Our relationship had always been a somewhat troublesome one.
There was love. There was occasionally a bit of hate. There was a lot of time spent together which I had begun to resent. Our relationship was based on familiarity, routine, comfort and instant gratification. I’d doubted this relationship on several occasions over the years. Wondered if it had become unhealthy, mindless and addictive. Yet, most people I knew were in exactly the same relationship. So, why did I feel increasingly uncomfortable? It was time, I decided, to break up with my smartphone.
Up until a few years ago, I’d had a pay-as-you-go basic Nokia, whose battery lived for almost forever and seldom left its place on the kitchen windowsill. However, I was tempted by the lure of instant access to the plethora of social media apps, email, my work email, weather apps, WhatsApp and, oh yes, the ‘selfie’ camera complete with ego-stroking, beautifying filters to make me look trimmer, brighter, lighter, teeth whiter and many other editing tools to make me Instagram-acceptable. After a hiatus, I re-joined Facebook (another love/hate relationship); my new phone’s app made uploading my filtered photos incredibly easy.
Then, I’d wait for a gratifying ping, a hoped-for beep, an addictive buzz to tell me that someone, out there in Social Media World, had ‘liked’ my photo, comment or post and so it went on. And on.
Although I turned my phone off at night, I’d sometimes wake in the early hours and, despite reading how blue light only fed insomnia, I’d find myself just quickly checking Facebook. A teeny peek at my email. Ooh, a WhatsApp message! …and repeat. In the morning, my phone would be what I’d settle down to read over my first cup of tea of the day. And so it would go on, day in, day out.
Yet, increasingly, I would feel a niggle that something wasn’t right. I’d feel like I didn’t have enough time. I’d claim to love reading, yet the pile of books remained unread. I’d enjoy my morning walks, but instead of simply being in awe of what I saw, I’d feel compelled to photograph it for my Facebook page or (she winces now) take a flushed-but-glowing selfie after a morning run in a look-how-healthy-I-am-subtle-brag and share it as soon as I got home on Facebook. Arty filters? Check.
Ensure associated text was sufficiently self-deprecating to not appear too self-obsessed and braggy? Check. Upload. Wait. ‘Like’ received. Gratification! And repeat.
Perhaps that’s a little harsh. Having instant-access to email was indeed useful, and I still believe it has its uses. Facebook helped me stay in touch at the click of a button with friends around the world. I did feel a warm, fuzzy ‘connectedness’ when someone ‘tagged’ me in a photo of family or friends. However, my smartphone meant it was far too easy to ‘check-in’ online so not to fuel any fear-of-missing-out. I could have a quick peek at my work email at the weekend to ‘be prepared’ for Monday even though it meant being in work-mode again on my day off. Rightly or wrongly, (and of course it’s subjective) being turned on had become a turn-off. And it seems that research is arriving at similar conclusions: The smartphone’s myriad of functions mean that the average user checks their phone 85 times a day and 91 per cent of users would never leave home without their ‘other half’ in hand. However, in this relationship, the smartphone never shuts up. And research suggests that ignoring your phone is as impossible as ignoring someone calling out your own name. Even when the phone is silent and not in use, it still commands our attention. A recent study titled Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity (Ward et al., 2017) indicates that the mere presence of a phone on the table, in a pocket or bag, is enough to impair performance on off-screen tasks.
So, I broke up with my smartphone. I disconnected. After a couple of failed attempts, I even managed the you’ve-got-to-wait-14-days-before-your-Facebook-page-is-REALLY-deleted limbo.
No more ego-stroking ‘likes’. No more social comparisons. No more knowing what everyone everywhere was doing, saying, thinking or eating. No more instant-gratification, easy-access-to-information, mindless scrolling or midnight texting. No more chatter, noise and the feeling that I had to be ‘on’ all the time.
I now have a steady, solid, reliable, minimalistic phone. It’s only been a couple of weeks, so who knows how this relationship will go. I’m not sure how the “no-WhatsApp-text-message-only-please” request is going to go down and if I’ll slip off many a social radar. It’s slightly annoying having to turn on my P.C to check the weather forecast (I haven’t had a television for nearly a decade - no subtle brag intended). Trying to quickly text on my ‘dumbphone’ has provoked a few expletives but, it’s also reminded me to slow down, take a breath, and pay more attention to what I’m doing. Although I don’t know what everyone is saying, going, wearing, humble-bragging and opinionating about (that was me too), I rather like not knowing.
There is so much information-overload in our society that not knowing, and being selective about when and where and how I learn new information, is truly liberating. Where once I would have mindlessly passed away an hour before bed on my phone, I now find my nose buried into a book. Every morning, instead of checking my Facebook feed, I check-in mindfully and with gratitude through scribbling away in a daily journal. When I go for an early morning dog walk, I enjoy the moment and really notice what’s all around me, not always thinking ahead to how I may capture it through a filtered camera lens or how it may look on my profile page. I still share photos with family but it’s not through social media. And, as I promised myself to have a couple of ‘no-tech’ days each week, there’s no checking work emails on my days off.
By disconnecting, I feel more connected to what I feel really matters. The world is incredibly real and beautiful.
Yet, far too often I lived in a virtual world of instant gratification, social comparisons, chatter and noise, pounding the relentless hedonic treadmill in search of the next ping and buzz of social acceptance. My identity had, to a degree, become a fabricated, filtered online one, rather than a three-dimensional, real, raw, blood-running-through-these-veins, breathing being. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with people using smartphones and social media, has it become an unquestioned social norm?
So, the relationship is over. No more smartphone. No more social media. No more instant-access to just about anything once I shut down my P.C for the working day. Instead, I’m filling blank pages with words; I’m doodling just because I enjoy it. I’m walking, jogging, skipping, swing-a-swinging (see last article!) at dawn and not documenting every success, failure, goal achieved, every thought, feeling or mile ran. I’m reading wonderful, inspiring books. I’m sleeping soundly. I don’t know everything that’s going on in the world, but when I do choose to know, I make sure I do so mindfully and with purpose.
If you have ever thought about using your smartphone less, or even breaking up with it completely - I truly would say give it a go. Try it out. Experiment. Head out into the wonderful outdoors and leave the phone behind. Disconnect to reconnect with what you feel truly matters.
“We all understand the joys of our always-wired world - the connections, the validations, the laughs…the information. But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs.”
Andrew Sullivan (2016)
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, Maarten W. Bos. Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2017; 2 (2): 140 DOI: 10.1086/691462
Andrew Sullivan (2016) http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-technology-almost-killed-me.html
Originally published in print, September 2017: