I have a love-hate relationship with my iPhone. On one hand, I appreciate having the world at my fingertips: a state-of-the-art camera, instant connection to the people I love (for both meaningful conversations and to facilitate the sharing of hilarious memes), a flashlight, timer, dictionary, and even an app (that I downloaded on an island in the middle of nowhere, I might add) to alert me to the fact that yes, in fact, my son had been playing in poison ivy for almost an hour. Cue facepalm.
But I hate that I turn to it for mindless entertainment. I hate that I turn to it to numb me from the stress and anxiety of parenting and a pandemic and renovations (even though, paradoxically enough, I often end up reading the news which does nothing to bolster my mood). I hate that I pick it up over and over and over again each day – to check the weather, look up lyrics to a song, or to Google “How many toilet paper rolls – jumbo size – would it take to circumnavigate the Earth.” You know, incredibly important tasks of that ilk.
I hate that I can be distracted when the kids are trying to interact with me – often under the guise of helping them (texting parents to arrange playdates, for example). I hate that I reach for it first thing in the morning and that I feel panicked if I head out to run errands and realize I’ve left it home on the counter.
I say all this and yet I think I actually have a lot of well-established boundaries with my phone. I don’t text while driving, don’t have any social media apps (which makes sense because I don’t have any social media accounts!), and generally keep my daily screen time below 2 hours (and most weeks this hovers around the 1 hour/day mark).
I’ve decluttered my home screen, leaving only a handful of apps, and I try to only check e-mail on my phone a few times a day. I deleted all my news apps years ago, so have to navigate to physical web addresses each time (which does help lessen my news consumption, but I still head to news sites more than would be advisable given the general tone of coverage).
But, but, but…
I can tell there is significant room for improvement. I know there are ways to decrease my screen time and, more importantly to me right now, improve how I feel when I walk away from time on my digital device.
I talk with my family a lot about things being net-negative or net-positive. I think, despite all the upsides, social media is a net-negative experience for almost all users (and I believe the mental health statistics from the last decade would back me up on this). Most technologies have positives and negatives, and it’s all about assessing the net result. For example, washing machines can break down clothing fibers far more quickly than hand-washing, but I can think of a dozen reasons why I’m not rushing to eBay to source a washboard and lye soap anytime soon. To me, a washing machine falls neatly into the net-positive category.
But right now, despite my best efforts and “good” habits, my phone feels like a net-negative. I think it has less to do with the amount of time (quantity) and more to do with the function of that time (quality).
I just finished reading How To Break Up With Your Phone by Catherine Price. Instead of trying to summarize everything she said, I’m just going to discuss some of the key takeaways I wrote down while reading the book (it’s short, readable, very practical, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that wants to revisit their relationship with smartphones) + some direct quotes.
Action items I’m implementing
- I’ve put a hair elastic around my phone as a tangible/sensory reminder to me to pay attention each time I pick up my phone. She calls this sort of thing “speed bumps” – little reminders that slow us down and either make time on our phones seem less efficient/attractive or, at the very least, leave us aware that we’ve reached for our phone again. [She also suggests changing the picture on the lock screen to something like “Notice” or a taking a picture of a piece of paper – bonus points if someone you love is holding it up – that reads: “Why did you pick me up?”I love my current picture (of the hubby and I on vacation) too much to do that, but I still thought it was a good idea.]
- Use the WWW prompt. Price suggests we ask ourselves the following questions when we’re reaching for our phone: What For (Why am I picking up the phone?Name a specific purpose – to order underwear on Amazon, to look up reviews on a new restaurant, to kill time?), Why Now (Is it practical – to take a picture of something; is it situational – am I on an awkward elevator ride; is it emotional – I want a distraction?), and What Else (What else could I be doing instead of turning to my phone?)?
- Pick a new charging spot. I’m a bit stymied by this one, but will report back when I find a better location than my bedside table which certainly doesn’t help me avoid the last-thing-at-night/first-thing-in-the-morning phone usage. For the last few days I’ve been leaving my phone on the dresser and not charging it until it gets low. A happy by-product of using my phone less – it doesn’t need to be charged every day and I can always plug it in first thing in the morning, which will make it less convenient to over-consume in the first place.
- Track total pickups. I think I have a pretty good handle on total time (I like this to be about an hour, and am generally within 20 minutes or so of this, but can definitely spike over 2 hours without much effort, especially if I’ve had a tough day). I think my bigger issue is how often I reach for my phone and how that short check-in with texts can morph into 30 minutes catastrophizing about COVID and climate change and politics on the BBC news website. In my defence of the screenshot below – some of the 89 pick-ups on December 18th are related to preparing all the verses for our Christmas gifts; the fact that the Bible app was responsible for at least 17 of those pickups has to count for something! Also, I don’t mind seeing a high Camera count because that is one of my favourite uses for the phone. The issue is I’ll open up my camera and then see a text and then enter a search string and…you know how the rest of this story goes, right?
QUotes that stood out
“Smartphones…nag us. They disturb us when we’re working. They demand our attention and reward us when we give it to them. Smartphones engage in disruptive behaviors that have traditionally been performed only by extremely annoying people.”
- I bolded that last bit because…it literally made me laugh out loud.
