When is it Okay to use your Smartphone?

Ben Eagan
4 min readJun 9, 2021


If you are a Millennial, I bet you had front row seats to a really interesting turning point in the world’s relationship to technology. Take yourself back to an innocent time in the mid 2000s. You probably went out to dinner with a friend who had just gotten text messaging on their cell phone. Your friend then proceeded to text their crush/bestie for the whole dinner, pretty much ignoring you. When it happened to me, I remember thinking that surely etiquette would evolve to squash this. Etiquette didn’t rise to the occasion sadly, and neither did I. Instead of setting boundaries, I uh… just gave up and joined in.

Looking back on this time, it was a magically fleeting window where people keenly felt bad seeing their friends prefer digital conversations to real life company. As teenagers witnessing the birth of the texting era, we understood the choice being made first hand. This choice of digital over physical company has since been refined into rocket fuel for addictive social media companies, but these didn’t exist yet. The like button wasn’t even patented! The attention economy was just a tiny little confused baby lion, indistinguishable from a kitten.

A similar scene took place around the dinner table’s at home and features the punching bag of the internet; Boomers and Gen Xers. If you lived to see text messaging catch on, you probably also had parents who enforced the “No Phones at the Table” rule. This sensible rule survived until about 2015 in my experience, before our parents became at least as likely as Millennials to have their phones out for most of the meal.

It’s not just the dinner table that was disrupted by mobile devices too. Think of your local cinema. There was a time that cinemas didn’t enforce guidelines on mobile devices, and it was just left to your own best judgment not to ruin the movie for others. With the rise of texting and Apps however, theatres had to get explicit in their rules. Alamo Draft House will kick you out (for real) if you use a phone, while AMC began allowing phones to remain on to be more appealing to Millennials. The fact that official policies had to be enacted however shows we really never learned when it’s okay to be on your phone.

So, when IS it okay to use a smartphone? The dinner table is rude. Movie theatre is mostly bad. Walking down the street, dangerous and absent minded. Driving? Definitely don’t do that. Riding the bus? Yeah, that’s pretty ideal. Sitting at your desk at work? That’s a grey area. Elevator? Definitely OK. Elevator with your friends? Grey area. Sitting on the toilet? Perfect time. Sitting on a dock on vacation, drinking coffee, watching the sun rise? Um… If you want to?

This slice of activities shows the smartphone reigns supreme in periods of our life that we are idle and can squeeze in a quick glance. If I only checked my email, texts, blog post stats, YouTube comments, Amazon tracking numbers, bank balance, Signal messages, local newspaper, Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit feeds in the space between other events (for example, while commuting by bus), I’d be hitting maximum digital efficiency. Packing it into the empty spaces is the best case scenario. We all know however that despite best intentions, this bleeds through to the rest of our lives.

As I begin to wrap up, I have to acknowledge that posts like this always disappoint when you reach the “what you can do about it” bits. They describe a broad, extremely challenging, profitable situation in our lives (healthy interaction with technology), and promise some quick hacks like making your phone grey-scale or turning off all notifications will lead to salvation. I don’t have a quick answer here, and your relationship with technology is something you have to assess for yourself.

I’ll tell you what I plan to do though, and how I’ll know if it’s working (as suggested by Cal Newport in Digital Minimalism).

I believe the things I do on my iPhone are important to me, but I do these poorly because I don’t make proper time for them. To remedy this, I will explicitly carve out time in my day to safely and intentionally use my smartphone. Lots of phone features are time sensitive however and needed on-demand (maps, phone calls, etc). So I’ll be limiting this scheduled time to social media, email, news, and group chats.

How much time I set aside has been decided by my Screen Time app. I can see my weekly average usage is 2h 50min, with 88 daily pickups! Of that time, I spend 1 hr 4min on email, social media, texting, and news reading on average. So I’ll schedule myself 1 hour per day throughout the day, and leave my phone to essential purposes only.

Screen Time snapshot used to schedule non-essential phone time durations

I honestly don’t know if scheduling my time will work. I’m expecting to see that I actually need a lot less time for these non-essential activities than I expected. So if this scheduling experiment works, I hope to see less time spend on these tasks in screen time, and fewer pickups per day! I’ll just have to give it a try, and report back. If you feel like doing the same, I’d be very keen to hear your experiences.



Ben Eagan

I’m a Software Engineer who practices Human Centred Computing. I’m also a new dad, husband, coffee roaster, mountain biker, who can’t be constrained to 160 char