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I’ve had a love-hate relationship with my smartphone since 2010.

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When I first turned it on I sensed life was never going to be the same. The ease of writing text messages in a stream of conversation. So many old devices all wrapped up into one. Boundless internet connectivity. This thing was awesome… and I was suspicious.

The last six years, insofar as my smartphone is concerned, have gone like this: awe, suspicion, cautious adoption, addiction, suspicion, and rejection. This is the story of that journey, and life less connected.

Technological Abuse

Through the 2000s I dabbled in techno-pessimism. I was drawn to this idea that technology can provide us great gifts with the one hand, and stab us in the back with other. Oppenheimer created the atomic bomb then pleaded for it to never be used. Rachel Carson sounded the alarm on DDT. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned us to curtail the burning of fossil fuels or we’ll melt the polar ice caps.

When we make new things a part of our world, or our lives, we should be thoughtful about their potential to harm, destroy, or displace. Reckless adoption seems to consistently get us into trouble.

So, in this vein, I aimed to cautiously use my new smartphone to supplement, not substitute, real world engagement.

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Bowling Alone

Around this same time, I was studying the rise of the Religious Right in the US and the conditions that led to the born-again movement and its politicization. It turns out the phenomenon happened in lockstep with a few important social trends: lower community involvement, less time spent with friends and family, and declining social trust. As Harvard political scientist Dr. Robert Putnam argued, we had become less trusting and more isolated. And, as psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers have pointed out, we don’t like feeling lonely. A sense of safety, belonging, and purpose are core human needs. The more we feel that void, the more we seek to fill it — or ignore it.

What caused this alienation?

Putnam looked at a host of factors starting in the 1950s through the 1990s, including: suburbanization, lower trust in government, economic forces, and spectator entertainment. His conclusion was that the most powerful cause was television or, more accurately, the time we spent watching television.

When I was a child my grandfather used to scold us, “turn off that idiot box and go play outside.” He was on to something.

Psychological Manipulation

Something else interesting happened in the 90s. Advertising companies began using language like, “supporter engagement” and building “brand communities.” Logos were big and ubiquitous but were not enough. Marketers realized they could engineer cult-like support by building trust, and loyalty, and — most importantly — becoming a platform for interpersonal relationships. Saturn Motors organized “Homecomings” for their vehicle owners. Lululemon Athletica hosted yoga sessions in their stores. The Running Room created local running clubs that started at their shops. Brands didn’t want to just tell us how great they were, they wanted to become an active part of our lives.

These were the pioneers for the social media age.

Today’s social web — and games — exploit many more psychological hooks. Likes, shares, followers, comments, messages all carry micro stimuli: a buzz, a flash, a notification, a reward. These stimuli are designed to fire a release of dopamine. Input becomes associated with gratification, which, if abused, can lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Tech companies now openly discuss designing “compulsion loops” that result in obsessions with their applications. As Bill Davidow of the Atlantic put it, “Many Internet companies are learning what the tobacco industry has long known — addiction is good for business.”

One problem with addiction is that eventually you become numb. It takes more hits to solicit a response. Then you start to do it because that’s your new baseline. This can lead to many more mental health issues like detachment and depression.

The End Of Absence

By 2013 I was totally hooked.

I had worked for years in digital strategy and political campaigns. Staying on the cutting edge was my jam. And to be honest, I found the frontier fascinating. But it became totally unhealthy. I was checking work emails at dinner. Thumbing through my Instagram feed on the bus because I was bored, or anxious. I’d fall asleep reading a news article while my partner watched Netflix. We’d face away from each other, back-to-back. The phone had become an extension of reality. I had placed it between other people and myself. I used it to substitute real world face-time. At its worst, the over-connection created new anxieties, à la Portlandia’s technology-loop.

In the spring of 2015 I woke up to feeling disconnected. Disconnected from people, but also moments. Less present, less aware. My short-term memory had become terrible. The transition from sleep and being awake became less clear. I’d go through the daily motions, ear buds in, spending the majority of the day looking at a screen. I even felt sluggish, as if my energy was being drained, which led to another crutch: coffee.

So I downloaded an app that tracks your daily smartphone usage called BreakFree. Given the nature of my work, and my symptoms, I assumed I was somewhere on the more extreme side of the spectrum. Turns out I’m only slightly above average.

According to a study by Locket the average user checks his or her phone 150 times per day. Another study estimated that the average 18-33 year-old spend five hours a day looking at a screen. Close to 55% of us sleep with our smartphones on our bedside table, 13% keep it on our bed, and 3% fall asleep with it in their hand. This may help explain why three quarters of women in committed relationships feel that smartphones are interfering with their love life. The mere presence of a phone on a table leads to more shallow conversation, lowering the amount of empathy exchanged.

How Addicted Are We?

In a 2015 Pew Research Centre study 24% of teens described going online “almost constantly.” Surveys in the United States and Europe from 2012 indicate Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) rates varying between 1.5% and 8.2%. Other reports place the rates between 6% and 18.5%. The Governments of China and South Korea have already declared IAD a significant public health threat. Usage is highest among Millenials, which means if we stay the course these trends will only worsen.

Artists, satirists, and public commentators are trying to point out the sickness and the absurdity.