“When we check our phones, we occasionally find something satisfying – a complimentary e-mail…an interesting piece of news. The resulting burst of dopamine makes us begin to associate the art of checking our phones with the receipt of a reward. Similarly, there are times when checking your phone out of anxiety really does leave you feeling soothed.
Once that link has been established, it doesn’t matter if we’re rewarded only one time out of every fifty. Thanks to dopamine, our brains remember that one time. And instead of dissuading us, the fact that we can’t predict which of our fifty checks is going to be rewarding makes us check our phones even more.
Want to know another device that uses intermittent rewards to drive compulsive behavior? Slot machines.
In fact, the similarities between the two devices are so powerful that Harris [who wrote an article titled: How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind] frequently compares smartphones to slot machines [considered to be one of the most addictive devices ever invented] we keep in our pockets.”
- Okay, this hits close to home. I actually spent a year of my Master’s using classic Pavlovian conditioning – on honeybees, not humans or dogs, admittedly – and my all-time favourite clip from the office is the Altoid exchange between Dwight and Jim. In other words: I should recognize this pattern and know better.
[Referring to social media and “likes”]: “Put this all together, and it makes sense that spending a lot of time on social media could be associated with depression and lower self-esteem. What doesn’t make sense is that we are deliberately choosing to relive the worst parts of middle school.“
- This also made me laugh because…it’s so relatable. Middle school (and high school, too) are just so objectively tough and awkward when it comes to the judgement of a few, specific “popular” people we admire for their perceived status who don’t care about our emotional wellbeing. And now, as a society, we are so often willingly opening ourselves up to the same sort of critique!?
“…a New York Times analysis calculated that as of 2014, Facebook users were spending a collective 39,757 years’ worth of attention on the site, every single day. It’s attention that we didn’t spend on our families, or our friends, or ourselves. And just like time, once we’ve spent attention, we can never get it back.
This is a really big deal, because our attention is the most valuable thing we have. We experience only what we pay attention to. We remember only what we pay attention to. When we decide what to pay attention to in the moment, we are making a broader decision about how we want to spend our lives.”
- I am so easily distracted, not just by my phone but I think largely because of it; because I’ve wired myself to short bursts of attention, to supposed “multitasking” and to always feeling like I need to be doing…something. Can anyone else see parallels with Oliver Burkeman’s productivity trap discussion?
“…if you wanted to invent a device that could rewire our minds, if you wanted to create a society of people who were perpetually distracted, isolated, and overtired, if you wanted to weaken our memories and damage our capacity for focus and deep thought, if you wanted to reduce empathy, encourage self-absorption, and redraw the lines of social etiquette, you’d likely end up with a smartphone. “
- Hmmm. She’s clearly not holding back any punches in this quote.
“Most of the things we do on our phones – reading the news, playing games – are stimulating activities. Imagine how difficult it would be to doze off if all of the people you follow on social media were in the room with you, the television was blaring in the background, and several friends were having a political debate. That’s essentially what you’re doing when you bring your phone into bed with you.”
- I thought this was a great perspective/unique way of visualizing the problem. I have definitely caught myself going to my phone for one final “check-in” before bed and seeing a challenging work e-mail, depressing news story or frustrating text…and then not being able to get it off my mind.
“We learn to stay with the uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of [our cravings]. We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise will rule our lives.” Pema Chodron
- I read about something similar in Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap (also highly recommend) where he talks about surfing the urge. This could be related to overconsumption of food or getting angry at your kids or, in this case, the urge to pick up a smartphone. Being conscious of the urge (or itch) is part of the solution – once we’re aware of the triggers we can actually tune into the feedback our body is giving us (physical and mental clues) and simply try to ride it out.
“The point of breaking up with our phones isn’t to deprive ourselves of the benefits of modern technology. It’s to set boundaries so that we can enjoy the good parts of our phones while also protecting ourselves from the bad.”
- How true! There is SO much good about phone technology and I appreciate the fact this book isn’t designed to be a giant guilt-trip.
“The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Again, it’s about awareness. And too often I pick the phone up out of habit, not with a true sense of purpose in mind (or, if my purpose is clear, I quickly forget it with notifications and pinging notifcations).
[Quote from a participant in the author’s focus group]: “Checking your phone is like picking your nose: there’s nothing wrong with it, but no one should have to watch you do it.” Alex
- Made me laugh, while also being insightful.
“At first you’re likely to feel physically and emotionally twitchy, as if your brain is banging on a door that usually opens, and panicking when it realizes that it’s locked.”
- Again, I liked this imagery. We get so used to reaching for our phone in a lineup or when we’re angry or overwhelmed or scared or bored or tired; also, it’s another reminder to sit still with the “itch.”
“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
- I am an introvert. I think I’ve come to realize the importance of this aspect of my personality more and more (likely compounded by the fact, for many months, there was very little chance for solitude with pandemic lockdowns and a young family at home). I like stillness and solitude and communion with God and spending time in nature, and need to be more proactive about seeking this out each and every day, even when I can’t necessarily carve out solo time.
Phew…that was a big, long post.
What are your thoughts about phones/screentime? Anything you’re looking to change in 2022 or any “hacks” you’ve successfully implemented to improve your interactions with your smartphone?