I would consider myself somebody who has relatively strong willpower. If I really want to do something then I will usually stick to it. I’ve been practising yoga for 16 years, I’ve mastered a musical instrument, I’ve been eating a healthy, vegetarian diet for well over a decade, I exercise regularly.
I’m not saying I’m perfect – far from it (just ask Suzanne!) – but I’m, thankfully, not someone who has huge issues around impulse control.
I’m becoming increasingly alarmed, however, by my inability to truly moderate the amount of time I spend looking at a screen. Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve come to the realisation that I am almost powerless to resist the allure of my digital devices.
It’s not by accident that my iPhone is so addictive, though. So much time, money, and expertise (by extremely intelligent people) has been co-opted into keeping me staring at my phone as much as possible.
My primitive brain, which has evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain, has been hijacked by dopamine-rush-inducing apps, likes, shares, alarms, reminders, sounds, colours and all manner of notifications, causing me to keep on engaging with my phone until it becomes almost like an extension of my own body; or even of my own consciousness. So, even when I want to avoid it for a while, it keeps on dinging, ringing, and flashing until it gets my attention. Once it’s in my hand, who knows what interesting thing will grab my attention and how long I might spend engaged with it.
I got my first iPhone in 2007, or maybe 2008. I got it because I thought it was such a handy little thing to have in my pocket. I could google anything I wanted, whether or not I was near my computer. I could get directions to wherever I was going on google maps. I could check the weather forecast. I could stay in touch with friends from college in London that I didn’t see anymore through Facebook. It was just so convenient!
I did not buy that phone because I wanted to pick it up and look at it between 60 and 100 times per day, or because I wanted to be more engaged with the phone than with the people around me. And yet, that’s where we now find ourselves.
So what can we do to try to cultivate a healthier, less one-sided relationship with technology?
I’m reminded of a story I heard about Mahatma Gandhi. A mother brought her young son to see Gandhi one afternoon and she asked him to tell her son that he should stop eating sugar because it was so bad for him. Gandhi asked her to come back in three days. After the three days passed, she came back and Gandhi said to her son, “You should stop eating sugar, it’s very bad for you” (or something like that).
She thanked Gandhi but asked him why she had to wait three days for him to say that. His reply was that he had to first stop eating sugar himself before he was able to give the same advice to her son, otherwise he would be a hypocrite.
I, on the other hand, am going to acknowledge my own hypocrisy here and plough on through with the advice anyway. That’s one of the many reasons I’ll never be given the title of Mahatma!
First of all, I want to draw your attention to what I feel is a tricky problem. Most of us don’t want to get rid of our smartphones entirely, which means that, rather than make the decision to abstain entirely from their use, we have to moderate our screentime instead. This is much harder. We can’t (or don’t want to) just put our iPhones away in a cupboard, or go back to using an old-style Nokia phone. So we do need to engage mindfully with our smartphones, while monitoring our relationship with them and limiting our time.
Yesterday, just as a quick example, my phone sent me 94 notifications. Allowing for the fact that I was asleep for 8 hours, that’s one notification every 10 minutes. I don’t even have any social media notifications switched on for my phone so, for a lot of people that figure would be on the low side. And when was the last time you didn’t read a notification?
There are loads of apps out there that will lock your phone after a certain time limit, or block out certain apps at certain times of the day. These are all useful but you can always choose to over-ride or change the settings on these apps. I don’t know if they really work.
My suggestion (and I’ll let you know if this has any impact or not!) is that we replace our digital time with analogue pursuits instead. My feeling is that, if we just tried to decrease our screentime without putting something else in its place, we would most likely fail and would definitely experience some withdrawal symptoms. The key is to fill that time with something else.
- Put your phone in a drawer, or a cupboard.
- Read a book (not on an e-reader, a paper book)
- Practise yoga of course! This might be the ultimate analogue activity with no outside distractions.
- Spend time listening to the birds singing
- Do some gardening
- Have a proper conversation with your friends/family/flatmates
- Go for a walk without the phone
- Do some knitting
- Read the physical newspaper
- Play a sport
- Go for a swim
- Basically, try to remember what you used to do for fun in 2005 and do that!
Smartphones are murder for our relationships, our parenting, our ability to focus, our awareness of what’s going on around us, our very sense of self.
I’m struggling with it and I’m happy to admit that. I don’t think I’m struggling any more than the average person though. The smartphones themselves are able to hack our human system and cause us to spend more and more time engaged with these unfulfilling pursuits. We’re almost powerless against it, but we’re not finished yet.
Value the personal.
Value non-digital pursuits.
And remember, as Tony Riddle says, “Sky-time is better than screen-time”.