Changing My Cell Phone Habit

I don’t have enough discipline to use a smart phone in any way that’s not obsessive.

I have all the symptoms of a cell phone addict. I text out of boredom. I compulsively scroll through news feeds. I experience phantom vibrations. I’ve surfed the news during family dinners. I listen to podcasts while doing chores. I watch Youtube while I brush my teeth. I’ve been constantly consuming media in some form for years, and I’ve come to believe that I’ve lost part of myself by giving up silence.

My adolescence straddled the arrival of the technological age. I experienced life with and without a ubiquitous internet. When I bought my first smartphone, the idea that one device could perform so many functions was mind-boggling. I could capture photos at a moment’s notice. I could stream audiobooks in the car. I could listen to NPR while I did the dishes. I could answer email anywhere. The collected information of all mankind was at my fingertips.

And the new technology delivered everything it promised and more, but it also created new marketing opportunities. Companies could push advertisements to each individual. Learning algorithms began to monitor the internet usage and location data of individuals. Tech companies sold the data to advertisers who went to work devising more efficient marketing schemes. Smart phone ubiquity meant that each individual pair of eyes could be accessed independent of any mass audience. It also meant that every spare moment had the potential to be an individualized marketing opportunity. Advertisers on smart phone applications needed no infrastructure, no radio towers, no miles of cable, no billboards. The cell networks provided the access, and the apps provided the audience.

Attention had always been a commodity, but television and radio required no further activity after turning the device on and selecting a frequency. Smart phones are interactive. They have flashing lights and tones that ring. They have screens that are infinitely interactive. They can be used as classical conditioning devices, and they have.

There have been studies that show increased anxiety in people who are unable to answer the rings of a text message. Work emails generally go only minutes without being viewed, regardless of the time of day. Like Pavlov’s dog, our smart phones illicit a physiological response. We feel as if we can no more refuse to check our phones when they ring than we can refuse to blink when something flies toward our face.

The effect on relationships is profound. Every person seems to have their attention constantly divided. At least a portion of their consciousness is always focused somewhere else. In meetings, I have observed people give a slight jerk when their phone vibrates. It’s easy to see the calculus going on behind their eyes. Would it be too rude to check my phone? Can that message wait?

And to a degree society has collectively decided to be understanding. We no longer, in general, seem to feel offended when someone breaks off a conversation to answer their phone. It’s common for people to answer a text message at dinner, in a meeting, or in a classroom. But each time a person answers their phone in the company of a loved one, it is an acknowledgement, at least in part, that whoever is pulling on the digital leash is more interesting. Whether it is intended or not, how could the message be any different?

The expectation from all parties is now that a ringing phone will be answered. When a phone tones in a crowd, watch people react. Other people check their phones reflexively, even if they know without a doubt it wasn’t their phone that range. There is an urgency to the ringing phone now that perhaps is unique to our time. Now that we each carry a phone, and those phones tell us who is calling, the people who call expect an answer. Before the ubiquity of cell phones, being unable to immediately reach a person was an accepted part of social interaction. Now, the expectation has shifted. When people call me, they presume that I will answer or call back in a few minutes. It’s not like I’d ever be away from the phone.

I made an attempt to break this conditioning over the last week, and I had success. If you can sympathize with the sentiments that I mentioned above, then I would encourage you to attempt change. Putting limits on cell phone usage has enriched my life. It’s given a new depth to my relationships. I’m becoming reacquainted with boredom and silence, and I’m finding forgotten value in moments of quiet reflection. New ideas, and new topics of conversation have arisen from those moments. I’m learning more about my family, and myself. Here’s how I got started:

  • I muted all of my contacts, making exceptions for immediate family (I plan to undo this somewhat extreme measure after the passage of some time).
  • I turned on my do not disturb function for the hours of 6pm-6am. I put an exception in this setting for my wife, and I’ve set it to allow notifications when someone calls twice in quick succession. I assumed that in the event of an emergency, the person would call in such a fashion.
  • I resolved to leave my phone on a counter in the kitchen while I am home. I can check my phone as often as I want, but I have to do it from the kitchen. This forces intent. I can’t simply grab my phone and mindlessly check it; I have to stand and walk.

Please let me know if you have problematic cell phone behavior. Do you check your phone compulsively? Have you changed that behavior? How did you do it?


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