How to Have Better Boundaries with Your Phone

How To: Have Better Boundaries with Your Smartphone

Almost everything will work again if you

unplug it for a few minutes,

including you.”

~Anne Lamott

by Gavin Hannegan, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo undergraduate intern, supervised by Dr. Hannah Roberts

Every Sunday morning, my iPhone sends me a notification reviewing my average screen time for the week (for some reason, I always get the message at exactly 9:13am). Some weeks I feel proud of the number. A lower screen time usually means that I had a productive week and that most of the time spent on my phone was used for school- or work-related reasons. Other weeks I’m not as proud. A decision to take a quick TikTok break may have turned into an hour-long escape from my responsibilities. Weeks like that make me feel guilty, that I should have never opened those apps to begin with. But phones aren’t necessarily a “bad thing.” The key factor is how you use your phone. 

I’m not going to tell you to throw your phone in the garbage can. Not only is it unrealistic to quit your phone usage cold turkey, but it’s also one of the hardest ways to practice self-control related to screen-time (Brevers & Turel, 2019). Smartphones have become an essential component of modern life. They are an efficient way to communicate with friends, family, and even our employers. For college students who are away from home, smartphones may be one of the only ways we are able to check in with our loved ones. The convenience of apps like GPS, calendars, and mobile delivery services are incredibly valuable for the working individual. You may even be reading this blog post on a mobile device. But there are evidence-based ways to enjoy our phones in moderation, to mitigate the health risks that increase the more time we spend scrolling. It can be hard to say “no” to your phone, so here are some recommendations for creating a more healthy relationship with your cellular device.

Set Screen Time Goals

Be specific and realistic with how much time you want to spend on your phone. Account for what you typically do with your phone on a given day. Consider your current average screen time as a baseline. Based on a sample of college students, your daily screen time should be no more than 5 hours. From 5 hours onward, each successive hour spent on phone usage will increase the risk of depressive symptoms by 20% (Rosenthal et al., 2021). If your daily screen time tends to be more than 5 hours, take a look in your phone’s settings to see a breakdown of how frequently you use each app. This will help you identify some of the “problem areas” and will allow your goals to be more concrete. On Apple devices, you can click Settings > Screen Time > App Limits to determine how much time your phone will allow you to spend on a particular set of apps.

Regulate the Amount of Notifications You Receive per Day

Some apps may send too much spam, so it’s easy to turn notifications off for those specific cases, or delete those apps entirely. But what about messages that you don’t want to miss, like a text from Mom or an important update in the group chat? One study recommends a technique called batching, which is where your notifications appear at set times throughout the day. When notifications are scheduled to appear 3 times a day, phone users report higher levels of well-being compared to those who did not regulate their notifications and those who turned off all of their notifications. Unpredictable notifications can be distracting, while a long-term “Do Not Disturb” setting can actually increase anxiety through the fear of missing out (FOMO) (Fitz et al., 2019). To batch your notifications on an Apple device, go to Settings > Notifications > Scheduled Summary.

Limit Phone Usage Especially Before Sleep

The best time to start implementing these strategies is before your bedtime. Sleep is crucial for the regulation of our body and mind, but the use of our phones even an hour before we rest our eyes can disrupt this regulation. This is because the blue light emitted from phones slows the production of melatonin, a hormone involved in maintaining our circadian rhythm. If our circadian rhythm is disrupted, then we have a harder time falling and staying asleep, and we also feel more groggy and tired during the day (Cajochen et al., 2011). As screen time goes up, our sleep quality goes down. Over time, the worse our sleep becomes, the more likely we are to experience a number of negative health outcomes such as obesity, feelings of depression, and strokes (Christensen et al., 2016). While an eventual goal may be to cut phone usage well before we sleep, there are some ways to start smaller. You can reduce the blue light on Apple devices by going to Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift, which will make your screen have a warmer tone as the day gets darker. Another tip is to put your phone away before beginning your nighttime routine. This will allow you to direct all of your attention on your skincare, for example, without feeling distracted by your phone. Lastly, leave your phone out of reach while you sleep to reduce any temptations.

Spend Time with Your Friends Instead of Your Phone

This is not the same as interacting with your friends on social media platforms. When we feel the impulse to scroll on social media, it’s often because we feel bored, lonely, or want to suppress our FOMO. And these feelings arise out of a need for social and psychological stimulation. What’s ironic, though, is that when we resort to our smartphones to attempt to gain that stimulation, we effectively reject the stimulation that we would receive–and should be receiving–from in-person interactions (Gao et al., 2023). There’s a term for this process: phubbing. Phubbing is a portmanteau of the words “phone” and “snubbing”, referencing how a person will choose to focus on their phone rather than on the person they’re having a conversation with (Gao et al., 2023). But phubbing doesn’t give us the stimulation that we’re looking for. In fact, it damages our social relationships. Phubbing can lower the relationship quality of romantic couples by making partners feel excluded, ignored, and less intimate (Beukeboom & Pollmann, 2021). Our phones cannot be a substitute for healthy social interaction. 

No phone setting this time; just make plans with your friends! You may have busy schedules with school or work, but just a quick lunch break or a walk around the park will help you feel socially connected. These activities can satisfy your needs and take up the time that you may have otherwise spent on your phone. Even if you bring your phone to a social event, you can still prioritize your friend group by watching videos or looking up information together on one device (Beukeboom & Pollmann, 2021). 

We hope these tips give you a variety of options to tailor your phone usage to your individual lives. When you see that screen time report on Sunday morning, be proud of the work you’ve put in to find that healthy balance. Feel free to share some of your favorite strategies with us, we’d love to hear from you!

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We hope you enjoyed this blog post! Have more topics you’d like us to blog about? Contact us and we’ll be sure to include your topic in a future post!


Beukeboom, C. J. & Pollmann, M. (2021). Partner phubbing: Why using your phone during interactions with your partner can be detrimental for your relationship. Computers in Human Behavior, 124, 1-11.

Brevers, D. & Turel, O. (2019). Strategies for self-controlling social media use: Classification and role in preventing social media addiction symptoms. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 8(3), 554-563.

Cajochen, C., Frey, S., Anders, D., Späti, J., Bues, M., Pross, A., Mager, R., Wirz-Justice, A., & Stefani, O. (2011). Evening exposure to a light-emitting diodes (LED)-backlit computer screen affects circadian physiology and cognitive performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 110(5), 1432-1438.

Christensen, M. A., Bettencourt, L., Kaye, L., Moturu, S. T., Nguyen, K. T., Olgin, J. E., Pletcher, M. J., & Marcus, G. M. (2016). Direct measurements of smartphone screen-time: Relationships with demographics and sleep. PLoS ONE, 11(11), 1-14.

Fitz, N., Kushlev, K., Jagannathan, R., Lewis, T., Paliwal, D., & Ariely, D. (2019). Batching smartphone notifications can improve well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 101, 86-84.

Gao, B., Liu, Y., Shen, Q., Fu, C., Li, W., & Li, X. (2023). Why cannot I stop phubbing? Boredom proneness and phubbing: A multiple mediation model. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 16, 3727-3738.

Rosenthal, S. R., Zhou, J., & Booth, S. T. (2021). Association between mobile phone screen time and depressive symptoms among college students: A threshold effect. Human Behavior and Emerging Technologies, 3(3), 432-440.

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