Erik Pickersgill’s photo series Removed features people in normal social situations looking at their phones (the phones are edited out). In all the photos no one looks particularly entertained or happy. Award-winning Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia followed young Chinese men as they spent three months at a military style anti-addiction rehab centre in their PBS documentary, Web Junkies. Louis C.K. eloquently pointed out cellphone use is now the number one cause of motor vehicle accidents in North America. My personal favourite is Darby Cisneros’ stinging critique of “Instragram Reality” via her now inactive Hipster Barbie account.

Even President Obama chimed in, “Put your phones down. I’m right here.”

Searching for guidance I mentioned my symptoms to a friend. She recommended I try meditating and mindfulness exercises. So I got an app for that. Another friend recommended I read Michael Harris’ The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection.

Harris’ thesis is that anyone born before the mid 1980s will be the last generation in human history to know the pre and post Internet era. “I fear we are the last of the daydreamers. I fear our children will lose lack, lose absence and never comprehend its quiet, immeasurable value.”

That was the tipping point. It was only after reading Harris’ book that I realized what I was missing was absence. And through absence I would find presence. My relationship with technology needed a serious course correction. It wasn’t enough to simply recognize the dependency; it was time to take control.

Brave New World 

I started by decoupling my work email from my phone. I sent an email to my Board and told them I was “trying something new” and would no longer respond to work emails outside work hours. That helped, but it only made a small dent in my pattern.

Then, through a stroke of good fortune, I lost my phone while on vacation. I was upset for a few hours then saw it as a blessing. Okay, that’s it. I’m out. I called my provider and asked them to switch me to the most basic plan: Text and Calling only. Then I found a $15 ol’ school Nokia phone on Craigslist. Apparently it’s a growing global market, and not just for drug dealers. All the key functions are there: calling, texting, alarm clock, calendar. Apps are gone, as is Internet connection. So is the capacity to play music, take good pictures, and do group messaging.

For most functions lost there are workarounds. At the airport I print out my boarding pass. Before I go somewhere new I print a map, or write down the directions. If I want to hail a cab, I call the company. If I need to check my bank account balance, I do that before leaving home. You learn to chill out a bit and appreciate that not everything will always be at your fingertips. You also re-learn how to pre-plan better. If someone really needs to get in touch, they can call you.

Some functions are just lost. When away from my laptop I can’t participate in group chats, like WhatsApp. I can’t take good pictures or post to Instagram. If we had Uber here in Vancouver, I don’t think I’d be able to use it. If a question comes up that I can’t answer and I’m itching to solve, I write it down and come back to it later. I can’t play music and I’m resisting getting an MP3 player. Sound, apparently, is a huge part of feeling connected to space. For most of these lost abilities I say good riddance; others can be annoying but you learn to make do. The upshot is worth it.

First, I feel liberated. Liberated from the constant urge to open my phone. Liberated from the rush of concern if I can’t find the device. Liberated from the thought, “Hey, I should take a picture of this!” I’ve relearned (and apparently rewired my brain) to just be present. On the bus I look around and think about the other people, or just let my mind wander. Walking home I pay more attention to all the little details, and make an effort to smile as people walk by — although, 30-40% of the time they’re on their phones. My awareness feels sharper and my energy feels stronger.

My mental capacity has noticeably increased. I think about my friends and family more. I feel more empathetic, and “in-tune.” Because I don’t use headphones in public I’ve found myself sparking up more conversations with strangers. For example, I’ve gone to the same gym for almost a year. I’ve had more conversations with people in the last two months than in the previous ten. Some of the artificial boundaries have dissolved.

I have moments where I get an “itch” to reach for my phone — usually in a moment of boredom — but those quickly subside. They have also become less frequent as time goes by. The biggest hurdle was making the switch; now I’m perfectly content and have neither desire nor any intention to go back.

Pro-Internet, Anti-Abuse

To this day I remain very pro-Internet. It’s one of the most empowering inventions in human history. Digital rights organizations like Electronic Frontiers Foundation and OpenMedia.ca are doing excellent and important work.

The question, really, is, are we in control of our digital lives? If we are dependent or addicted, have we come to terms with it? If yes, what are we doing about it?

Harris, who went on a one-month digital detox, put it this way:

This book is a meditation more than a prescription. There are no ten easy steps to living a healthy digital life; there is no totalizing theory, no maxim, with which we can armor ourselves. Nor is digital abstinence the answer, absolute refusal being just another kind of dependence after all. Easy fixes are for easy problems. And what do real problems, big problems, call for? Experimentation and play.

I’m optimistic that we will take a step back from this mass addiction because in many ways it is in our own self-interest. Presence and absence have intrinsic value. So do awareness, and daydreaming, and creativity. Human connection is beautiful. Time is precious.

Some with stronger self-control will be able to self-monitor. Some will use tools (i.e. BreakFree) and strategies (digital breaks). Some, like me, need to restructure our lives without a smartphone. Each of us who agree this is a problem, can be part of the solution by helping ourselves, and others.

As we barrel down the path toward nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology it feels all the more pressing to stop and reflect on our relationship with the virtual world, and its gatekeepers.

What kind of lives do we want to live? What kind of world do we want to create?

As Marshall McLuhan said, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”

The choice is ours, but it’s going to take some effort.


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