change. This may be for example:

  • Reduce the number of minutes/hours you spend using a particular social media platform, or watching YouTube
  • Reduce how many times a day you pick up your phone

Step 2: Identify your triggers

Identify what triggers the aspect of technology use you want to change.

For example, if you want to reduce how many times a day that you pick up your phone, then look for the time of day you have most pick-ups, or if there are particular days in the week where your pick up number tends to be higher. Do your high use times coincide with another activity—perhaps sitting on the bus, or taking children to sports training?

Step 3: Make a plan

Use this information to develop a plan.

Planning ahead may include setting specific times when you will or won’t use your device in particular ways. It may involve making sure you have other options to avoid boredom, such as having a book with you when you’re traveling or waiting for family members.

A plan is important, as it facilitates goal attainment and also increases self-control. Try the plan for one day.

Step 4: Reflect on your plan

After one day or week of using the plan, ask yourself key questions:

  • Did you accomplish your plan?
  • Under what conditions did your plan work best?
  • Were you distracted from your plan and how did get back onto it?
  • Was your plan do-able? (for example, a plan to reduce the number of times you picked up your phone from 100 per day to 20 may be too difficult to achieve in a first instance)
  • Do you need to adjust your plan so that it is achievable?

You can use the new activity monitoring tools to review and revise your plan, and to assist you in achieving your goals such as setting limits for how much time you allow yourself to use particular apps.

Parents and children

Screentime management is best approached in small steps; nudge your way towards use of technology that you are more comfortable with.

This approach can also be applied as a proactive, strengths-based approach to teach children screen time management.

Explain zombie technology use to your child, and team with your child to develop a plan and use these screentime features. While you may have different plans, doing it together is very supportive and a great way to model effective healthy and positive technology use.

Joanne Orlando, Researcher: Technology and Learning, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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