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Can “Phone Free Zones” (PFZ’S) Help Social Interactions? Are They a Pipedream?

Living in the modern tech age is not an easy thing. Succumbing to the habit of pulling out the cell phone in the presence of company to the point of being so distracted that it’s downright rude gets easier by the day. Keeping mindful of not getting lost on the screen and missing the moments that matter as they are happening is all but automatic. How can we curb our incessant checking of our phones? Is there anything that we can do to promote some mental floss and reduce our use of the phone, especially when at a venue, at family dinner, or during a date? The answer may lie in a little pouch by a company called Yondr, which allows you to lock your phone while keeping it on you at the same time. If you want access to your phone you just leave the “phone free zone” (PFZ), to gain access to it again. You can check out the link to Yondr here. No this isn’t a plug-in sponsorship, but I do believe that it addresses a growing problem that is impeding social connectivity, which is so important for our mental health. This is a pretty clever way to solve the phone as distraction issue. We have become obsessed with capturing so many moments that we are failing to live them in vivo without the filter of a screen.

Some schools are implementing the use of these Yondr pouches with promising results. Teachers are reporting that kids are communicating ideas in much clearer ways. Also, fewer accounts of: bullying, decreased test anxiety, and greater critical thinking skills associated with increased face to face interaction have been reported. These are just a few of the problems being studied and found in relation to increased use of cell phones, specifically among students.

The online disinhibition effect is real and it causes people to behave in ways that they wouldn’t if they just talked face to face. Cell phone use and its interaction provides a gap of anonymity and disconnect associated with decreased rates of empathy between people. Teachers are also reporting that problem solving and communication skills have a positive relationship with one another. Are all of these things really surprising? If kids can actually interact and figure out differences what’s not positive about that? You don’t have to buy a Yondr pouch to start implementing PFZ’s of your own by the way.

An alternative is a simple zip lock bag. You’d be amazed at the ability to curb behaviors once you simply start paying attention and making a mental commitment to start changing them. There are other things you can start doing in developing habits that promote healthy social interaction between you and: family, friends, lovers, co-workers, teachers or whomever. If going on a date come up with a code word that can create awareness of the use of electronics for self and or date or pop out the zip lock bag and say: “I’m willing to pay attention to this date and I don’t want the phone to be a distraction, wanna bag it up?” Why not promote safe text? You may laugh, but bagging it up promotes many healthy interactions. All kidding aside why not give it a try?

Another thing you can do as a family is create boundaries and set ground rules for PFZ’s and times of implementation in the home. Start a topic of discussion with your spouse and kids. Did you know that families who eat dinner together usually produce healthier kids? Numerous reports coming from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University indicate that kids who eat at least five times a week with their family are at lower risk in the development of the following problems: weight issues, poor eating habits, alcohol and substance abuse dependency. These kids also have greater tendencies to academically outperform their peers who frequently eat solo.

Knowing that the brain literally feeds off healthy social interaction by strengthening the neural pathways responsible for keeping us socially healthy is what paying attention to the moment and to each other is all about. As cliché as it may be, we know that life is about quality social interaction not quantity. Yes, we have increased quantity of social interactions; but the argument is out as to the quality that cell phone interactions produce and from the looks of it they aren't good.

In closing, it doesn’t take much to start living right here, right now. I challenge you to start thinking of making some PFZ’s of your own and actually start implementing them in your homes, jobs, schools and while out with friends. Do it and start journaling to see what kind of changes you start to notice in yourself and others if any. The trick is to do it for at least 30 days. Notice if you just can’t do so. There’s no right or wrong, the key is gained awareness of behaviors and cell phone use habits. You may surprise yourself by how much you start to notice once you start putting your phone down or reduce what I call: “compulsive screen check”. It may be hard to curb, but noticing is half the battle.

~ Dr. Arny

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