With that said, I realize tech has some not-so-rosy side effects, especially on kids. Smartphones and tablets can cause mental health issues in children as young as two. I have a young niece, and though it’s ultimately up to her parents, I keep a close eye on my phone while she’s around.
But as she grows up, she’ll eventually need a smartphone. A phone is important protection for a young woman out alone, and she’ll need a way to keep in touch with friends as they move apart.
Safety and a social life without a smartphone addiction: That’s what I want not just for my niece, but for all of us. And at least one entrepreneur is working to make that a reality.
Is technology ruining our relationships, both personal and professional?
Searching for a Safer Phone
To get a better sense of how less tech might help people — particularly children — build meaningful relationships, I recently caught up with Stephen Dalby. Dalby founded Gabb Wireless, which offers a kid-safe smartphone that runs on a modified Android platform. Users get unlimited talk and text for $19.99 per month.
“What’s special about Gabb is what’s not available: essentially, everything parents worry about when they hand their kid that first phone,” Dalby said. Gabb devices can’t send or receive pictures or group messages. They can’t download apps, access social media sites, or use the internet.
Why did Dalby develop a device that could do less? Because he couldn’t find that for his own son. Back in 2018, Dalby set out to find a phone for his 12-year-old. But after days of research, he couldn’t find something he felt comfortable with as a father.
“As a parent, a smartphone is a serious purchase,” Dalby explained. “You need to be able to get in touch with your son or daughter, but it’s tough to make good choices with tech at that age.”
Research shows that, by the age Dalby went hunting for a phone for his son, most children are already using technology. Kids get their first cell phone at age 10, on average; they start using social media around age 11.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about how smartphones affect our kids’ development,” Dalby pointed out, “but the signs aren’t good.”
What do we know? Roughly 23% of kids have problematic smartphone usage habits. And a quarter of adults — who should be better equipped than their kids to manage their smartphone use — report that device overuse has caused conflict in their relationships.
So I asked Dalby: If limiting tech is important for kids’ ability to build relationships, might it also be important for adults?
Putting People Over Phones
Dalby doesn’t think the answer is for all of us to give up smartphones, but he does think it’s a good idea to limit how — and how often — we use them. “Really, it’s about being intentional,” he said. “There are legitimate reasons to pull out your phone, but there are also a lot of bad ones.”
Dalby has a few ideas about how we can prioritize our relationships over our phones:
Update notification settings.
Both Android and Apple devices let users customize how and when apps give notifications. Dalby suggests an “only what’s needed” approach. Chimes and buzzes shouldn’t pull us out of real conversations.
“You don’t need to know about every Slack the minute it’s sent,” Dalby says. “If it’s not serving you, shut it off.” For apps that provide important notifications, there are middle-ground approaches. Turn off the sound for semi-important ones, such as email. Consider setting these so they only appear once you’re logged in, rather than on your lock screen.
On this, Dalby echoes Nir Eyal, a behavioral design expert I spoke to on a similar subject. Eyal’s newest book, Indistractable, encourages readers to blame the trigger, rather than the technology itself.
According to Eyal, triggers come in two flavors: external and internal. We can take steps to minimize external triggers, such as wearing a “concentration crown” that reminds us and others that we’re doing deep work.
The toughest triggers to deal with, though, are internal. Preventing internal triggers, such as our tendency to procrastinate on a stressful project, requires us to be intentional. Instead of pulling out our phone, Eyal suggests, we might reward ourselves with something healthy for getting started.
Delete social media apps.
Like smartphones themselves, social media has value. Dalby acknowledges that social networking is an important way for people to stay in touch with friends and family. But he also thinks it shouldn’t be a tap away.
“Make yourself pull out your computer,” Dalby suggested. “By raising the barrier just a little bit, you can keep yourself from spending too much time on social media.”
Set “never ever” hours.
Perhaps most importantly, Dalby thinks there are certain times when you simply shouldn’t be using your phone. When you’re driving is a good example, but there are others that have a real impact on our relationships.
If you go to happy hour, for example, make a point of keeping your phone in your pocket. For at least an hour after you wake up and before you go to bed, keep your eyes off of screens. “When our phone starts to get in the way of things like real-world relationships or sleep, that’s when it becomes a problem,” he noted.
Dalby knows screen time involves more than smartphones, and he isn’t just worried about kids. But he does see them as ground zero for the problem.
“Any screen can get in the way of any relationship,” Dalby said. “But in business, we have to prioritize. And I, for one, want to start by protecting our kids.”