I’ve realized over the last few years that I am in a nasty, codependent relationship with my cell phone. Breakups are hard, this I know. But this one has been particularly turbulent. I’ve tried for the last year to find ways to loosen the grip that my phone has on me and my life. By and large, it has been an adventure filled with few triumphs, and many failures. I suppose this is the journey of love.
But then again, this relationship could be better defined in terms of an addiction rather than a mutually beneficial arrangement. I recently updated my iPhone, and it came with a new feature called Screen Time, which shows a weekly breakdown of my phone activity. It paints a very detailed, grimacing portrait of my unhealthy reliance on technology.
On average, according to Screen Time, I spend about two and half hours on my phone every single day. That’s about 17 hours a week, which comes out to about 884 hours a year. That is approximately 5 weeks of time that I spend on my smartphone each year. This doesn’t factor in the time during the day that I spend looking at other media: time I spend watching Netflix, YouTube, checking emails, and staring at my screen at work. The research organization Neilson recently found in a 2018 study that “American adults spend over 11 hours per day listening to, watching, reading or generally interacting with media.” But before we get too carried away, let’s focus on one roadblock at a time: our smartphones.
Our growing dependency to phones is being increasingly researched and documented. But it doesn’t take a sociology doctorate to understand that we have a major problem with our phone use.
Just look around. Ride a bus, a subway, a train, a plane, and just observe your surroundings. People are buried into their phones. There’s entire montages of people causing horrible pedestrian accidents because they are distracted by their phones. Weirdly enough, you probably know somebody who has dropped their phone into a toilet because they couldn’t wait a few minutes to check Instagram or send a text message. People are texting and driving in growing numbers. We’ve coined a new term called “phubbing,” the common experience of somebody looking at their phone in the middle of conversation. And let’s not forget “text neck,” a physical syndrome that is the result of looking down at your phone or tablet for too long or too frequently, causing a distinct rounded bump at the base of your neck. I make these statements with confidence because I too have been both a perpetuator and an observer of these behaviors and their negative consequences.
Fine. I’ll be more specific: I’ve dropped my cellphone in a toilet. Sue me.
This would all be fine if our phone use wasn’t having negative results. A lot of what we are learning about the consequences of phone use is being made known by studying the “post-millennial” generation, otherwise known as “iGen,” people born between 1995 and 2012. This article by Jean M. Twenge in The Atlantic summarizes the problem quite well. It documents troubling research that describes iGen as one of the most lonely, isolated, and depressed generations on record:
“The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.”Jean M. Twenge
The research is showing that teens are putting off adulthood even more than the millennial generation did. The post-millennials are waiting longer to get driver’s licenses, work paying jobs, go on dates, and have sex. This group is reporting that they are more lonely than previous generations. They are hanging out in social groups less and spending more time alone. On top of all of this, they are more sleep deprived than any generation before them. All of these metrics began to change drastically at one particular moment in our technological revolution: the 2007 release of the iPhone.
It appears as though these behavioral changes are having a profound effect on mental health. Jean M. Twenge says that “there is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.”
The article cites the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual survey that has asked 12th graders a list of questions every year since 1975. The nationally-representative survey has also asked 8th and 10th graders questions since 1991. I distinctly remember taking this survey when I was a high school senior. I remember feeling strange that I was being asked all of these personal questions about my happiness. Nonetheless, the results were clear about phone use and mental health:
“Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy.”
Additionally, in her own research, Jean M. Twenge found that “Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.” And for the first time in 24 years, “In 2011 […] the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate.”
The difference between the millennials and the post-millennials is that, for the millennials, the internet was not ever-present in our lives. It was around, and we utilized it, and we surely spent our fair share of time waiting for dial-up connections. But with the post-millenials, technology and social media is practically always there. It is, for many in this generation, the primary lens through which they view the world.
But as I’ve noticed from simply existing in the world, each generation has its unique challenges with technology and over-consumption of media. It will be increasingly important that we begin to develop healthy attachments to our smartphones and other forms of media so that we can hopefully set the example for younger — and older — generations.
For actual, real life solutions on how we can break up with our phones, I turned to Science Mike. He’s the host of The Liturgist podcast and the show Ask Science Mike. Mike analyses every issue, whether it’s a profoundly personal issue or a very public issue, through the lens of science and spirituality. He has a really good 20 minute podcast that sums up how he used science and research to break his cell phone addiction.
The first step, according to Science Mike, is to disable all notifications on your phone. Notifications are a huge problem in that they keep us tied to our devices. When we feel that buzz in our pocket, we get an influx of dopamine in our brain, which is the chemical associated with pleasure and reward. When we hear that buzz, we get happy and we reach to check our phone, every single time. Even if the notification is for a bill, or for unpleasant news, that initial buzz will have us coming back to our phone every time. Try leaving your phone out, with your ringer on, while you receive text messages and other notifications. It can be somewhat difficult not to check the phone. Harvard did a great study that explores this feedback–reward–dopamine cycle in more depth. By disabling notifications, we can take back some control and set intentional boundaries about when and how we check our devices.
Science Mike then implores us to “put our phone to bed.” By this, he means choosing a time at night to put your phone away for good. He even waits until after breakfast the next morning to check back in. This gives you intentional time away from your phone, extra time to pursue time with yourself or others. If you want, you can buy an old fashioned alarm clock so that you don’t have to rely on your phone to wake you up. Our phones are often the last thing we see at night and the first thing we see in the morning.
Social media, through its use of smart algorithms and machine learning, is constantly vying for our attention. It turns out that what gets the most attention on social media is outrage and pictures of people living their best life. Science Mike encourages us to not check our phones and social media when we are having anxiety, because scrolling through our news feed or commenting on a controversial Facebook post does not relieve anxiety, but makes it worse. When it comes to outrageous content (think a controversial political post), and pictures of people looking extremely happy (your ex-lover and their new, more handsome partner), it is important to remember that everybody experiences pain, sadness, and low moments in life. Your social media feed is likely not an accurate representation of the world around you. It is best not to compare yourself to your friends and family, for their lives are more complicated and nuanced than what is projected on social media. Ideally, it is best to have controversial and difficult conversations in person with loved ones with whom you disagree. Facilitating a real conversation in person offers the most potential for learning and growth, whereas on social media people tend to dig in to their entrenched views and opinions.
In no way am I advocating for us to completely abstain from our cell phones. My life and the lives of many others have often been enhanced by this revolutionary technology. It allows for us to stay connected in a myriad of ways, to seek out differing opinions, and to have access to information and education 24/7. Science Mike also names that social media has uplifted the voices of marginalized people, disabled people, and other oppressed groups. But as we can see from studying the post-millenial generation, we need to begin critically examining our troubling relationships to our phones.