Disconnect: How Do We Unchain Ourselves from Our Phones?

Standing in the kitchen one night after dinner, I was holding my five-month-old daughter in my arms as I entered my food data into the MyFitnessPal app on my iPhone. My husband stood a few inches away, sipping a can of sparkling grapefruit-flavored water, watching us.

"I just saw something," he said suddenly, in a somber tone. "She was looking at your face, and you were looking at your phone, so she looked at your phone. She looked back up at you, then at your phone, then back up at you, then back at your phone."

I glanced down into my daughter's chubby little face, her big blue eyes staring into mine with expectation. I tossed my phone onto the kitchen counter, held her closer, and began to cry.

I am sick of this. 

I am so sick of being chained to my smartphone.

I'm sick of missing moments of connection with my precious little baby merely because I feel anxious if I don't scroll. I'm sick of missing half of what my husband tells me because I'm too focused on reading an article I found on Facebook.

But when I put my phone away, when I say, "No more!" and force myself to be present with others, I am met with uncomfortable silence. Lack of eye contact. Half-hearted conversation, if any at all.

Because everyone else is glued to their devices, too. And I am so, so, so sick of it.

I'm tired of my husband coming home from a ten hour work day and being more interested in his phone than he is in me. I'm sick of driving two and a half hours to see my sister, then sitting in awkward, frustrated silence as I watch her thumbing away on her phone. I'm sick of my in-laws driving three hours to stay with us and spending their entire visit with phones in hand.

I'm sick of seeing blueish squares glowing in the lenses of people's glasses. I'm sick of parents and grandparents pulling up YouTube videos for babies. I'm sick of toddlers at the grocery store watching PAW Patrol on iPads. I'm sick of going out for a meal and observing family members gathered around a table, each one quiet, isolated by their own device. I'm sick of seeing other drivers on the road texting or even watching Netflix as they operate a vehicle.

Though it often feels like it, I'm not the only person so deeply disturbed by this addiction. Addiction doesn't even feel like a strong enough word. This is something darker, something out of a dystopian sci-fi novel. I mean, look around. Everyone is a zombie.

I came across this great article in The New York Times (ironically found during my 275th mindless Facebook scroll one morning), "Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain" by Kevin Roose. Everything Roose describes is exactly what I'm feeling. I kept highlighting powerful quotes to share and found that I basically wanted to copy and paste the entire piece here.

Just take a look at what he writes about realizing he had a problem:

I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping. I tried various tricks to curb my usage, like deleting Twitter every weekend, turning my screen grayscale and installing app-blockers. But I always relapsed...I’ve used my phone every time I’ve had a spare moment in an elevator or a boring meeting. I listen to podcasts and write emails on the subway. I watch YouTube videos while folding laundry. I even use an app to pretend to meditate.

Do you know what he's talking about? Because I sure as heck do.

I've noticed as an introverted, creative person that I'm not as artistic as I used to be. I don't really have ideas anymore, and I don't get excited to create. Before smartphones occupied every second of every day, I had moments of stillness. I experienced boredom. I spent time alone with my thoughts. It was in those quiet moments of boredom, free of distractions, that ideas came to me. In the shower, on the toilet, waiting in line at a checkout, driving the car, sitting outside in the sunshine, sipping a mug of coffee meditatively, standing around waiting for my shift at work to be over. Now nearly all of those moments are filled with scrolling social media or another form of smartphone entertainment.

Like Roose, I also know social media makes me "angry and anxious." It's a constant feed of upsetting news stories, obnoxious marketing, jealousy-inducing posts of new cars, new houses, look-how-pretty-and-fit-I-am selfies, and just general time-wasting content. It steals my time, hurts my relationships, and ruins my mood. I know all of this, but I still check it fifty or sixty times a day. 

I've deleted the apps as well, then downloaded them again. But even permanently deleting them doesn't work. On my phone currently, I've deleted Facebook and Facebook messenger, but I still access Facebook through the Safari app several times an hour. And you can't delete Safari. So where do you go from there?

The obvious solution is to say goodbye to the iPhone and go back to a "dumbphone." Get rid of all the frills, all the extraneous time-wasters, and get a phone that's just a phone. A flip phone that only makes calls and texts.

That's so tempting to me. But a few things are holding me back.

I'm currently using my phone to track calories and workouts on MyFitnessPal, a productive endeavor that is helping me lose weight. The Nike Running app tracks my runs, keeping up with time and distance, pushing me to reach new PRs. An iTunes playlist provides the motivating beats for my movements. What's the smartphone-less alternative?

