How to stop overusing your phone

Luke Haliburton

Have you ever picked up your phone to quickly check a message, only to find yourself scrolling aimlessly through social media posts 15 minutes later, wondering how you ended up there?

Falling down the rabbit hole of absentminded smartphone use is an increasingly common experience. Our phones are always with us, embedded in our daily lives and asking for our attention. Of course, there are many positive aspects of our increasingly intelligent phones – we are more connected with people around the world, we can accomplish tasks on the go, and we have endless outlets for creativity and entertainment. However, there are also downsides – excessive screen time, constant interruptions, and meaningless time spent on our phones all contribute to digital stress. Being in a constant state of heightened stress is incredibly bad for our health, and our phones actively contribute to this problem.

To counteract this, we need to work towards improving our digital wellbeing. Digital wellbeing is a balance between the benefits and drawbacks that come with mobile connectivity [1]. So if we want the benefits of smartphones without the drawbacks, what are we doing about it?

What have people already tried?

There is a wide body of research into interventions and tools to help manage excessive smartphone use. Researchers have explored screen time tracking ([2]), limits on app usage ([3], [4]), and goal setting ([5]), to name a few. Academics are not the only ones tackling this issue – Apple has screen time tracking, app limits, and notification blocking built into their operating system, and Google has similar features in Android with Digital Wellbeing. There is a clear interest from both research and industry to help users interact with their phones in a healthier manner.

Despite all these efforts, screen time is still rising [6]. Clearly, the methods that we are using to help people achieve digital wellbeing are clearly not accomplishing our goals. In fact, research has shown that tracking screen time and raising awareness through notifications has no effect on how much someone uses their phone [2].

The status quo is not working, so we decided to try something new.

What did we do?

We noticed that all of the previous efforts to help people curb their excessive smartphone use were focused purely on the phone itself. For example, people turn off notifications and set time limits on social media. Some interventions ask users what their goal is for their current smartphone session. All of these techniques only consider user behaviors on their phones.

We realized that no one ever considers the world outside the smartphone. What would happen if we shifted the focus away from the phone and onto the world surrounding the user? Instead of asking people why they just picked up their phone, we wanted to know what would happen if we asked people what they were doing in the real world. We hypothesized that reminding people about what they were doing outside their phones would help them keep their phone sessions short and get back to whatever they were doing in real life.

We built an app to test our theory. Our app, MindPhone, intercepts the user every time they unlock their phone and asks them one of two questions, one focused on the phone and one focused on the real world:

1. Why do you want to use your phone right now?

2. What activity do you want to do after you finish using your phone?

Fig. 1: MindPhone asks the user one of two questions, focused either on the phone or the real world.

We also tested two ways to respond to the questions. In one condition, the users had to type an answer to the question. In the other, users mentally reflected on the question without typing.

We deployed MindPhone in a field study for two weeks with 28 participants. We measured their phone use through screen time, unlocks, and a standardized questionnaire for absentminded smartphone use [7]. We also collected open-ended responses in a post-study questionnaire.

What did we find out?

The results from our field study show that our hypothesis is correct – asking users about the real world significantly reduces screen time, unlocks, and absentminded use, while asking them about their intended smartphone use caused no significant reduction.

Regarding the method of responding to the question, we found no differences between writing down the answers or simply reading the questions. However, our qualitative feedback showed that some users preferred one method to the other, suggesting that this feature should be adjustable by the user.

To our knowledge, MindPhone is the first smartphone overuse intervention system that focuses on the real world. We found that this approach is significantly more effective than the status quo of focusing on the smartphone itself. As such, we call for technology designers to incorporate the real world into smartphone overuse interventions to increase effectiveness. We are continuing to develop MindPhone with customization features and will make it available to the public once it is ready.

If the industry adapts our approach of focusing on the real world, we hope this will be a step towards a healthier relationship with our phones, a reduction in digital stress, and a move towards true digital wellbeing.

