True Story: This Small Habit Made Me Less Addicted to My Cell Phone

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Stocksy/Dimitrije Tanaskovic

Here's a vaguely frightening (albeit very 2019) statistic: Surveys show that as many as 71% of smartphone users sleep with their devices within arm's reach. Filter that sample pool to users between the ages of 18 and 29, and that number skyrockets to 90%. As someone who, until very recently, slept with her phone inches away from her head on her mattress, I perhaps shouldn't have been so surprised to learn that the numbers are as high as they are. Perhaps my addiction felt like less of an addiction when it wasn't contextualized by such a clear and large-scale epidemic.

As I've since learned, if you take the time to really talk to people about their electronic usage, the problem—and yes, it is a problem—becomes too obvious to ignore. Many friends I know sleep with their phones not just next to them or in their hand but under their pillow. A co-worker laments those instances that she has to pass off her device to a bartender or restaurant hostess for a desperate charging session—a special kind of torture. Another carries two backup chargers at all times specifically to avoid those situations. Sometimes, when I'm retrieving my things after an hour-long yoga class, I'll be disappointed if I don't have any texts or snaps waiting for me (though I don't seem to have this issue in the way of unsettling news alerts). After one hour.

At a recent lunch hosted by Pursoma, a wellness-meets-beauty brand that circles around digital pollution and urban toxins, what started as a casual discussion about our own digital tendencies snowballed into similar, thoroughly modern confessions. One woman recalled going on a digital detox retreat and feeling phantom vibrations in her pocket, though she had checked her phone at the front desk when she had arrived. It was a compulsion I related to all too well; when my phone isn't in my hand, I grasp, reach, and search. My handbag is a black hole of Mary Poppins proportions, and my phone slips between the crevices of books, papers, and loose makeup on a daily basis. I always find it, but not before my brain begins to spiral into panic. The thought of being disconnected from my network leaves me momentarily breathless with anxiety.

So it was quite refreshing when Pursoma founder Shannon Vaughn assured this table of women—many of whom, myself included, had careers that relied on media and interconnectivity—that it was unreasonable to demand that we quit our devices cold turkey. Instead, she said, we could simply make conscious tweaks to our existing habits that ultimately wouldn't disrupt our lifestyles. I felt a sigh of relief tumble from my lips. After joking to my friends for years that I need to delete my Instagram and Facebook, I realized at this moment that I actually didn't want to—and it was a freeing thought.

Instead, I'd grapple with the habits that were detrimental but ultimately meant nothing to me. I had already recently taken the first step by removing my phone from my bed on a nightly basis, but according to Vaughn, I actually could go even further by putting my phone in airplane mode every night. I've done it every night since, and no exaggeration, it's kind of changed my life. I sleep significantly better, and honestly, I don't miss waking up to the glow of a new text message at all hours of the night.

Keep reading to see how it works.

Why airplane mode?

If you rely on an alarm and thus can't completely shut off your phone each evening, there are actually a few benefits to simply switching off the data. The obvious is that you're pausing any kind of notification or social media interaction—essential if you, like me, are guilty of ending up hours into your Instagram feed after receiving a passing like or even an unrelated text. (You know the feeling: Once you're on your phone, there's no telling where you'll end up.) Basically, you're eliminating all distractions that could be impeding your sleep or, worse, exacerbating anxiety—because whether it's conscious or not, that's definitely a thing.

"Sleeping with your phone in or near your bed can increase compulsive behavior, depressed mood, insomnia, and anxiety," explains Heather Silvestri, Ph.D., a New York City–based psychologist. "Continuously accessing social media sites has been associated with poorer mood and an overall uptick in generalized anxiety. And when your phone is within eyeshot of your bed, you can easily slip into a passive relational position, waiting and fretting about whether others will like or comment on what you've posted instead of disengaging in order to fall asleep."

It's also impossible to separate this psychological toll from the physical because the two are firmly intertwined. You likely already know about the negative impact of electronic blue light on sleep. As a refresher, it essentially tricks your brain into "wake" mode, disrupting the production of sleep hormone melatonin and ultimately messing with your body's natural sleep cycles for the rest of the night. But when our phone is near us and blowing up with notifications, we're still hardwired to engage, says Silvestri. It's a compulsion. This is where airplane mode comes in handy. "To protect your sleep rhythms, refrain from electronic use for two hours before heading off to bed," she says.

But here's where things get slightly more complicated. By shutting off your phone's data, you're stopping it from emitting and receiving any radio emissions—which are technically (very, very) low levels of radiation. Here's a weird fact: Your iPhone actually has a warning page programmed onto it (Settings > General > About > Legal > RF Exposure) regarding radio frequency exposure, advising users to keep the phone at least a few millimeters from their body at all times.

At this point, it's worth noting that some experts argue the research associating cell phone radiation with cancer or any other damage is inconclusive. Other experts—including the World Health Organization—argue it the other way: Any research saying that it's safe is also inconclusive. The analogy that Vaughn brought up during our lunch is one I've actually pondered myself: 70 years ago, most people assumed that cigarettes were fine. Not necessarily healthy, but not particularly unsafe either. It's a crude allusion, but certainly food for thought. How can scientists fully understand the impact of our devices on our bodies when the technology is still so new?

Which brings us back to sleep: Some preliminary studies show that these frequencies might actually impact brain activity, even if on a very minimal level. Even if the science is still relatively new—even vague—at this point, I know that I immediately noticed a marked improvement in my sleep quality after I began switching to airplane mode every evening. Vaughn contends that it could very well be a placebo effect, but I'm not sure if I have any qualms with that, either. Even if it is purely psychological, it's a small thing that has made a huge difference in my daily energy levels, focus, and overall wellness.

In the end, I just wanted to sleep better, and even if I can only theorize why switching to airplane mode has helped me do just that, the point is that it has helped—a lot.

This post was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.

Next up: the psychology of establishing a good habit.