Like most people, I benefit greatly from the use of my smartphone– but sometimes I get the urge to throw it over a cliff. We all know how addictive smartphones are and how harmful that addiction can be to our physical, social, psychological, emotional, and relational health. After months of frustration with my own addiction I have compiled a list of concrete rules to abide by so that the smartphone doesn’t ruin my life:
1. Only use the smartphone while standing. One of the biggest temptations is to use the smartphone as an object of mindless recreation (for me that means random, indeliberate browsing– for others it might be games or Facebook.) And while mindless recreation is entertaining, it often leaves us feeling kind of empty, distracted, lonely, and frustrated. There are definitely more positive ways to recreate (ex. going outside, playing music, socializing.) I have found that the mindless phone use usually happens when I get comfortable— in a chair, a sofa, in bed. If I’m only allowed to use the phone while standing, I’m unlikely to fall into the habit. (The exception I make for this rule is if I’m reading on the Kindle app or I’m writing on my writing app. An alternative to standing could be sitting at a work desk. The point is to not give yourself the opportunity to get particularly comfortable.)
2. Get a home phone. We didn’t have one our first year married because we assumed it was unnecessary. But then our cell phones were on our bedside tables. And at the dinner table. And beside me on the floor while I was playing with my son. The constant connection was distracting us from living our home life. But I kept it up because what if there is an emergency? But then I realized that if I have a home phone and I tell the important people the number I don’t need to worry about not being contactable if there is an emergency. The phones can stay plugged in downstairs.
3. No smartphones around babies and young kids. We learned this the hard way. I used my phone to show our toddler pictures and videos when he got particularly fussy. But then he always wanted to see them. He would throw a fit over the phone and demand to hold it himself (he even learned to swipe which freaked us out!) and the instant gratification nature of it would put him in a terrible mood. So we made the rule and he is calmer and happier for it. It’s hard enough for adults to manage the temptations let alone trying to get an impulsive little kid to. (The two exceptions to this rule are when we are stuck somewhere outside of the house or if he is actually talking to someone on the phone.)
4. Even though you can, don’t use the smartphone for everything. One of the best things about smartphones is how versatile they are. I can use my phone for or along with almost any task imaginable (many at once, even)- but that doesn’t mean I always should. Their versatility is one of the main reasons they are so distracting. We need to cultivate the ability to focus on the current task or situation without thinking of a million other tasks and situations. We can do this by re-delegating certain tasks to single-function, simpler devices. I find this is easiest and most convenient to do at home. It’s great when I’m out and about to have an encyclopedia, a camera, documents, a clock, etc. all in my hand. But I don’t need them all together all the time. At home it doesn’t hurt my productivity to read a paperback book or on the Kindle rather than on my cell phone. It doesn’t hurt me to use an old iPod and speakers. It doesn’t hurt me to use a traditional camera while taking pictures of my son in our backyard. It doesn’t hurt me to use a pen and paper to write a to-do list in the kitchen. It doesn’t make any of us less efficient to have a clock in the room. But all of these little things around the house mean that all of us will pick up our phones much less. They could stay plugged into the wall and never cost us any efficiency.
5. No private smartphone use during quality time. If you’re on a date, out with a friend, or having a family meal, don’t even touch the phone unless to take or show a picture, answer a call, or use a situationally relevant function like GPS. Texts can wait. People in emergencies call. If you really feel the need to text somebody excuse yourself to the bathroom. We all know how depressing it is to see a family/couple all together and all on their separate phones. How many times are we that family or couple?
6. Don’t share your experiences until they’re over. And don’t think about sharing them while you’re experiencing them. Have you ever been at a party where so many people are posing and taking pictures and obsessing over how they look for Instagram that they don’t even seem to be enjoying themselves at all? That’s what constant Internet streaming of our lives does to us. Some people say the sharing is inherently a problem. I disagree. Humans have always shared pictures and experiences with friends. The problem comes when the sharing is possible at such high speeds and so efficiently that we start sharing before we’ve even done anything. The sharing overwhelms and dominates the experience until we are left with basically no real experience at all– just a staged one. We can counteract this problem by leaving the sharing for later, as it would happen naturally. You can take pictures, but don’t post anything yet and don’t entertain thoughts about posting. Take pictures for the purpose of capturing and remembering, not sharing. You can always share later.
7. Finally, Set do-not-unplug (or better yet, turn-off) time windows. If you really want to detox the habit and you have a home phone for emergencies, turn the phones off whenever your family or personal relaxation time begins.We forget that even if we aren’t looking at the phones just having them turned on and knowing our unlimited accessibility is distracting.
In the end, the temptations of the smartphone really aren’t new. We berate the children of today for their phones at the dinner table but I remember quite well many of my friends being berated over Game Boys or, shockingly, books. Yes, books were banned at the dinner table, and rightly so— because books can become a problem when they become an escape from duties and relationships. The temptation to escape is not new. Neither is the temptation of distraction or of laziness or of vanity or voyuerism. Granted, the smartphone does contain a lot of temptations at once, all together, but they are still all old temptations. It’s on us to update our methods of dealing with them.