When I show our toddler my smartphone, his eyes glaze over and he stares, trancelike into the screen. After a few minutes of cycling through old photos, I turn to put the phone away, but he screams.
“NOO!” he cries. “BABY!”
Real tears come from his eyes. His face goes red. His arms reach out, trying to grab onto the little rectangular device that so captures his attention. I try to hide it behind me, in the crack of the cushion. After all, I don’t want it within his reach. But it can’t be too far out of mine, either.
How I Know I’m An Addict
Over the last few months, I’ve become increasingly aware that I’m addicted to my smartphone. I don’t need a smartphone compulsion test to know that I have bad habits. I check e-mail on my phone more than twice an hour, and sometimes even more frequently than that. I feel the urge to check Instagram constantly, and get lost in a deluge of stories, or a smattering of DMs that really only amount to a few heart emojis. My smartphone interrupts conversations. My smartphone interrupts my work. I regularly check Instagram and e-mail while driving, even though I know how unsafe it is. All the while, our son Sam watches. Learning how to be in the world.
I’d tried many things to curb my smartphone use.
I bought a phone charging pad and a real alarm clock, so our phones could charge in the kitchen, and stay out of our bedroom. (I found myself running straight to the phone in the morning. It was the first thing I wanted to see every day. Not the coffee pot. Not my child’s face. My screen.)
I turned on “do not disturb” at night and set time limits for social media use. (Unfortunately, to bypass this limit, I simply had to press “ignore” to the limits. And I pressed ignore every time.)
I deleted Instagram. I thought if I deleted the app, I could go about my day, and then re-download it at night, check my messages, and delete it again. (This did not work for me. In the end, I downloaded, deleted, and re-downloaded the app multiple times during the day. I wasted more time and data this way than I’d like to admit.)
I even changed my screen to black and white. Research shows that turning your screen to a grayscale within the settings curb smart phone use. (This worked, but I hated it. So I turned the colors back on.)
My novel was coming out soon. I didn’t just want to be on Instagram. I NEEDED to be. Professionally. This became my greatest deterrent to getting rid of my smartphone. Maybe you’ve even said it. “I have to be on social media for my business.”
But is that true? Nevermind that Ann Patchett, arguably one of the most successful modern authors doesn’t have a smart phone or social media. Nevermind that in using the device, I simply found myself scrolling over and over again, looking for something that the phone could never give me. (Read: a place on the New York Times Bestseller List.)
The truth is, I might need social media for my business. But I don’t need it while I’m grocery shopping or watching a show with my husband or going to the playground with my son. I might need to check in once a day, or once every other day. I certainly don’t need it for 8 hours every week. I might need social media to announce something I’ve done or created. But I don’t need it, especially if it’s sucking out my creative energy to create in the first place.
What the Research Says
The research on smartphone use is unanimously distressing. Smartphones have been linked to increases in childhood anxiety and depression. One study found physical changes in children’s brains when they are overexposed to screens. The uber rich know this, which is why the people who invented tech are now paying to avoid tech all together. It’s why Silicon Valley nannies are the phone police for kids. It’s why expensive technology-free schools are growing en masse. Adults want their children to have a childhood. But tech isn’t great for adults either. We are now expected to be available 24/7 to our work. Social media algorithms are a mystery. “Influencers” gather followers by the thousands, hawking a mix of pretty pictures, partial nudity, detox tea, forced vulnerability, and braggadociousness. Meanwhile, I can barely get a post about my novel to rise above the noise.
Last week, I was at the pool at a very ritzy hotel. I was in the water with my son, and another little girl walked up, wanting to play. Her mother was sitting on the side of the pool with her phone.
“Sorry honey,” her mother said. “I just need to send one work e-mail and then I will be right there.”
I didn’t judge the woman at all. In fact, I AM that woman. Constantly. It’s nice, in a way, to be able to be on vacation and simultaneously at work. But my lack of boundaries is teaching something to my son. I am teaching him that it’s okay to try and be in two places at once. I am modeling distracted and compulsive behavior. I am showing him the path toward addiction in the name of “efficiency.”
