Maya Oren wants to dial back her dependence on her smartphone. She plans to do it slowly by getting a new phone — a simple one that doesn’t download apps or take photos or send her notifications. Her new device will place calls and receive them.
But the 27-year-old Washington, D.C., entrepreneur isn’t planning to entirely ditch her iPhone to which she has an increasingly dysfunctional relationship.
“I wake up in the morning and my heart is racing out of my chest,” she says. “I’m checking Instagram. How many new followers did I get? How many people did I lose? What am I going to post today?”
Oren’s new phone won’t have its own number — it will simply accept calls forwarded from her iPhone, so she can attempt, on occasion, to step away from the shiny, buzzing rectangle that has come to feel like an ever-present taskmaster.
That’s right — she’s thinking of buying a new phone so she can try to spend less time with her old one.
You got a better idea?
The past few months have brought an escalating awareness of the perils that lurk in our pockets. Or, most of the time, in the viselike grip of our hands. Yogis and pastors across the country have called for digital detoxes. There’s been a fresh wave of articles about how to curb our smartphone addictions. And a small parade of former tech executives have come forward to raise alarms that their innovations are, perhaps, just a teensy-weensy bit evil and could be a destructive force acting upon both our psyches and our democracy. Oops!
Anyway, here we are, in what Larry Rosen, a psychologist who studies society’s relationship with technology, refers to as a “really interesting pit.” He thinks we’re going to sink even deeper into the abyss of smartphone obsession, though not so deep we can never escape.
But, for the moment, there’s no ladder in sight. How can we use all the tools and conveniences smartphones offer without becoming ensnared by the widgets that have us — often unconsciously — staring at screens instead of our loved ones?
One by one, agitated people are trying to break the trance. Hence, Maya Oren’s desire for that new gadget, called the Light Phone, marketed toward millennials with a mission statement that declares: “multitasking is a myth” and that “our phones have become our nervous habit, our invisible crutch.”
Will Yoste, a 24-year-old project manager in Oxford, Miss., found himself feeling “phantom vibrations,” so he deleted his Facebook app, which is helping a little.
Kay Rhind, a 52-year-old sales director in Silicon Valley, cuts off her home’s WiFi at 11 p.m. every night and downloaded an app that allows her to shut off her three teenagers’ phones remotely.
Andrew Martin, a research librarian in D.C., put his little girls on a seven-day no-screen challenge. And those girls wisely insisted that Martin and his wife, Julie, put their own devices away.
“It’s really made us realize how insidious the addiction to these screens in our pockets are,” Martin says. “If you have more than 30 seconds without stimulation you have this twitch to reach for your cellphone.”
Tony Fadell, a former Apple executive who helped invent the iPod, wants to make one thing clear: “The devices themselves are not addictive,” he says. “That’s like saying a refrigerator is addictive. No, it’s the food inside them. The devices are not addictive, but the things they deliver can be addictive.” (See: Twitter, Candy Crush, Snapchat, Netflix shows.)
Fadell’s oldest son was born a few weeks before the introduction of the iPhone. Fadell saw what happened when he took devices away from his kids — “They would get really anxious and upset,” and he noticed that adults had a fairly similar reaction. His family started “screen-free Sundays” and banned smartphone use in the morning. But that didn’t feel like enough.
So Fadell has become vocal in calling for tech companies such as Apple to give people new mechanisms to control their smartphone usage. If a phone can count our steps, can’t it count our minutes on social media? And eliminate notifications?
“What we’re asking for is not much,” he says. “It’s just helpful. And it’s 10 times easier than self-driving cars.”
Tristan Harris, a Google alum who runs an organization called Time Well Spent has likened cellphones to portable slot machines. We carry them around and swipe the screen looking for a win — a few new “likes,” a crucial email, an interesting news story. Sometimes we get a dopamine-releasing hit, sometimes we don’t, but that’s what keeps us coming back. To make money, social media companies need to grab and hold our attention as frequently as possible. And the more we swipe, the more we want to swipe.
Also, we can’t leave the casino — because it’s in our pockets. Or at least, it seems that way. Andrew Martin considered getting rid of his smartphone. “But we can’t just go cold turkey,” he says. “We rely on them too much for legitimate, logistical stuff like navigating.” What would be required if you wanted to revert to a flip phone? A camera, a paper calendar and address book? Online dating would not be as easy as swiping right, and there would be no easy access to work emails in your off hours.
Rosen, the psychologist, thinks it’s not just entertainment and utility that pulls us to constantly check our phones. It’s obligation.
“If you text me and I don’t text you right back you start thinking things like, ‘Is he mad at me?’ We never think, ‘He’s busy,’” Rosen says. This is why he believes trying to quit for a while doesn’t do much good. “When you emerge from your time of detox the situation is more bleak. Instead of having a few email messages, you’ve now got thousands.”
One of Rosen’s colleagues found that smartphone alerts can become a source of anxiety. Next time a text message alert sounds, try to resist looking at it for as long as you can and notice how your body feels.
Rosen, co-author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World,” is appreciative that some companies are starting to help consumers crawl out of the hole of obsession. He points to Apple’s “Night Shift” option, a setting that schedules phones to emit less blue light, which can cause people to stay awake.
Other tools are emerging in the form of apps such as Checky and Onward, which allow consumers to track their phone usage.
Has Rosen’s research allowed him to escape the clutches of digital compulsion?
“No. NO!” he exclaims. “I know I’m using it upwards of four or five hours a day. I am equally culpable.”
Article after article about smartphone addiction offer similar advice on how to cut back: Don’t use your phone an hour before bed, don’t charge it in your bedroom, don’t check it first thing in the morning and delete social media apps.
Yes! All good advice that would totally work except they rely on self-control, which we have proved not to have in this domain.
“If you walk out your front door and throw a dart, any of us are addicts. The genie is out of the bottle,” says Rhind, the technology sales executive. “If everybody is an addict, no one will tell you it’s an addiction. They’ll say ‘it’s a necessity in life.’”
That’s exactly what she says, when she turns off her teenagers’ phones using the app OurPact but continues to use her own, because “it’s for work.”
“I’m justifying myself,” she admits.
So are smartphones the cigarettes of our era? Are they an addiction we intuitively know is unhealthy — even without the confirmation of hard evidence — but continue because, well, everyone’s doing it?
Maya Oren thinks so. Oren generates digital marketing content for a living, and she’s grateful for the online connections her smartphone has wrought, even as she grapples with its hold on her attention.
So, she’s taking baby steps. When she’s walking around, she tries to keep her phone in her bag rather than in the palm of her hand. Baby steps — but it’s a start.
“I hope as a society we would take this collective breath,” she says. “Take a step back and use our phones more as the utility they were meant to be — rather than as this appendage of our bodies.”