I don't watch TV anymore, but I love listening to educational podcasts on my phone as I prepare food, clean the house, and put away laundry. And the Libby app lets me read library books on my phone whenever I want. Is there anything wrong with this?

I have a baby who is constantly reaching milestones and doing adorable things. Having my iPhone camera within reach at all times makes capturing and sharing these sweet moments so easy. Should I lose that?

These are all wonderful things that a smartphone brings into my life. I want to hang onto this.

But how do I find a balance? How do I eliminate time-wasting? How do I quell the urge to fill every waking moment with stimulation, with busyness? How do I go back to choosing real-life relationships over those on social media? And how do I keep my daughter from reaching for my phone when she sees me idolizing it all day, every day?

Roose gives a few examples of "mental speed bumps" you can do to make you think twice about phone use:

1. Place a rubber band around the phone, a visual reminder that you're trying to reduce screen time

2. Change the lock screen to one that forces you to confront your goal of not checking your phone constantly (Roose's lock screen was an image with three questions: What for? Why now? What else?)

3. Delete apps that merely waste time or do not "spark joy"

4. Keep only practical, useful apps with minimal distractions

5. Declutter your home screen, leaving just the essentials

6. Disable notifications

7. Don't charge your phone in your bedroom

8. Find productive activities to replace your phone habit

9. Pick up hobbies that require focus, concentration, and use of your hands

10. Try a phone-free weekend retreat to go cold turkey 

This is something I'm figuring out for myself, and it's a struggle. Right now, I'm a stay at home mom with an infant. I have no friends or family nearby, so I excuse my social media use by saying it's a way connect, a way to keep in touch with other grown-ups, a way to stay in contact with people who live far away. But I'm not truly connecting with anyone. Not even my own daughter and husband because I'm too busy pretending to connect with others. 

Something has to change.

I'm starting now.

First, I've activated the amazing Screen Time feature on my iPhone to find out just how bad it is. Screen Time tracks your phone use minute by minute and provides a detailed analysis as the day goes on. It includes how many notifications you received, and even how many times you picked up your phone per hour. It breaks down your activity, hour by hour, into different categories, detailing how many total minutes you scrolled Facebook, watched YouTube videos, or sent iMessages. It even plots the last 7 days on a lovely, colorful, shock-inducing graph so you can compare day to day.

And shock-inducing it is.

In the first 24 hours of activating Screen Time, I picked up my phone 137 times, sometimes as often as 25 times an hour, which means I checked my phone every two and a half minutes. I spent a total of five hours on my phone for the day. Two hours consisted reading Dragonfly in Amber on the Libby app, using the camera to take pictures of my daughter, or looking up things in reference apps. The other three hours: Facebook.

Three. Hours. 

I say I have no time to write, no time to clean, no time to make things, no time to read...yet I can manage to squeeze in three hours of mindless Facebook scrolling, all while "providing care" for a five-month-old infant.

That's what really packs a punch. For five hours of my precious daughter's day, her mommy ignored her and stared at a glowing box in her hands. And for what?!

Step two for me was blocking Facebook. As I said, deleting the app didn't work. I continued to frequent the site through the web browser. So, in Screen Time, I went to the "Content & Privacy Restrictions" tab > "Content Restrictions" > "Web Content" > "Limit Adult Websites." In this section, there is a tab called "Never Allow." Here, you enter the URL of any website you want to block. I typed in "Facebook.com" and now, when I compulsively open Safari to scroll Facebook, I get this:

I'm still not going to delete my Facebook because it is an excellent tool to stay in touch with people you don't see in person. I also use it to follow mommy groups in my city, buy/sell in Marketplace, and promote this blog. But from now on, I can only use Facebook from my laptop, which requires more effort and intention. 

Next, I've changed my lock screen to a quote that makes me pause and consider if it's really worth it to go check Instagram for the 47th time. 

It's actually been pretty effective so far. I created a couple of other designs that you can save to your own phone to do the same. I'll place them at the end of this post. 

That's where I am right now. I've realized the severity of my problem, and I'm taking the first few steps to fix it. I'll share an update once I've given this some time.

I urge you to do the same. Chances are, you're reading this post on your smartphone right now. Put it down for a while. Please. Look at the people around you. Make eye contact. Listen; really listen. Stare up at the sky. The trees. 

Be present. 

Free "mental speed bump" lock screen images (size is 828 x 1792px): 

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