As if that’s not enough, yesterday, I read a piece in the New York Times exposing a disturbing trend at YouTube. The gist? YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is intentionally leading viewers to child pornography. You don't have to go looking for it. Youtube leads you there. Let me say this again: YouTube is monetizing and CREATING addicts of child pornography, cashing in as children are exploited and lives are destroyed. If you’re outraged, welcome to the club. But you’re likely not surprised.
This is how the internet — and smartphones — work. They follow us, they listen to us, they see what we like, and they give us more. And more. And more. If I do a google search for new lamps, suddenly I’m fed content and ads about new rugs and home improvement projects and before you know it, I hate my house and am redecorating the whole thing. We have been abandoned to what our hearts desire. (Romans 1:24-27.) The system feeds on my addiction to the screen.
Sex sells. But addiction sells again.
There was no final straw. I just wanted to see if I could make a change.
The Forty Day Smartphone Fast
At some point in May, I decided to buy a flip phone.
My thinking was simple: I needed a hard break. I had proven to myself that I needed abstinence, not moderation. Maybe, after a few weeks with a flip phone, I would realize that I can live without a smartphone. Perhaps I would come up with a new system for myself — something that would work better than what I currently feel is a weight on my neck, keeping my head in my screen.
I decided to try it for 40 days. Forty days is the traditional length of a lenten fast. It’s also a long enough time to create new habits. Plus, “Forty Day Smartphone Fast” had an alliterative ring to it. I decided (somewhat arbitrarily) that my start date would be June 1st. The majority of my book events would be over. We were headed out on vacation. If I had to have a flip phone for forty days, I might as well do it when I had the least number of responsibilities.
So, at ten-thirty in the morning on June 1st, I walked into an AT&T store in Green Hills. The store was empty save for an elderly woman sitting at a table, who looked like she was waiting on someone. A red-headed man in a navy uniform shirt came over and asked how he could help.
“I’d like to buy a flip phone,” I said.
He smirked slightly. “A flip phone?”
“I want to do an experiment. It needs to match my iPhone’s SIM card.”
He nodded once, shrugged, then disappeared into the stock room.
When he returned, he held a small black box that said “Flip2.” The small piece of hardware comes with no bells or whistles, no headphones, no fancy charging device. It felt light in my hand and looked a lot like the toy phone someone had given my one-year-old for his birthday. Just a keypad and a small screen, roughly the size of a business card. A blast from the not-too-distant past.
He told me that none of my contacts would transfer to the new hardware. I pursed my lips. That could be difficult. He told me that I would be able to receive calls and texts, and could send texts too, but I’d have to use T9 — pressing each key as many times as I needed to in order to get to the right letter. It was $65 and there was one catch: if I wanted to return the phone, they would charge a $45 restocking fee. He looked at me with worried eyes and cocked his head to the side.
“So, are you sure?”
I stared at the AT&T employee. The fact that I wouldn’t have any contacts in my phone was annoying, for sure. But then again, I thought, maybe it would be nice to start from scratch. After all, how many people do I really need to communicate with on a daily basis, anyway?
The cost was a bit scary. But in the scheme of things, what was $65? I spend more than that on Amazon without batting an eye. Why, now, was I feeling this anxious voice inside of me telling me that I was making a huge mistake? Was that the addiction talking? Or was it logic? It’s cheaper than a therapy visit, I told myself. If I learned anything about my habits, it would be worth it.
Nothing is permanent. I told myself. I decided that if I hated the flip phone, I could go back to the smart phone and lose nothing except a few days and $45.
“Yes,” I said finally, taking out my wallet. “Let’s do it.”
What I Hope to Learn
Over the course of this forty-day fast, I hope to learn a few things.
Is it possible to integrate a flip-phone into my life so I can alternate between a smartphone and flip phone as necessary?
What is my addiction? Is it to the smartphone itself, or to social media?
What parts of my life function better because of the phone? What is worse?
What happens to the time that I used to spend on a smartphone? What do I do with it instead?
Is it possible, in 2019, to function without a smartphone? Where is the rub?
What, if anything, will I want to change about my habits after the fast is over?
I hope you’ll check back in and see how it goes.