Please cite as: Haliburton, Luke (2022). How to stop overusing your phone. 28.07.2022. Available online at: Featured image by pixabay:

For more information on the study described here, please see this publication:

Terzimehić, Nađa, Luke Haliburton, Philipp Greiner, Albrecht Schmidt, Heinrich Hussmann, and Ville Mäkelä. “MindPhone: Mindful Reflection at Unlock Can Reduce Absentminded Smartphone Use.” In Designing Interactive Systems Conference, 1818–30. DIS ’22. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, 2022.


[1] Vanden Abeele, Mariek M P. “Digital Wellbeing as a Dynamic Construct.” Communication Theory 31, no. 4 (November 1, 2021): 932–55.

[2] Loid, Karina, Karin Täht, and Dmitri Rozgonjuk. “Do Pop-up Notifications Regarding Smartphone Use Decrease Screen Time, Phone Checking Behavior, and Self-Reported Problematic Smartphone Use? Evidence from a Two-Month Experimental Study.” Computers in Human Behavior 102 (January 1, 2020): 22–30.

[3] Lyngs, Ulrik, Kai Lukoff, Petr Slovak, Reuben Binns, Adam Slack, Michael Inzlicht, Max Van Kleek, and Nigel Shadbolt. “Self-Control in Cyberspace: Applying Dual Systems Theory to a Review of Digital Self-Control Tools.” Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May 2, 2019, 1–18.

[4] Cheever, Nancy A., Larry D. Rosen, L. Mark Carrier, and Amber Chavez. “Out of Sight Is Not out of Mind: The Impact of Restricting Wireless Mobile Device Use on Anxiety Levels among Low, Moderate and High Users.” Computers in Human Behavior (August 1, 2014): 290–97.

[5] Hiniker, Alexis, Sungsoo (Ray) Hong, Tadayoshi Kohno, and Julie A. Kientz. “MyTime: Designing and Evaluating an Intervention for Smartphone Non-Use.” In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 4746–57. CHI ’16. New York, NY, USA: Association for Computing Machinery, 2016.

[6] Ingraham, Christopher. “Screen Time Is Rising, Reading Is Falling, and It’s Not Young People’s Fault.” Washington Post, June 21, 2019.

[7] Marty-Dugas, Jeremy, Brandon Ralph, Jonathan Oakman, and Daniel Smilek. “The Relation Between Smartphone Use and Everyday Inattention.” Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice (March 1, 2018).

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Luke Haliburton ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter in der Arbeitsgruppe „Human-Centered Ubiquitous Media“ des Instituts für Informatik an der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU). Er forscht und bloggt zum Thema „Menschzentrierte Entwicklungsprozesse für digitale Technologien zur Förderung der Gesundheit“ im Rahmen des bayerischen Verbundprojekts „Gesunder Umgang mit digitalen Technologien und Medien“ (ForDigitHealth).

4 Kommentare

  1. Exciting article and the research behind it. Did the study also include usage behavior before using the app? What role does the awareness play that one’s own usage behavior is tracked by researchers? Doesn’t that automatically make people use their cell phones less?

    • We did collect some baseline information from people about their usage, but this is a great question. Past work has actually shown that being made aware of your usage does not lead to a reduction in usage [1]. We recorded the participants’ screen time from the week before they joined the study as a baseline, so we are actually comparing to a “normal” week anyway.

      [1] Loid, Karina, Karin Täht, and Dmitri Rozgonjuk. “Do Pop-up Notifications Regarding Smartphone Use Decrease Screen Time, Phone Checking Behavior, and Self-Reported Problematic Smartphone Use? Evidence from a Two-Month Experimental Study.” Computers in Human Behavior 102 (January 1, 2020): 22–30.

    • Das ist eine gute Frage! Wir sind gerade dabei, die App weiterzuentwickeln, so dass sie für einen normalen Nutzer nutzbar ist. Ursprünglich haben wir sie speziell für die akademische Studie entwickelt, daher sind einige Änderungen erforderlich (z. B. Hinzufügen eines Einstellungsbildschirms, über den Sie das Verhalten der App steuern können). Sobald dies abgeschlossen ist, werden wir die App kostenlos im App Store und Play Store zur Verfügung stellen.

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